Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Wealth advice from Arianna's mom

February 22, 2012: 11:44 AM ET

Agapi Stassinopoulos

When I ask powerful women what made them who they are (a question I've asked constantly over the years), they often tell me about their parents and then say, "Oh, my mother...!"

So when I read one mother's take on the topic of wealth, below, it struck a familiar chord. The passage is from Unbinding the Heart, a new book by Agapi Stassinopoulos, Arianna Huffington's sister. I knew a little about Mrs. Stassinopoulos from conversations Arianna and I have had, as well as from an interview that TV talk show host/media entrepreneur Chelsea Handler did with her on stage at last fall's Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. Larger than life and perpetually optimistic, Arianna's mother married a larger than life newspaper publisher—and "huge philanderer," as Arianna recalls her father. When Arianna was 11 years old, she convinced her mother to leave him--and from then on, with little money to raise two daughters in Athens, made the girls believe that they had wealth and opportunity galore.

Arianna went on to create, among other things, the Huffington Post. She sold her startup to AOL (AOL) for $315 million last year. So, it's hardly the case that she and younger sis Agapi lack an appreciation of money. But as Agapi writes in Unbinding the Heart, they learned early on that money isn't what life is about:

I knew that my mother was different from my father in some basic way, because she treated all people the same, and she herself behaved the same, no matter whom she was with. She had no status handicap, and it freed her. My father was much more attuned to hierarchy, and I saw how it hindered him, though he was a brilliant and exceptional man. One Sunday morning after he and his friend drove off, I burst out to my mother with the innocence of a puzzled nine-year-old. "Mummy," I asked her, "are we rich?"

In a matter-of-fact tone that I can still hear, confident in her knowledge, she said, "We are very, very wealthy." And then she gave me the Talk--not the sex talk but the wealth talk. "Being rich doesn't mean you are wealthy. Being rich means you have a lot of money. Being wealthy means you value the gifts you have and you develop them. Wealth means that you have everything you need, and that you share it, too. It means being generous with what you have, not living in fear of losing what you have, and not comparing it to what anyone else has."

Her passion was palpable as she spoke about these ideas. "Having intelligence is wealth. Being curious about life is wealth. Ethics is wealth--it is the integrity you have in all your relationships. Having friends who care for you and love you, and whom you care for and love, that is wealth. Taking care of yourself and being healthy is wealth, and so is having respect for yourself and your fellow human beings. Being educated, having a thirst for learning, being able to go to good schools with inspiring teachers who will help you cultivate your talents, is wealth too--the most important kind, because without that, it really doesn't matter what else you have."

She went on: "The arts and culture are wealth. The artists of the world are all wealthy. They have gifts that money can never buy. And if you know how wealthy you are, then you can go make money—but only if you want to."

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