Margita Thompson MPP 1996: Driving Unexpected Conversations

November 17, 2009
by Matt Kohut

During her undergraduate days at the University of California, Berkeley, Margita Thompson would sometimes wear a Republican Party T-shirt to her job at the Chicano Studies Library. "At first people would give me a suspicious look, as if to say...'What is she doing here?'"she recalls with a laugh. "I like driving unexpected conversations."

Two decades later, Thompson, MPP 1996, has made a career of driving unexpected conversations. Currently Vice President of Corporate Communications for Health Net, Inc., one of the nation’s largest publicly traded managed health care companies, she has also worked in government, the media, trade associations, and public relations. In every field she has noticed a common denominator. "The people who have successful careers are the people who can have conversations across the aisle," she says.

The Harvard Kennedy School proved an excellent training ground in this respect. "It was a fabulous education for a communicator – being able to defend your point of view without alienating your friends," she says. "At the Kennedy School, I learned a deep and abiding respect for people who share the same passion for public policy, even if they want to go about it a different way."

After graduation, she spent three years in public relations and the high-tech sector before joining the Bush campaign as California press secretary, serving as the principal contact for all California-based and Spanish-language media. She went on to work at the White House in the Office of the Vice President as press secretary to Lynne Cheney.

Having proven her ability to drive conversations inside the Beltway, she landed a job as political producer for Larry King Live. Her credibility across the spectrum helped the show secure guests from First Lady Laura Bush to former Vice President Al Gore.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected Governor of California in a special recall election in the fall of 2003, Thompson returned home to serve as his press secretary. She left at the end of his first term to join Health Net just as the health care debate was heating up in California. "You can be involved in so many ways with public policy, especially now, as issues that used to be on the business page are moving to the front page," she says.

She likens her ability to move between professional worlds to being bicultural. "I am proud of being Latina. While people understand the whole notion of being bilingual, there's a deeper element that goes to being bicultural. Being bicultural, you don't just have to understand ethnicities – it includes corporate cultures, or national cultures, or even partisan cultures," she says. "One of the things the Kennedy School does is that it prepares you to drive change, and act in a way that can resonate anywhere in the world."

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Margita Thompson leads a press conference.

Margita Thompson leads a press conference in her role as press secretary to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 .

"One of the things the Kennedy School does is that it prepares you to drive change, and act in a way that can resonate anywhere in the world."

—Margita Thompson

Margita Thompson meets the Dali Lama.

Thompson (right) greets the Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, in 2006 in the company of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlotte Schultz, Chief of Protocol for the State of California.