Last month, I stood on stage in the auditorium at Harvard Business School for a quick photo with the women of the Program for Leadership Development (PLD 29). We made up less than a half of a cohort of professionals who had just finished a six-month educational journey together that transformed the way I view business and leadership. I looked around and realized how fortunate I am to have known many great women who have influenced my career and life. As the ceremony began, I thought about a very special woman, my grandmother.
As a small child, it was obvious to me that my grandmother was different. She was a widow and happily independent. I never saw her in an apron, sneakers or even jeans. Grandmother didn't cook or do housework. She was a bit of an enigma to me.
Grandma would breeze into our small home to spend the weekend with my large family every couple of months. At dinnertime, she would order take-out and we’d sit around the table talking about politics, religion, her childhood, the places she’d traveled, and her work. I was enthralled by her with her great mind and all the interesting things she had done in her life. She lived the kind of life that I wanted to live.
At that time in the early 1980’s, only about 3% of engineers were female.
My grandmother married my grandfather when she was still a teenager. A few years later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Vanderbilt University. Unlike many women of that time, she worked while her five children were little and became an executive in her firm. She loved her job at a small defense contractor, where she designed electrical equipment used by NASA. At that time in the early 1980’s, only about 3% of engineers were female. I didn't know it at the time, but Grandmother was a pioneer in her field who opened the door for many others to follow.
During her visits, Grandmother always pulled me aside to chat after dinner. I think she probably did this with all my sisters and my brother, but these talks always made me feel special. As a middle child, I needed that special time and looked forward to her visits and our talks. I was a hyper, crazy kid who had a mind of her own. I got into trouble a lot. We talked about my family, dance class, my fights with the neighborhood boys and what I was learning about in school. She was very generous with sage, heartfelt advice and words of wisdom that always seemed spot-on.
One summer night, when I was about eleven years old, as Grandmother and I sat on my parent’s green chenille sofa that didn’t exactly match our orange shag carpeting, we talked about growing up. She asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and gave me one piece of advice that I remembered for the rest of my life. That night she told me: “go to college and make a difference in the world.” These words stuck in my head and were pivotal in shaping my future.
She provided a validation for me – I loved school and learning. Until that conversation with my grandmother, I never told anyone that I didn’t want to only raise children, like most of the women in my family. That night, I told grandmother about how I thought about going to college and also having a career, like her. She smiled and said, “then that’s what you’ll do.”
And she was right. I found a way to pay for college and build the life I envisioned. Since then, I have earned multiple degrees and have achieved a respectable level of professional success. Throughout the up’s and down’s in my life, my education has enabled me to support my family, to be independent and happy, and to achieve fulfillment.
If my grandmother hadn’t made those weekend trips to my family home to spend time with me, I can’t help but wonder what I may have done with my life or if I would have experienced this fulfillment. She helped me to understand that I could do anything. And this is something that every child needs to know.
My grandmother died a few years ago. I often think about her and about the impact she's had on me and my career. To honor my grandmother’s legacy, I make it a priority to encourage others to keep learning and growing and to constantly challenge themselves. This is how I’ll continue to follow in her footsteps. And someday in the (hopefully distant) future, I'll visit with my grandchildren and we'll sit on the sofa and have chats, and I'll try to inspire them as well. Maybe they'll grow up and do the same.
As I sat in that huge, beautiful auditorium, I looked at the words on the giant screen and smiled. “The Mission of Harvard Business School is to Educate Leaders Who Make a Difference in the World.” I knew Grandmother was also smiling that morning, wherever she was. I quietly said to myself “thank you, Grandmother.”