Greg Lorjuste, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York and Irvington, NJ, is the director of scheduling at the Office of Barack and Michelle Obama. Image by Jay Davis.
If there were no Internet and you asked someone I grew up with, “Where do you think Greg Lorjuste is today?” I’m pretty sure nobody would guess that I’ve spent the last nine years working for the 44th president of the United States, managing one of his most important assets: His time. They would probably say, “Greg? The quiet kid who quit the basketball team, quit the football team, and sucked academically? I have no idea.”
I wouldn’t blame them, either.
I graduated from high school with a 1.4 GPA and a cumulative SAT score under 800 (out of 1600). My parents, who immigrated to New York City from Haiti in the early 1970s, raised me and six of my eight brothers and sisters in a two-bedroom, ground-floor apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Up until we moved to New Jersey when I was in sixth grade, the farthest place we’d ever traveled together as a family was to Coney Island during the summer.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to realize how much bigger the world outside of my neighborhood actually was. I’d grown up thinking I would take over my dad’s auto body shop after high school. I had no idea that scheduling was a profession, let alone that I could pursue it – initially for President Clinton at the Clinton Foundation in Harlem, and then for the first African American President of the United States of America.
Managing the minute-by-minute logistics of President Obama’s days during his campaign and for the eight years he served in the White House, I not only witnessed history in the making – I got to become a small part of it. Now, as the director of scheduling at the Office of Barack and Michelle Obama, it continues to be my job to help former President Obama make the most of his time. This means understanding and accounting for his different roles and responsibilities, whether it’s as the leader of The Obama Foundation, the force behind the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center, the public speaker, the private citizen, and, of course, the husband and father.
Beyond bringing me to 35 countries and into rooms with global military leaders and celebrities, my journey to date has broadened my understanding of the world in a way that my younger self would not have dreamed possible. And while it has been far from easy, let me tell you what it has been: Fulfilling, amazing, challenging, scary, and worth every ounce of blood, sweat, and sacrifice. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
One of the hardest decisions I made as a kid was to not sell drugs.
While I had friends and a close-knit community of neighbors – including the kids of the other families who lived in our three-story apartment building (mainly fellow immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad) – the neighborhood was dangerous. Drugs and gun violence were rampant. My cousin was murdered, and friends and acquaintances were getting into all sorts of trouble with the law and one another.
My father (a mechanic) and my mother (a factory worker who’d gone to school through the third grade) always showed my siblings and me what hard work looked like. But money was tight. Our lights, heat, and phone service at our home in Irvington, New Jersey would periodically be cut off. Meanwhile, dealers were the top employers in the area. Seeing other kids selling drugs and making enough money to keep the lights on and buy new sneakers made it difficult to stay away. In a lot of ways, I felt trapped.
What ultimately kept me away from dealing drugs was knowing how much it would hurt my dad. He worked for every dollar he made in a positive way. While school was an eight-minute walk from our apartment, he drove me and my siblings there every morning because he didn’t want us to run into any trouble. He and my mom constantly stressed the importance of education, seeing how limited they were by their own. They are why I’m a firm believer in generational change: My parents worked hard so their kids wouldn't have to struggle like they did.
But having barely made it out of high school, I didn’t think I had the grades or money to go to college until I discovered the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). Both my older brother and sister had earned grants to attend Rider University through EOP, which helps New Jersey students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds pursue higher education. Thanks to EOP, I was also able to get into Rider, a small liberal arts college a few miles from Princeton University.
Rider was a one-hour train ride from home, yet when I stepped foot on campus, I found myself in a completely foreign environment with expectations and “norms” that challenged everything I thought I knew about life.
I did so badly on my pre-college writing assessment that EOP placed me in an English-as-a-second-language class. At first, I was tempted to give myself a pass; I’d gone to a crappy school and didn’t have the same resources as my new classmates. But, as I sat in remedial English, I realized that it was on me to demonstrate that I didn’t belong there.
It was overwhelming, and there were many moments when I wanted to quit. I had to constantly remind myself that I was not only capable of working really hard, but that I was worthy of the experiences and all the benefits that would come from it (including meeting my amazing wife, Kim, who was also in EOP).
I’ve always been very curious. And my curiosity has helped me catch up to my peers, work through moments of uncertainty, learn, and grow professionally.
I went to high school with maybe five White kids in total. When I arrived at Rider, I was suddenly one of about 15 Black people in my entire class, so I felt my Blackness more. I was afraid to speak up at times, but, with the support and encouragement of a few close mentors, I got involved in extracurriculars that would force me to learn and adjust more quickly. Between the Black Student Union, student government, my fraternity (Phi Beta Sigma), and the campus ministry, I started getting invaluable experience collaborating with peers, planning events, managing meetings, speaking publicly, and gaining the confidence to lead.
Still, things didn’t get better overnight. I was constantly playing catch up. “You never learned about this in school?” or “You never went here?” or “You don’t know that word?” my peers would ask. Instead of being embarrassed, I took these interactions as opportunities; “I want you to correct me,” I began saying.
Looking back, I think I was eager for every chance to learn (even at the expense of my pride) because I’d seen what happened to my dad, who never had the opportunity to invest in his own professional growth. While he was a good mechanic, he’d never learned how to manage a business or to adapt to new technology. He ended up having to file for bankruptcy when I was in high school. We lost the shop, our house – everything. I figured I’d become a mechanic anyway until he sat me down and said, “I can teach you how to fix cars, but I really want you to go to school and learn something else.” In that moment, I heard him.
One of the first things I did my freshman year was get a job at the computer lab. I learned to type and went online for the first time. I took computer-related electives and bought my first personal computer (a Dell that I still have to this day). That opened up an entirely new world to me – it gave me access to so much of the information I needed. Constantly reading and doing research helped me overcome certain disadvantages. I used my curiosity, along with my fear of failing out, as motivation to figure out how to make it.
College was the first time I’d ever gotten an A outside of gym class. I didn’t suddenly (or even eventually) become a straight-A student. But with the help of great mentors, a lot of hard work, and some pretty thick skin, I started to realize: 'You can be smart and successful; you just need to apply yourself.’
I love working with kids, and I majored in elementary education to become a teacher. But after a rough student-teaching experience, I realized that the classroom wasn’t for me. For a moment, I was disappointed in myself and stressed about the future; I’d spent five years working toward a career as a teacher only to realize it wasn’t a good fit. But I didn’t have time to dwell, nor could I afford to go back to school to do a reset. I had to find what was for me.
I knew I liked analyzing data and using that information to advise people. Through my experiences as a student leader on campus, I’d learned that I did my best work when I focused on things that mattered to me and my community. So, when my mentor at Rider, Dr. Anthony Campbell, pointed me toward AmeriCorps, it seemed like a great option. I knew I was passionate about giving back, but that was the first time I realized that you could get paid to do service.
Had I allowed fear of the unknown to paralyze me in that moment, I might not have applied for AmeriCorps. That would have been a shame, since that opportunity led me to discover and apply for a spot in Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign training program in 2005. It was through that program – organized by Hopefund (then-Senator Obama’s leadership PAC) in partnership with EMILY’s List to expand opportunities for African Americans and Latinos in political campaigns – that I was able to make the shift into politics.
I couldn’t have predicted any of those things would happen. But being open to change, taking chances, and learning when to be flexible and when to be firm helped bring opportunities to me.
Before I went through the Yes We Can training, I knew I was interested in politics and public service, but I was having a lot of trouble breaking in. As one of 10 trainees in the inaugural Hopefund class, I first met then-Senator Obama. He sat down to dinner with us and immediately started asking about our interests and how he could support them. He listened more than he spoke. And he was honest about how, as he’d grown in his political career, he didn’t see a lot of people who looked like him in leadership. He expressed his firm belief that young leaders will be the ones to address the biggest challenges we face in society today.
I recognized in Obama the same qualities that I admire in great leaders and changemakers I’d read about in history books, like Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, and John Lewis. While I was still uncertain about exactly what I wanted to do professionally, I felt I had found the MLK of my generation. He was making history, and I knew for sure I wanted to attach myself to him.
With the support of the Yes We Can network, I landed an opportunity as a scheduling correspondence manager at the Clinton Foundation in Harlem, coordinating President Clinton’s travel and appearances. Then, ahead of the 2008 presidential election, I joined the Obama campaign as a senior staffer in Virginia – an important swing state – which led to the opportunity to spend the next eight years in the White House.
What I’m saying is: Surround yourself with greatness. I took the leap to join his campaign because, when Obama enters a room, I feel his energy. His spirit, the way he connects with others, and his obvious passion challenges others to do more, to be better. He also motivates people by how deeply he engages with them. You can spend 30 seconds talking to him and leave feeling like you had an hour of his time. The night before the 2008 election, he came through Virginia for a rally. His grandmother had just passed away, yet he went out in front of a crowd close to 100,000 people and delivered a fiery speech. I woke up the next morning energized, going door-to-door with fellow campaign staffers to get everyone we possibly could to the polls.
On a rainy Tuesday night, we watched the news as the networks called it: Barack Obama had won. I remember calling my wife, and then my mom (who’d become a citizen that year and cast her first-ever vote) and telling them, “We did it.”
When my seven-year-old daughter reads about “Barack Obama, the first Black President of the United States of America” in school one day, that’s going to be so strange to her because, for the first six years of her life, she only knew a Black President. I’m honored to be a small part of that history.
Early on in my time as a White House staffer, when I was in a meeting with the President, or the national security advisor, or a table of global leaders who all had doctorates, I would think: I need to keep quiet and stay out of sight. But when a goal of the meeting was to address strategic planning and logistics, I began realizing that I actually needed to step up and be the expert. In those moments, age and title go away, and there is an expectation for me to lead. Learning that was one of the hardest and most rewarding challenges in my adult life.
In order to project confidence, I took to observing the self-care practices of the amazing leaders around me who had to thrive under pressure. After noticing, for example, that the President and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made a habit of going on walks, I started carving out time in my schedule to step away myself. Before a big meeting, I’d block out a few minutes to step outside with my headphones in and grab an iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Listening to music – including some pretty crazy songs – really helped me ease my nerves and get mentally prepared. Once the beat of a great song hits you and you feel like your eardrums are about to pop off, you’re not thinking about the stress of a meeting or the challenges of balancing work and family. That particular habit, in addition to meticulous preparation, emboldened me to start coming into meetings ready to say what I needed to say with authority. That got easier with time and practice, but in the beginning, I really had to push myself. Everyone does.
Achievement is a progression: slow steps, learning from others, developing relationships with mentors, and seeing what you’re bad at. There’s no such thing as an overnight success, and the struggle is what makes us all human. Plenty of people want to play pro basketball, for example, but we can sometimes forget to think about the struggle that someone like Michael Jordan had to endure to get there.
During the administration, I loved conducting White House tours for groups of kids, especially underserved youth from low-income neighborhoods like the ones I grew up in. I’d walk in knowing they had already been handed a bio about how I’d traveled the world on Air Force One and worked directly with the President. And, instead of starting there, I’d kick off with, “I grew up in Irvington, NJ, and man, did I struggle in school.” They were shocked. Someone would usually ask, “How can I be like you and work in the White House?” I’d tell them, “Why do you want to be like me? I can help you learn about scheduling, but do you like politics? I work at the White House, but you can live at the White House.”
My message to anyone working to become your best self is: Don’t let your present circumstances close you off to what’s out there. Remember that everyone who has succeeded has also failed. Let others’ “no’s” serve as fire to you to put in the work. Believe in yourself, and take the steps to prove them wrong.
I often bring up the Confucius quote: “He who says he can and he who says he can’t are usually both right.” Our thoughts become our words, our words then become actions. Our actions become habits, our habits become our character, and our character becomes our destiny. The best experiences I have ever had have been the result of stepping outside of my comfort zone, pushing past the limits of what seemed possible. And, at 36 years old, I’m not even close to being done.
Additional images courtesy of Greg Lorjuste