How did the vice president of the world’s largest shoe company – whose primary job was to calm the uproar over Nike’s use of foreign sweatshops and violations of child labor laws, and who then headed the Nike Foundation as it sought to help young women the same ages as some who worked in those factories – become President Obama’s choice to be CEO of the federal agency in charge of the country’s volunteerism?
|Eitel: Those who know the former
Nike exec call her creative, but critics say her work at the Nike Foundation covered up the company's operation of sweatshops.
And is Maria S. Eitel up to the job?
The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has never needed just the right leader more than now. Its budget of $1.19 billion is projected to rise to as much as $6 billion within five years. Obama plans to triple CNCS’s AmeriCorps program and divide it into several new corps to cover green energy, conservation, health and other critical issues.
During recent hearings on the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, which is behind this expansion, senators repeatedly asked if the corporation is prepared to handle such a rapid increase – an allusion to a growth spurt almost did in the agency not so long ago.
Over the past several months, more than a dozen prominent service leaders who had pushed for the Serve America Act were mentioned as candidates to run CNCS. They included Alan Khazei, co-founder of City Year; Shirley Sagawa, director of Ameri- Corps under President Clinton, who worked on Obama’s transition; and Peter Edelman, a Georgetown law professor who served as director of the New York State Division for Youth under Gov. Hugh Carey in the 1970s.
So Obama’s announcement of Eitel’s nomination on the day he signed the Kennedy legislation in April was a stunner.
Who is She?
A native of Washington state with degrees from McGill University in Montreal, Georgetown University and the Stanford University business school, Eitel (pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, as in “idol”) is a single mother whose daughter, Alexandra, is graduating from high school this year. She has a background in public relations, first in the George H.W. Bush White House (deputy director of media relations, and special assistant to the president for media affairs), then at MCI (senior manager for communications and community relations) and Microsoft (senior manager for the European corporate affairs group).
Her nomination is consistent with Obama’s penchant for picking people of mixed political persuasions. Until this year, when Eitel contributed $26,200 to the Obama effort – $2,300 to the Obama for America campaign fund, and $26,300 to the Democratic National Committee – her political contributions had mostly skewed Republican: $2,000 for George Allen, $250 for Bob Dole and $1,000 for George W. Bush.
Eitel is known to very few in the service field and to a few more in the foundation field. In more than two dozen interviews for this article, at least half of those contacted said they could not comment because they knew nothing about her. Even some of those who know and like Eitel questioned whether she has the management skills necessary for the job.
No one will get to know her any better for a while. Nike has erected a wall of silence around Eitel. Its public relations office says she is not giving interviews until after she is confirmed by the Senate. Almost four weeks after the announcement, the nomination had not been transmitted. A message to Eitel’s Nike e-mail address was not returned, nor was it answered.
Nike personnel would not provide any background information about her, other than what is included in her standard résumé.
Those looking to find out about Eitel through the record of her employer will find reason for both praise and criticism.
The Nike Foundation made grants totaling $11.9 million during the 12 months that ended May 2008, according to its federal tax returns. (Nike itself had $18.6 billion in sales during the same period, according to its financial statements.) Most of the foundation money is spent overseas – “exactly where Nike is the worst offender,” said one critic who asked not to be named. Nike Foundation has announced it will put up $55 million and that the NoVo Foundation, co-founded by Peter (son of Warren) and his wife Jennifer Buffett, will contribute $45 million to expand further “the girl effect.”
“The girl effect,” for which Eitel is widely credited with creating and pushing, is based on the premise that to educate a girl is to raise the standard of an impoverished community, because that education will result in declining fertility, better jobs, better health and better nutrition for succeeding generations.
Bill Reese, president of Baltimorebased International Youth Foundation, who has worked with Eitel for years in overseas programs, described her as a “smart, dynamic, creative woman.”
Said Reese: “She was clearly the lead executive in charge to design what came to be known as the Global Alliance for Workers in Communities – a five-year effort co-managed with Nike, Gap and Mattel” to improve the lives of young people and women and provide them with education and health care. Reese described the alliance as determined to improve the plight of young women.
Nike critics view it more cynically. They see Nike as among the world’s worst employers, whose female workers, especially, are subject to sexual harassment, poor working conditions, low wages and killer hours. Jim Keady, co-director of Educating for Justice based in Asbury Park, N.J., described the Global Alliance and Eitel’s work with it as “being one of the biggest cover-ups of labor rights abuses in the history of the world.” He called her appointment “disappointing,” and said she epitomizes the disconnect between what people say and what they do.
“What she did at Nike sounds great, but did not have any substance,” said Keady. He said Nike workers, especially those in Indonesia, are still not paid living wages and are subject to sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions.
Jeff Ballinger, head of a group called Press for Change that is considered the leading force pushing Nike to rid itself of sweatshops, said Eitel’s work as vice president for corporate responsibility had rather “marginalized” his group and some others. He said Eitel headed a group of about 90 people who co-opted and partnered with various organizations, while those who didn’t go along were called cranks.
Ballinger, who proudly calls himself a crank, said Nike made some improvements, such as removing toxic chemicals from a Vietnamese shoe manufacturing plant after The New York Times published a scathing article. But Ballinger said more important issues remain, including wages and working conditions that have led to 14 strikes at plants in Vietnam over the past two years.
Several child labor leaders, such as Reid Maki of the Child Labor Coalition, had no comment about Eitel or her appointment.
Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership in Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, called her selection “shocking,” particularly because of her lack of major management experience. “It’s a very poor appointment that flies in the face of labor support for Obama,” said Eisenberg, who has held senior positions with the National Urban Coalition and the U.S. Information Agency in Africa. But Steve Culbertson, president of Washington-based Youth Service America, hailed it as “a very brilliant appointment.” Culbertson pointed out that many people thought CNCS’s most recent CEO, David Eisner – who had been head of AOL’s foundation – was a strange choice at first, but that Eisner proved to be a very capable manager in putting the corporation back on its feet.
Path to Washington
So how did Eitel get the nomination and how does she fit into the job? She told The Oregonian newspaper that the White House called her about the job just a week before her nomination was announced.
Even the two men in the White House charged with making service agency appointments didn’t know about this one, and have said the choice was made by people above them – probably people in first lady Michelle Obama’s office – according to sources close to the selection process.
Those close to the process paint a scenario that foresees a strong guiding hand for the CNCS from the White House, specifically from Mrs. Obama. They, as well as people in the community service field, see her as the front person for CNCS, and Eitel as more of a second in command.
The third person in the CNCS triumvirate would be Sonal Shah, head of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, whose office has $50 million authorization in the Serve America Act.
Mrs. Obama has shown her affinity for CNCS, especially during her address last month to its employees in Washington. Although Mrs. Obama has made the rounds of various federal agencies, her speech to CNCS employees was more personal; she spent much of it talking about her own roots in service.
“As you know, national and community service is near and dear to my heart,” she said. “It is the reason that I breathe.”
If Mrs. Obama is the public face, then strong people are needed in the background who won’t mind if others take the credit. Through her experience in public relations, much of Eitel’s work has been in the background of her companies, promoting the efforts of others.
At the same time, that second in command needs to be creative and organized. While many people praise Eitel as creative, several of them talk about her disorganization. “If Maria Eitel is the top person, then I hope they have a strong second in command,” said one person who has worked with her, and whose assessment was echoed by others.
Although Eitel was the founding president of the Nike Foundation, its emphasis has been solely on “the girl effect,” which means she hasn’t had to make many major funding decisions, such as how to divide the funds into various areas. In addition, the amount that the foundation has spent in recent years is not large by the standards of national foundations.
Some involved in the selection process said the White House wanted a clean break from the service advocates who have become well known, especially during the year-long push for passage of the Serve America bill.
A source close to the selection process summed up Eitel this way: “My optimism leads me to look at her and see a Fortune 100 company, someone with expertise in branding and marketing, who worked in philanthropy, who was not engaged in the service world, but who might be able to bring philanthropy and corporate support with her. After all, national service requires matching funds.”