Mary Beth Maxwell

Special Advisor at Open Society Foundations

An experienced change-maker, Mary Beth Maxwell serves as a special advisor at the Open Society Foundations. She is also a consultant and strategist on labor policy as well as issues affecting civil rights and the LGBTQ+ community.

Mary Beth Maxwell began her career as a national field director for Jobs with Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based national workers’ rights coalition. During her seven years there, she co-founded its Workers Rights Board and Student Labor Action Project, which was instrumental in the organization becoming a national leader in its field.

Maxwell next founded American Rights at Work (ARAW) in 2003 and served the following six years as its first executive director. Under her guidance, ARAW became the leading advocacy voice in the U.S. for the restoration of workers’ rights to collective bargaining. She helped achieve this by funding a variety of strategic communications, research, and field organizing activity nationwide in addition to creating diverse leadership teams to support the organization’s agenda. She also co-authored its inaugural report—Some of Them Are Brave: The Unfulfilled Promise of American Labor Law—and created the Partnerships That Work initiative to draw attention to businesses with successful labor-management practices.

In 2009, Maxwell was appointed by President Barack Obama as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Labor. She served in a variety of roles over six and a half years including leading the Wage and Hour Division and Deputy Chief of Staff and ultimately served as Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy where she managed a team of 36 full-time equivalent employees and a $6.5 million budget. She helped secure policy victories that raised the minimum wage and overtime pay, ended discrimination against LGBTQ+ workers employed by federal contractors, promoted paid leave, and improved working standards for 2 million homecare workers, a majority of whom are Women of Color and immigrant workers.

After working in the Obama administration, Maxwell returned to the nonprofit sector and served as senior vice president for foundation programs at the Human Rights Campaign, where she led programs focused on the workplace, youth, health and aging, and other critical issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. and abroad. She was a leader in mobilizing the LGBTQ+ community around issues of racial justice, including supporting immigrant rights and opposing Trump’s Muslim ban. She returned to strategic consulting on labor policy and the Future of Workers for OSF, Public Welfare Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network, and others. More recently, Maxwell was a member of the DOL Personnel Team for the Biden-Harris Transition.

Where did the idea for your career come from?

On a hike with a good friend – my best ideas and breakthroughs find me on the trail.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Nothing happens before coffee! I love my early morning minutes with coffee and my journal, reflecting and grounding myself for the day. Then to the gym – every day I can make it there early is a great day. I write my goals for the week on Sunday, then make a list each morning for the most important tasks. (Somedays I even get those done when my hours are not too crowded with calls and meetings!)

How do you bring ideas to life?

I love talking things through with other people – I have an amazing community of organizers, colleagues, and good-trouble-makers I love to learn with. I make lists and I work my list. I am not afraid of recruiting others who are smarter than me to join the team and help make magic happen.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Workers are on fire right now! Workers at Amazon, Starbucks, Google, and Apple, as well as care workers and fast food workers – it is amazing to see so many people taking action to improve their working conditions and for a whole new generation of labor reporters (in traditional and social media) doing fantastic journalism documenting and interpreting this resurgence of labor organizing.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

My gym time. I have learned as I have gotten older, no matter how long the worklist is, to choose my workout time anyway – that hour fuels the whole day.

What advice would you give your younger self?

You cannot work all day! Go see a movie, go flirt with someone – take a break and come back to it tomorrow.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Boiron’s homeopathic flu medicine oscillococcinum works every time! My wife and all my friends laugh at me, but I swear this has powered me through over and over again (and I can’t even pronounce it!)

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Take care of your people. There IS time to check on a co-worker on a bad day, to cook a meal for a friend who is grieving, to send a personal thank you note, or to call your mom.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Bring in others who have different skills and strengths than you do – don’t be afraid of others who are smarter or faster or more creative than you. Every good idea needs a village.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I tried to launch a new radio show about workers, and it was, truthfully, an expensive flop. So, I did not overcome it, but I did learn from it. I learned to not pretend things are what you want them to be, but to more carefully assessing what is possible, especially when you are in a new field you do not yet understand. I learned you cannot delegate to others you do not yet know very well, and you cannot delegate hard decisions – you must be prepared to make them yourself and to be informed enough to make them well.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

All these gymnastics and kids’ sports venues should have workout options for the parents who are driving their kids everywhere for lessons – parents need physical activity too, not just their kids! All those years at swim lessons and gymnastics classes with my toddler, I was dying for a treadmill so I could work out while I watched him.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A gorgeous, indulgent profiteroles cake for my wife’s birthday party – treats are good for the soul!

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Wordle – I am totally hooked.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Fulfillment: America in the Shadow of Amazon, by Alec MacGillis

To restore a multi-racial democracy in these troubled times, we must understand better how working people are struggling and how many local communities have been devastated by a corporate culture that feeds and feeds for short-term profits. Our country is polarized not just because of social issues, but because too many people feel economically insecure, misunderstood, disrespected, and left behind. During the pandemic, large corporations like Amazon made billions while “essential workers” were on the front line, exposed to covid while making other people’s lives possible with food, healthcare, deliveries, and more. All working families need to earn enough to cover the basics and need basic health and safety protections at work. We CAN afford to do this if we choose to.

What is your favorite quote?

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Key Learnings:

  • Working people (essential workers) deserve decent pay, basic health and safety, and respect at work. Our democracy and our economy will be stronger when we take action to make this a reality for everyone, no matter their race, zip code, immigration status, or who they love.
  • Take care of yourself. You are no good to anyone if all you do is work. Go to the gym. Make time for joy. Make time for love.
  • Take care of other people, both folks you know and love AND others you don’t even know yet. This is true on micro and macro levels. Your family and friends are more important than any work project; treasure them and make time for them in good times and bad. The best ideas come to life when teams are nurtured and everyone can contribute – the people you work with and recruit to your team are your most valuable resource. And we are all connected; we will not have the strong economy and democracy we all need to thrive if we give in to cynicism and division or leave millions behind to struggle with income inequality and systemic racism.
  • Think BIG! You can do more than you ever dreamed and we CAN make a more just and loving world – our children and grandchildren are counting on us!