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U.S. Embassy Women Leaders on Growing Up and Seeking Inspiration
October 11, 2022

Ambassador MaryKay Carlson and Deputy Chief of Mission Heather Variava as children. Text on the top reads: International Day of the Girl. We asked two of the U.S. Embassy's women leaders to share the experiences that empowered them to get to where they are now. Read the story on our website: ph.usembassy.gov/IDG2022​.​

Girls and women have played a central role through history—one that continues today and will be part of the future. Advancing the rights of women and girls worldwide is a priority for the United States. We are committed to supporting women by investing in their prospects, security, and wellbeing.

On the 10th anniversary of International Day of the Girl, we showcase the stories of two of our women leaders, Ambassador MaryKay Carlson and Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) Heather Variava, who have broken barriers and risen through the ranks with ability and bravery.

They shared their experiences about what it was like growing up, the advice they would give to their younger selves, and what current leaders need to do to make sure that girls and women across the world are given the resources and opportunities they need to live healthily and achieve their dreams.

What is one significant memory that you have as a child?

A young Ambassador Carlson





“I was fortunate to grow up in a household where both parents were teachers and took an active role in raising us four children. From an early age, I saw both parents cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the family while working full-time—without reference to gender, which, as I look back, was unusual at that time. This helped me see parenting as a partnership and know that I could have a career and still have a wonderful, fulfilling family experience.”

– Ambassador MaryKay Carlson








A young DCM Variava




“One of my significant childhood memories is the time I was allowed to ride my bike to school by myself for the first time. I was a second grader at elementary school. I felt very grown up as I pedaled my red bike the one mile from my house to the school. I found out many years later that my mother followed me from a distance to make sure I was okay. I was very lucky to have parents who both empowered and protected me.”

– DCM Heather Variava

When did you first know you wanted to become a leader?

“I’m not sure there was a single event or time when I knew I wanted to be a leader. I suppose, as the oldest of four siblings, I was kind of born into a familial leadership role. I remember being very motivated by combatting injustices and promoting fairness and equal opportunity, such that I stood up to neighborhood bullies and grownups on several occasions to call out unfairness. That led me to serve on what was back then called the biracial council—an early precursor (50 years ago!) to what we would now call a council on diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility. Those same issues motivate me to this day.”

– Ambassador Carlson


“When I was a teenager, I saw Geraldine Ferraro run to be Vice President of the United States. This was the first time a woman was a candidate for that office for one of the two major U.S. political parties. Time featured her on the cover their magazine. Seeing Geraldine Ferraro on the cover of Time as one of the top leaders in the United States made a deep impression on me. Even though she didn’t win and it was many years before Vice President Harris would achieve that office, it was one of the first times I saw someone like me, a female, in that role.”

– DCM Variava

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

A young Ambassador Carlson




“I would say, “Don’t be the first to tell yourself no.” I wish I had failed more! And by that, I mean, I think women and girls should take more risks and strive for greater heights. Don’t be afraid to fail or fall short because you learn a lot and gain important experience in the process of applying for positions, running for office, or just generally putting yourself out there—even when you don’t succeed at first try. Persistence is the key!”

– Ambassador Carlson








A young DCM Variava reading a book






“I would tell my younger self to speak up more. As women and girls, especially when I was younger, it was expected that we should keep quiet and get our jobs done. I believe younger people should listen to and respect older people who have experience, but young people, especially women and girls, should also speak up and share their ideas and perspectives.”

– DCM Variava

Finally, if your younger self could have talked to someone in your position today, what would she tell them?

Ambassador Carlson smiling at the camera

“My younger self would tell my adult self to do more to promote opportunities for women and girls. Even though we have made great strides over the past years, there is still much more we need to do!”

– Ambassador Carlson


DCM Variava standing behind a podium

“I don’t know if my younger self would have said this exactly, but I believe leaders today need to be brave and strong enough to make decisions that will help people in the long-term. I believe there is too much focus on the short-term or immediate problems. We need to find a way to pursue tough solutions that will make people’s lives (especially young people’s lives) better in the long run. Whether it is climate change, social and economic inequality, or fragile democracies, we need to do more to address these problems now.”

– DCM Variava



Elevating the status of girls and women globally will lead to a better, more secure, and more prosperous world for all. The world is at its best when the possibilities for girls and women are limitless.