How could I say no?
The Academy of Our Lady of Peace, a 135-year-old girls’ Catholic high school in San Diego, was hosting a group of successful women in panel discussions and keynote addresses. Organizers asked me to write about the experience.
The day was a welcoming alternative to the usual high school career day involving low-level Human Resource professionals sharing information on their company from one of 30 some booths. Actionable life strategies can only emerge from a vision, and the women speakers provided all the ingredients the students need to forge their vision. Even if that vision only goes so far as what to achieve next year in school to keep all options in college open, having a North Star of sorts helps navigate tumultuous high school years and hormones.
I hated the rules and uniforms of my own all girls’ high school education. But I have much to thank for this environment during my younger years when I was forming my identity. (Observing Our Lady of Peace students, it appears the same uniform company is in business; but the skirts are shorter today, and sneakers have replaced my generation’s saddle shoes. And 40% of Our Lady of Peace graduates pursue STEM degrees; in my era, most women became nurses, housewives, secretaries, social workers, or teachers.)
Like Our Lady of Peace, my school also expected its students to attend a four-year college, an accomplishment for the minority of women in my early-Baby-Boomer cohort. When I studied business at Penn State and economics at MIT, one of the few women in my classes, it never dawned on me to be anything but the best student I would be. “Fitting in with the boys” was not on my radar. A girls’ education provided me with that mentality.
Unlike me, entering a male field and working with mostly men for most of my career, female students today have a multitude of female models to follow, including the 23 invited powerhouse women. These women spanned years, races, industries, and nationalities. Kristi Jaska, an engineer, joined San Diego’s ViaSat right out of college as employee #6. Today she heads engineering for the $1.4B satellite communications company employing around 3,700 people across the globe. Danielle Dietz-LiVolsi was truly a lost soul earlier in life but got her act together and today is Founder and CEO of NuttZo, a social enterprise producing a healthy premium nut butter. (NuttZo’s profits help fund Project Left Behind, a non-profit assists orphanages in Nepal, India, and Peru.) Biomedical researchers, physicians, entertainers, a chef, and the CEO of a defense industry start-up, among others, shared their advice.
Yes, there were the usual take-away messages for the young women:
- You are the only you in the world, so realize your worth.
- Self-worth is an internal journey, not the result of awards and wealth.
- Work hard.
- Don’t get hung up in disappointments – they are part of any career. Actions matter more than intentions.
- Take risks and try lots of things because one accidental exposure often lights your path in life.
- Keep learning – curiosity is a lifetime characteristic.
- Focus on problems you want to solve – not the role you want to have.
- Ignore the jerks in your way.
These statements are all lessons it helps me to recall even towards the end of a career!
My job was to help capture the experience of listening to 23 remarkable women who have carved out rewarding professional and personal lives for themselves. Most of them were not the prettiest or the smartest or most popular girl in their high school crowd. This fact, alone, sent an important message to the students. These women had something more special: the ability to be self-driven and resilient. They have also paid it forward, in part by honestly sharing their stories – the accolades and the messiness – with tomorrow’s leader.
How could I say no? How can you, when asked to mentor or share your story as a role model?