• Lessons from Her Parents

    Ambassador Nikki Haley’s journey from small town to the world’s stage.

    By Nancy Spitler

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley ’94 received a text message from Reince Priebus, chief of staff for President-elect Donald Trump, asking her to call him. When Haley replied, “I’m in a meeting. I can’t talk,” Priebus immediately responded, “No, I need you to get up and call me.”

During that phone call, he told Haley that the president-elect wanted her to come to New York to talk about being secretary of state.

“I said, ‘Reince, I’m a governor,’” Haley recalls. “I can’t be secretary of state.”

Priebus was insistent that she at least come and talk. So Haley flew to New York the next day to meet with President-elect Donald Trump. “I talked with him and said, ‘From where my family is and being a governor, I think there are others who could serve you well being secretary of state.’ And we had a conversation. It was a great conversation. And then I went back to South Carolina and didn’t think anything about it.”

But then she received another call, asking if she would consider being the ambassador to the United Nations. “I didn’t know enough about the United Nations to make a decision,” says Haley. “And I said, ‘Let me look at it.’”

In her second term as governor, Haley and her family were happy in South Carolina. Her daughter Rena had started college at Clemson, and her son Nalin was settled in middle school. She went back to the president-elect with a few questions and conditions.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to do it if it’s not a cabinet position,’ and he said, ‘Done.’

“I said, ‘I’m not going to do it unless I’m on the National Security Council,’ because I love policy, and I wanted to be involved with policy, and he said, ‘Done.’

“And I said, ‘I’m not going to be a talking head or a wallflower. You know I need to be able to say what I think,’ and he said, ‘That’s why I want you for the job.’”

At that point, it was hard to say no. “The opportunity to serve your country is one of the most amazing kinds of service you can do,” she says. “And so when you get the opportunity to serve along with all the conditions you want in that service, there was no way I could turn it down.”

My mother would say, ‘Your job is not to talk about how you’re different. Your job is to show everybody how you’re similar.’

FINDING COMMON GROUND

Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa Haley has come a long way from her childhood home of Bamberg, where her family moved in 1969 when her father accepted a faculty position at Voorhees College in nearby Denmark. Some aspects of growing up in Bamberg will sound familiar to anyone who has grown up in a small town, particularly in the South.

“Everyone took care of each other,” Haley says. “Everybody’s kids were everybody else’s kids. And you couldn’t think about doing something wrong without thinking about someone telling your mom.”

But in Bamberg, the family stood out. “We were the only Indian family in that small town of 2,500 people,” says Haley. “My mom wore a sari, my dad wore a turban — still does. And no one knew who we were, what we were and why we were there.”

When she was 5 years old, Haley’s mother entered her and her sister into the Little Miss Bamberg pageant, something of a rite of passage for little girls in Bamberg at the time. They purchased their dresses and began to prepare and practice.

Gov. Nikki Haley, R-S.C., President-elect Trump’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, testifies during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building, January 18, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Haley and her family at the Senate confirmation hearing.

On the day of the pageant, the organizers pulled her parents to the side and told them that their daughters were being disqualified. There were two categories in the Little Miss Bamberg Pageant — black and white. If they were placed in the black category and won, that group would be upset, the organizers said. And if they competed in the white category and won, that group would be upset.

Ever one to strike the positive note, Haley’s mother responded, “Well, Nikki has been practicing her song for weeks. Can you at least let her sing her song?” They agreed, and Haley went on stage and performed her song.

Ironically enough, she sang Woody Guthrie’s famous folk song, “This Land is Your Land.”

“They gave me a beach ball as a concession,” she says.

It wasn’t the last challenging situation for Haley and her sister and brothers. But her mother always had the same answer when they would come home and complain about not being treated well.

“My mother would say, ‘Your job is not to talk about how you’re different. Your job is to show everybody how you’re similar,’” says Haley.

And she credits that guidance from her mother for how she lives her life today. “I’m constantly trying to show other people, and now other countries, what we have in common as opposed to what divides us.”

WORKPLACE DIPLOMACY

Haley attended public school in Bamberg through the 9th grade, then went to Orangeburg Prep. By the age of 13, she was doing the books for her parents’ business, Exotica International, which whetted her desire to become an accountant. She said in her autobiography, Can’t Is Not an Option, that it wasn’t until college that she realized being versed in the business tax code might be unusual for a 13-year-old. Her plan was to study accounting at the University of South Carolina.

“All growing up, I wanted to go to the University of South Carolina,” she says. “That was my school; that’s who I cheered for. Everything I was going to do was based on USC. I had decided that’s where I wanted to go.”

Until one of her best friends said, “I’m going to go tour Clemson. Do you want to come with me?”

Instead of simply a day of being out of school, it was a day when Haley found a new direction. “The second we drove on to campus, I was home,” she says. “I felt it. I mean, in my soul I felt it; walking on campus I felt it. That was where I was meant to be, and I never looked back after that.”

It may have been the beauty of the campus, the friendliness of the students, or the fact that with a more diverse student body, she didn’t feel the pressure of always being the one who was different. “It will go down truly as one of the best times in my life,” she says. “I know everyone says that about college, but it was so much more than just school, so much more than just friends. It really was like a family. You really felt like that was your place where you were safe. And I look back on that with such fondness. And I love that Rena goes there now. Because she feels like I did then. I love that.”

After college, Haley moved to Charlotte and took a job as accounting supervisor at a recycling company. Once again she was different, but this time it was because she was the only female executive. At the first board meeting, the president was running late.

“When he came in,” says Haley, “everyone was getting ready, and the CFO at the time said, ‘Nikki, why don’t you get Paul a cup of coffee?’

“And I remember not knowing how I was going to handle that, but I knew that however I handled that would impact how they dealt with me going forward,” she says. “So instead of making a scene or embarrassing them, I said, ‘I’d be happy to.’ And so I reached over to my phone and called my assistant, and said, ‘Pam would you please bring Paul a cup of coffee?’

“They never did that again.

“If someone says something inappropriate, fix it, change it, don’t ever let it go,” she says. “I think that’s the worst thing you can ever do. But you don’t have to embarrass someone in the process.”

If someone says something inappropriate, fix it, change it, don’t ever let it go,” she says. “I think that’s the worst thing you can ever do.
But you don’t have to embarrass someone in the process.”

POLITICAL DIPLOMACY

After a couple of years, she says she got tired of “working for the people down the hall,” and came home to the family business. Marriage to Michael, whom she had met when she was at Clemson and he was at Anderson University, soon followed.

Haley’s move to politics was not the result of planning or strategy. It was, like many things, the result of listening to her mother. When her frustration bubbled over about, as she puts it, “how hard it was to make a dollar and how easy it was for the government to take it,” her mother, in typical form, told her to quit complaining and do something about it.

“Ignorance is bliss. I didn’t know any better,” says Haley when asked why she got into politics. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to run against a 30-year incumbent in a primary. I truly didn’t. But once I got in, the only option was to win.”

Haley ran against Larry Koon, the longest-serving legislator in the state, and who was, she says, “related to half the district.” During the campaign, she and her husband, sporting their “Haley for Legislature” badges, attended a Ducks Unlimited event. A crowd of 1,500 people was there, with a long line waiting to shake hands with the incumbent. As she tells the story, Koon’s cousin got on stage and said, “I want you to know that I’m voting for Larry Koon, and I want everyone else in this room to vote for Larry Koon.” He was greeted with massive applause.

Haley and her husband stood in line. “I shook Mr. Koon’s hand, and he said, ‘See, little lady, they love me.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, they do.’” Haley spent the rest of the evening, shaking every hand she could, to make sure, she says, “that they knew I wasn’t leaving.”

On Monday, she visited Mr. Koon’s cousin in his office. “Hey, I’m Nikki Haley, and I’m running for State House. I wanted to talk to you,” she said. “I just wanted you to know why I’m running.”

He responded, “I just told over a thousand people I’m voting for him, and they should, too.”

She acknowledged that, but asked him to hear her out. “I told him why I was running,” she says. “It was no disrespect to the incumbent, but I just thought we needed something different.”

After she was done, he thanked her and said, “But what do you want from me?”

With just a little more than chutzpah, Haley responded, “I don’t want you to put my yard sign in your front yard. But in your small circles, I want you to tell people what I had to say, and that you liked what I had to say.

“And before I leave, I need a thousand dollars.”

And he gave it.

It was a tough primary, and a runoff that got ugly, focusing on religion, on nationality, on gender. But she won it by a 10-point margin.

NEVER BACK DOWN

When Nikki Haley talks with young people, she tells them they need to have three war stories they can tell, stories that involve something that made them uncomfortable but stronger in the end. She shared the Ducks Unlimited story as one of her own war stories. Another of those stories involved her defining experience in the legislature.

“I noticed that all these votes that are happening are voice votes,” she says. “And as a young legislator, you don’t think much of it. Until the day that a bill comes across the desk to vote legislators a pay raise.”

Even though there seemed to be a unanimous voice vote in the affirmative, Haley says “to this day, you can’t find a legislator that says they voted themselves a pay raise.”

“The next day,” she says, “I went to the Republican speaker of the house and said, “This is why people don’t trust us.”

Soon after, she introduced a bill that anything important enough to be debated on the floor of the house or the senate was important enough to be voted on the record. At that point, she says, “My speaker said, ‘Put the bill away. We’ll decide what the people need to see and what they don’t.’”

Never one to back down in a fight, Haley responded by traveling around the state with this pitch: “Did you know that of all the bills passed in the house, only 8 percent were on the record, and of all the bills passed in the senate, only 1 percent were on the record?” And then, she says “I looked at the people and said, ‘If you didn’t know how your house member voted
92 percent of the time, and you didn’t know how your senator voted 99 percent of the time, how do you know who to vote for at the polls?’ And the state was shocked. They had no idea.”

The political response was swift and complete. Haley was stripped of every leadership position she had held, and those were considerable. In her first year in office, she was chairman of the freshman class, the second year she was majority whip, the third year she was on a powerful business committee and the fourth year she was subcommittee chair of banking. “That year when I pushed for getting legislative votes on the record, the speaker demoted me off of everything. He took away every ounce of my voice. He took away every ounce of the ability to move things. I was completely blackballed.”

Her response? “I ran for governor. And I’m proud to say that one of the first bills we signed into law was a bill that said not only every bill that was debated needed to be voted on the record for people to see, but also every section of the budget, so you could see how your legislators were spending.”

ANOTHER POWERFUL MOMENT

Probably the defining moment of Nikki Haley’s time as governor of South Carolina occurred in the shadow of tragedy, when white supremacist Dylan Roof shot and killed nine worshippers at the historic Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.

“I think what you saw was an event where you had 12 amazing people do what so many South Carolinians do every day — go to Bible study — and someone who came in who didn’t look like them, didn’t act like them and didn’t sound like them. But they didn’t turn him away, and they didn’t call the police. They pulled up a chair, and they sat down and prayed with him for an hour,” she says, visibly moved. “If you think about the powerful impact of that and the tragedy that followed, South Carolinians didn’t let that go. That weighed on them in a way that they loved, hugged, felt, hurt.”

She says the result of that tragedy was that South Carolinians stepped up. “What they said was every person should be welcome on the South Carolina State House grounds. We were going to do everything we needed to embrace not only those who died, but embrace their families.”

It was in response to this tragedy that Haley gave a powerful speech in which she said that while she recognized the place of honor in which many noble South Carolinians held the flag, the time had come to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House.

“My hope,” she said that day, “is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony, and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are now in heaven.”

Haley says that while the Mother Emanuel tragedy was one of the most devastating in South Carolina history, the response to that tragedy will go down as one of South Carolina’s finest moments.

“The entire world watched,” she says, “and I think what they saw is why South Carolinians are the way they are. And why we’re the friendliest state in the country, and why we love each other so much. And why we’re not the state that everybody used to think we were.”

She hesitated. “But it was hard.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (right) votes
during a Security Council meeting on a new sanctions resolution
regarding North Korea. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer.

Nikki Haley voting resolutions at UN

THE ART OF NEGOTIATION

The move from being governor of South Carolina to U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was not an easy one. Haley says it reminded her of her Clemson days, preparing for exams. She doesn’t mince words or downplay the challenge she faced. “I was cramming for the biggest final exam ever. And I’m still learning every day. It was a huge learning curve.”

She had become comfortable in her role as governor. Foreign policy, however, was not something she had to focus on while running state government. “It was a lot of crash courses learning about everything going on in the world, and looking at cultures, looking at issues, looking at politics, looking at human rights, looking at all those things. It was just a constant learning curve, but I haven’t stopped learning. Every day I’m learning something new and every day I’m learning more about our brothers and sisters around the world. And I love it. I love the fact that I don’t know everything, and I love the fact that every day I come in, and I know I’m going to learn something else.”

The Tuesday morning in August that we met with Haley in her New York residence, she had just finished a week of intense negotiations with the U.N. Security Council over imposing new sanctions on North Korea in response to their continued testing of nuclear and ballistic missiles in defiance of a United Nations ban.

It was a successful week of diplomacy for Haley, negotiating with diplomats from all 15 member nations of the council, including China, for a unanimous vote. That same week she also addressed the U.N.’s role in Lebanon, reports of massacres in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and preventing arms transfers to terrorists.

Even as U.N. ambassador, Haley is still following her mother’s advice about finding common ground with people and with nations. “I’m not a patient person,” she says, “but your goal is to try and bring people together and get them to see things your way. When that doesn’t work, you bulldoze your way through. You really do. We didn’t have consensus that everyone wanted to pass this resolution, so we had to push through the reasons why they couldn’t not vote for this resolution. And then you show what their options are.”

And if you’re not getting consensus at that point? “You lay out the options, and then you show the options in a way that they realize there’s no other choice but to do what you want them to do,” she says.

“So, look, the art of negotiation is truly just convincing the other side that there’s a better way and bringing them over to that. It’s what you do if you’re a legislator, it’s what you do if you’re a governor, it’s what you do in business, it’s what you do as ambassador to the U.N. You’re always trying to get people to see what you see and see the vision of what you’re trying to get and convince them to go that way.”

WHATEVER YOU DO

Haley seems to have settled into New York. Her son Nalin is in high school. Bentley, the family’s large Labradoodle has adapted to life in the city. She has moved her parents up to New York, and yes, her father still wears his red turban, while her mother has transitioned into pantsuits.

“They’re very proud,” she says. “There was never a day that they didn’t remind my brothers and sister and me how blessed we were to live in this country. It was just so important to them that we understand that blessing, and then they would always say that the best way to appreciate those blessings is to give back.”

When pressed about what’s next for her, she says, “I don’t know what’s next. When I’m done here, then I’m done here.”

And as she does so often, she refers to lessons from her parents when she was growing up. “They said, ‘Whatever you do, be great at it, and make sure people remember you for it.’ And so that’s what I’ve always done. And when I’m done trying to be great at this, and I feel like people will remember me for it, I’ll go off on my way. And maybe we’ll go into private sector life and find out what it’s like to be normal.”

19 replies
    • Martha Paye says:

      You can’t read about her strength without feeling that the Power of God is behind it all. (Phil. 4:13) She operates on a God Driven level.

      Reply
    • Jaclyn Brooks says:

      Wow, what an amazing article!!! You should expand this to a full length book. Thank you for the wonderful insight!!!!

      Reply
  1. John E. Walker says:

    I love to read of people who make my heart soar. Nikki Haley certainly has done that. I realize the world is not too big for her, but I would love to see her as the next president of Clemson University.

    Reply
  2. Steven Tran says:

    Nikki Haley is a great example of perserverance and determination in the face of adversity. I too had to persevere during my time as a Clemson student. I was once told by a former high school classmate that I would not make it at Clemson. Well, I graduated with my biology degree, despite switching out of computer science. Never give up on your dreams or goals!
    – Steven Tran, B.S. Biology, Class of 2015

    Reply
  3. David Kerford says:

    I just printed this, so that I can have it in sight every day. I want to make it very hard for me to have a ‘bad day’ and this story will help. You can feel her positive presence in this interview and there can be no doubt that it is genuine. I too grew up in Orangeburg (a very long time ago) and had parents who held to strong, lasting values as well. This brought both a smile and a misty eye, but reminded me that generations can change important things with seemingly small tasks and decisions. Thank you, Nikki!!
    Dave K. Class of ’77

    Reply
    • Pamela C. Elkins says:

      Nikki Haley is u get what you see and hear!! Nikki, we’re so proud of u and your family!!:)🎈Please keep putting SC
      On the map in a good 😊 manner and helping us show TRUE southern hospitality is what u taught us and we will continue in your steps!! Please do us ALL a great favor – Please run for President??!!

      Reply
  4. Terrr Gause says:

    She makes me proud to be a South Carolinian. I hope my grandchildren will try to emulate the smart and wonderful woman.

    Reply
  5. Don Barcome, Jr says:

    What an amazing American! Thank you Nancy Spitler for your brilliantly written article. Clemson has an amazing alumnus, and America a brighter future! 🇺🇸❤️🇺🇸

    Reply
  6. Jean says:

    #PositiveRoleModel Looking for a positive role model for your daughters, your children? Look at her.
    #NHforPOTUS Make America Kind Again

    Reply
  7. Karen Livingston says:

    What a great look into a wonderful lady. I had no idea about your accomplishments to be elected Gov of S. Carolina and now US Ambassador at United Nations. Back you all the way. Prayers for you and your family.

    Reply

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