TV host, producer, author
In 2005, I was working on my second cookbook, called Tangy, Tart, Hot, and Sweet. I had hosted a couple of programs on the Food Network, but I was mostly making a living by acting and writing columns for the New York Times syndicate and fashion magazines. I had pitched a concept to Bravo about a dinner-party talk show, but the network felt my idea was too niche and highbrow. They wanted something with mass appeal in food and asked if I’d like to partner with them on that. It was Top Chef.
Because I was contracted to act in a film, I couldn’t join until the second season. I never imagined it would become a cultural behemoth, still going strong after 16 years and racking up 37 Emmy nominations.
Top Chef is not just a part of pop culture. It has changed food culture around the world. My greatest pleasure has been seeing how engaged so many young people are with the culinary arts today. Tweens routinely come up to me to quiz me with culinary terms I didn’t even know the meaning of when I was their age. After 16 years, our show continues to amaze with its staying power. It airs in 176 territories, and 23 countries have produced their own local versions. Top Chef’s legacy is something I will always be proud to be a part of.
Name recognition from Top Chef has afforded me a platform to amplify awareness of endometriosis by co-founding the reproductive-health nonprofit Endometriosis Foundation of America (EndoFound) in 2009, and since then we have educated over 35,000 youth and funded a research center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as doubled federal funding for endometriosis research in 2021. This led to my work speaking out on global equality as a U.N. goodwill ambassador, and on women’s and immigration rights for the ACLU in the U.S.
After working on immigration issues for several years, I longed to merge my television work with my advocacy, and Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi on Hulu was born. This documentary series is the most artistically rewarding experience of my creative life. I try to tell stories from communities in the U.S. you don’t often hear from. And I’m still writing: a memoir, a food encyclopedia, and a children’s book with Asian characters about food. All were no doubt helped in sales by the visibility [of my TV work].
In the early years, I was worried that doing a food show would prevent me from getting legitimate acting work, or that folks would pigeonhole me, but I realize now that my life was meant to be immersed in food. I’m so glad I said yes to Top Chef. When I was deciding whether to do the show, a very smart person told me, “Push against the open door.” I had intended a life in the theater, but through Top Chef I get to play on the world’s stage. And since Taste the Nation first premiered, I’m able to use this amazing platform I’ve been given to reach out to communities that have been waiting in the wings for their moment in the spotlight, and grant them the attention they so rightly deserve. Now, when I am offered acting roles, the problem is that I have no time to do them.
Director general, European Space Agency
We all have our own memories throughout our lives that can be evoked by a distinct smell, a familiar voice, the mention of an old friend we haven’t thought of in years. Where we can remember exactly what we were doing, wearing, thinking, or feeling. Core memories.
It might not surprise anyone to know that the most defining core memory in my childhood was the first moon landing, in July 1969. I was just a little kid. I can still smell the freshly cut grass as I lay down on the steep field behind my family’s farmhouse in Tyrol and looked in disbelief and wonderment at the sky, at the moon, which was illuminating the mountain meadows in silver. It was hard to wrap my head around the fact that humans were walking on that shiny rock in the sky. How on earth did they get there?
I was filled with so many different feelings at the time. On the one hand, I felt in awe of the fearlessness of those men on the moon. I also felt an enormous interest and longing to get to know space better. What was it made up of? What was out there? Something began stirring in me. A curiosity flame had been lit that would inspire and drive me for the rest of my life.
I studied natural sciences and went on to choose a career in space, which eventually led me to the role of director general of the European Space Agency. But it was that warm night in July—in Tyrol, on a farm, with the smell of grass—where the foundation was laid that would steer me in a new direction, away from the fields and toward the stars.
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Before the World Economic Forum in 2020, I was a little-known youth climate activist from Kampala, Uganda, though I was part of a global movement that had brought millions of young people to the streets. On the last day of the forum, I took part in a press conference with four other young climate activists, all of whom were white Europeans. When I scrolled through the coverage on my phone afterward, I was stunned by what I saw: the Associated Press had cropped me out of the photo it used for its article, and it had failed to even mention my presence at the press conference in the text.
I had come to Davos to tell the brutal story of what the climate crisis is doing to Africa already. It felt like in cropping me out of the picture, the Associated Press had cropped a whole continent out of the conversation.
The Associated Press has since apologized several times. It told me last October how that incident had led to big changes inside the organization and in how it covers the climate crisis. This week in Davos, I will take part in a live conversation with the Associated Press, discussing how global media outlets can better cover climate stories from the global south.
The story of that photograph went viral, and while it shouldn’t have happened that way, more people became interested in what I had to say. There now seems to be interest from the media in my opinions on different topics. But that incident was reflective of a world that has still not properly woken up to the climate crisis, and especially not to the suffering it is already causing in Africa and other most-affected areas.
It is my hope that I can keep lending my voice to these voiceless victims. And I will continue to use my profile to pressure governments, companies, and investors to provide funding to help the world’s most vulnerable communities deal with the climate losses and damages we are already experiencing.
Deputy Secretary, U.S. Treasury
Since being confirmed as Deputy Treasury Secretary in March 2021, in the midst of a historic public-health and economic crisis, I often think about the early days of my first tour of duty at the U.S. Treasury.
I entered government in February 2009, at the height of the global financial crisis, when I received a firsthand education in crisis management. I quickly learned the importance of rigorously examining data to ensure policy choices are grounded in fact, and the need for careful consideration of the alternatives in every decision. Over many late nights that often turned into early mornings, my colleagues worked to save the economy from what we feared could be a second Great Depression.
But I also learned a great deal about the impact of the financial crisis from my family and friends back home. I grew up in a region of California called the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, where unemployment peaked at more than 14% and foreclosures spiked. Hearing about friends and neighbors losing their jobs and homes, and seeing the impact of this crisis on my community, is something I will never forget.
These two sides of the financial crisis—the global policy response and the economic pain that hit so close to home—left an indelible imprint on me as a person and as a policymaker. I try to carry the lessons I learned with me each day and to never forget the people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the choices we make in Washington and in halls of government around the world.
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