As you may know, March is Women's History Month and the theme for this year (2012) is "Women's Education -- Women's Empowerment": a topic that is near and dear to my heart and my wallet. I owe everything to getting a good education, but the path to getting it wasn't easy.
Both sides of my family came to the U.S. from Italy -- my dad's great-grandparents came in the late 1890s and my mom's parents emigrated in the 1920s. Both of my grandmothers worked -- one by choice and the other by necessity (my Chietti grandfather died prematurely and there were seven young children to raise).
To be honest, though, education wasn't emphasized and they had humble ambitions for the girls in the family -- bookkeepers or secretaries or "salesgirls." In fact, my mother and my godmother were pulled out of high school to work full-time just to help put food on the table. Fortunately, they made education a priority for us.
When I got to college, I took an elective course in geology and decided that's what I wanted to study. So, I went to see a professor in the geology department. He took one look at me and said, "Why should I bother with you? You are fat and Italian, all you are going to do after you graduate is get married, have babies, make meatballs, and get even fatter!" After I had a good cry, I took the only recourse available: I focused on my GPA, earned an A average, and did not give up until he let me join the department. And, four years later, I became the first Chietti to earn a college degree. By the way, many years later and after gaining and losing 100+ pounds, I saw that professor at a reunion and the first thing he said was, "So I see that you're still fat." Without missing a beat, I replied, "And you haven't changed a bit either," and walked away with a big smile on my face.
That professor didn't teach me much about geology in the end, but he did teach me something valuable: no one has the right to define me but me. Did I still have insecurities? You bet, especially when I changed careers and arrived on Wall Street 18 years ago with an MBA from the "School of Hard Knocks" sitting amid the best of the Ivy League. By then, though, I learned how to manage those inner doubts and build a strong personal brand.
Beyond me, the women and girls in my family are succeeding in ways -- from academics to athletics to careers -- my grandmothers couldn't imagine. We run both households and businesses; we are bankers and lawyers, nurse anesthetists and marketers, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs.
I make it a priority to share my story with women and girls I interact with through my various professional and charitable efforts. Putting my time, money and connections to work to help empower and propel others forward is one of my highest priorities. I think of it not only as a reward for the hard knocks I endured but also a duty, as a leader, to create a pipeline of emerging female talent critical for achieving balanced leadership in all sectors of society in one generation.
How has education empowered you and the women and girls in your family? What are you doing to empower yourself and others? We all have something to teach and something to learn. So, please do share your wisdom with us.
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