Ara Tucker currently serves as VP, Head of Talent Strategy at Audible. She’s also a multidisciplinary artist and novelist whose projects have included Black Like Us, a documentary film about affluent black people across generations, and I’m Here Too, a website dedicated to sharing stories about the diversity of human experience.
As an artist and creative who has also built a successful business career, she says that even if her path allowed her someday to spend more of her time writing, she’d likely still keep one foot in business: “There’s something energizing for me about helping other people figure out how they can be their best.”
How and when you first knew that you were LGBT+?
When I was in middle school, I had really intense female friendships. I always had to have best friends. But I didn’t really have any language for why. I just thought that I was an intense person. And at 13, I assumed that most people felt that way. But then I started to realize that my favorite movies were Fried Green Tomatoes and Beaches.
And then, I was a senior in high school in 1997, when “The Puppy Episode” of Ellen aired. That’s the episode where she comes out – Laura Dern and Oprah help. Back then we videotaped things. I waited until my parents weren’t home, and watched it with one of my really good friends from high school. And it was thrilling and exciting, but it was also really scary to not have the language to go along with the feelings that I had.
How did you approach coming out at work?
I was in law school and applying for internships, and my dad asked me, ‘Are you going to be out on your resume?’ And I said, ‘Well, if I’m not out, then how will they know who I am?’ I didn’t want to be with a firm that didn’t understand or didn’t want the whole me.
Are there ways that you can think of that being out as an LGBT+ person in business has influenced your leadership approach and style?
Backing up a bit. When I was in high school, I’d been planning to go to Brown, but I went to Princeton instead. When I visited Brown, I realized that there were so many people who were on some level almost professionally ‘different,’ and I wasn’t sure that I was capable of or wanted to do that. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be gay, or black, or a woman, I just wanted to be Ara when I walked into class.
And I liked Princeton’s approach, which was essentially to provide resources to minority students who might need additional support, and also to not assume that simply because you are a member of a minority that you would necessarily need any additional support. That really resonated with me.
On the first night of freshman orientation, a number of students spoke as part of a larger program, Reflections on Diversity. And one of them said: looking at me, you may see that I’m a redhead, you may that I’m a woman, but you don’t see that I’m a lesbian. And that just floored me. They were talking about it so openly, she was so proud and it helped me start thinking about my own identity and what people might see or not see.
That became a pretty big preoccupation for me creatively and informed a lot of my artistic work in college as an Art History and Visual Arts major.
It’s also been really relevant to my career, starting from when I was a law student and then when I was an associate at a big law firm. At that time, a lot of people were starting to recognize that corporate behavior and misbehavior could hinge on a lack of cognitive diversity. And some companies were starting to think that demographic diversity could help save them from that.
I think that’s influenced me as a leader because I really am now much more finely tuned to the notion that I can’t really know what’s in my direct reports’ heads. I can’t really think of any proxies for experience beyond being truly empathetic and getting to know them as individuals and figuring out how then they can be best positioned to meet the business objectives we need to meet, but also just have a more human relationship with them.
Who would identify as role models in your life?
I think in particular I’ve been influenced by my mom and stepmom, who both navigated corporate America in different ways. One is a physician and one is a journalist and they have both had second act careers. When I was growing up, it was really inspiring and also scary to find out that you don’t have to do the job that you’re necessarily the best at if it’s at the expense of what you truly want to do. My mom and my stepmom’s paths are both examples that you should do the thing you love, and the money and the security will follow. But I didn’t always follow that. I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do, and I was scared to try to be a working artist.
But one thing that always stuck with me is something my stepmom said: ‘Never run away from something, always run toward something.’
If you could have any job other than the one you have now, what would it be?
I want to say I’d be a writer, but I think I would be the kind of writer who still operates on the edges of the corporate life. There’s something energizing for me about helping other people figure out how they can be their best. But maybe at the end of the day I’ll be a creative writing professor at Princeton.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from a boss?
It’s so important to have a genuine human regard for the people who work for you. To be a person of integrity, fight for people when they aren’t in the room, and do what you say you’re going to do. It sounds very simple, but it doesn’t go unnoticed by me, at least, when people respond to emails in a timely fashion. When people treat you like a human being, when they give credit where credit is due.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from people who worked for you?
A smile goes a long way. There’s something about people who are still very hungry. And it’s not always people who are early in their careers. But it’s a reminder that you can’t take contributors for granted. People who show up wanting to do the work, willing to take accountability, being open to feedback and actively seeking it. Those are rare, rare people and when you have the honor and privilege of leading them, you should really take it to heart, and I try to.
Who in your life has been your most important ally?
I had the good fortune of having my maternal grandmother, my Nana Cuffie, live until I was in my mid-20s, and so she really saw a lot of me. And I always felt like she had a very soft touch around her encouragement. She gave me the sense that there was nothing I couldn’t do, and also the sense that if I wanted to do something, there wasn’t really a reason why I shouldn’t do it.
Who is your LGBT+ hero?
She’s not LGBT+, but Jennifer Beals has always been a hero of mine, for what she’s done for representation. Growing up, there were not a lot of representations of African Americans that really spoke to me, beyond The Cosby Show and A Different World.
When Jennifer Beals played Bette Porter on The L Word, that was the first time I saw someone I really identified with on television – an African American woman who was an Ivy League graduate, who was firmly in control of her career and very clear in her identity, and who was partnered with a woman of a different racial identity.
It was also really important to me that she recognized the importance and the uniqueness of the role she was playing, and really embraced it and championed it, and didn’t shy away from doing so, even though she is not LGBT+ identified, because she had such a great respect for the people she was portraying and the stories she was telling.
What was your first job?
I usually like to say that my first job was when I was sales director for the college radio station. And I usually designate that as my first job because it’s the first time I realized that the buck stopped with me. It was a 30,000-watt commercial station, which is a pretty powerful signal. As sales director, I was charged with selling ads, selling air time, selling other types of assets that would pay for programming.
But when I first started, I began to realize that the station’s programming, aside from the sports coverage, was sort of difficult to sell against. No one really wanted to buy airtime on the seemingly endless indie rock show lineup.
I went to my first meeting of the station trustees, who were all Princeton alums, and I said, ‘Our programming is hard to sell against, so sales are down.’ And they said, ‘Well, hmmm, that’s not really an answer. You’re the sales director, you’re responsible for sales. The music director is responsible for music, the programming director is responsible for programming. What are you going to do to get the sales up?’
And that was a really good kick in the pants. I realized, I’d signed up for the job and now I had to do it. I had to learn more about our product, really dig into our customer insights and work with my colleagues to try something new.
I ended up spending a lot of that summer working hard, figuring out some new ways to make what we were selling more appealing. And it taught me a lot about collaboration, accountability, and finding creative ways to solve a problem.
What’s the most tantalizing leadership opportunity that you see in the world right now?
Oh, it’s maybe a little bit cheesy, like the end of Mad Men with the Coke commercial, but how do we all want to just get along? Is that even important anymore? If we do feel like it is, how we are going to do the job of reintroducing ourselves to each other as a species, and figuring out how to jointly survive.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Just do you.
What’s your motto?
Be seen, be heard.
What’s the next big thing for the global LGBT community?
Being comfortable with individuality.
What do you think the next step in your career could be?
Whatever my next big step is, I know that my through line will always be to help people perform the best within their lives.
If you were planning a dinner party, and could invite any people from history, who would they be and why?
My Nana Cuffie and my wife’s grandmother Irene. I’d like to see those two get together.
I’d also mix in some historic figures. I’d be curious to invite Althea Gibson. I grew up playing tennis, and I’m so curious about what it was like, before Venus and Serena Williams, to walk onto the court at Wimbledon as an African American woman.
I’d invite Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, in part just to see if they would even talk to people or they’d off in the corner by themselves.
And then I might mix in Sappho just to say, like, what’s the fuss.
What would the opening song in a movie about your life be?
“Off the Wall” by Michael Jackson.
And the second one would be “I Think I’m Going to Like it Here,” from the original Broadway production of Annie.
Six things that you could never live without.
Clearly my wife, Hilary. Our cat Harriet and some food and water. We’d be okay for quite a while.
Where’s your favorite place to go on vacation?
Toss-up between Switzerland and Wyoming.
We love being outdoors, and Hilary likes hiking a little more than I do, but I do love the sense of endless possibility, where the only thing to fear is fear itself, and maybe a random cow here and there.
What are the three books, and you can only take three, that you would take to a desert island?
Clearly the three that I’m writing, at any given moment.