Typically, I blog advice covering the spectrum of our financial lives. Today, however, I’d like to tell a fascinating story of a client’s journey to the top of Corporate America. When she first came to us seeking out our expertise, I knew that she was an impressive lady, and I was excited to work with her. It wasn’t until I first heard her story over dinner, I realized, “Wow, her story is interesting, inspiring, and impressive. Others should hear this story.” As a father of two amazing daughters, I wanted to write this piece for them.
For confidentiality, I will name my client Karen Walker (after my wife’s favorite television secretary from Will & Grace). Karen’s story begins in high school. Just to be with her friends, she attended college prep classes. Although Karen had no intention of going to college (she hated school). Shortly after graduating in 1983, she started working in insurance. After that, she moved on to MBNA in their collections department. This was Karen’s entre into the corporate world. She worked there for a few years, until she became pregnant with her first child.
Around this time, unfortunately, Karen’s life went into a nose dive. She was having her first child and was in a rocky marriage. To top it off, her employer wasn’t family friendly. When faced with this adversity, Karen went through a renaissance. She quit her job, got divorced, and choose to raise her child on her own. A friend, who worked for DuPont, encouraged Karen to apply for a job. Geographically, it made sense as Karen was a local gal. Her friend spoke to how flexible and family oriented DuPont was. Karen interviewed for over a month; eventually she was hired.
Secretary for no one.
Since Karen had no college degree, she was hired into an entry level position in DuPont’s secretarial center (basically DuPont’s internal temporary secretary program). They would fill in when someone’s secretary went on leave or was sick. This position promised to give the substitutes experience in many different business units in hopes of becoming full time. It wasn’t long until Karen got her first long term assignment: the secretary for visiting Vice Presidents of DuPont.
Karen worked in the DuPont Corporate headquarters building, which had a suite of 12 empty offices reserved for visiting Vice Presidents. When visiting VPs came to town for business, they were provided a temporary office in that suite to use if needed. Karen’s job was to be their personal secretary. She would grab them lunch, make copies, brew coffee, purchase newspapers, and made sure all the offices had pads of paper with sharpened pencils.
Here’s the kicker. Over a 6 month period, she had exactly 4 VPs visit. None of them asked her to do anything. Literally speaking, Karen was a secretary for NO ONE! (Remember this was pre cell phones and internet surfing, so talk about painful!)
Promotion to no one.
Karen eventually got a different secretary position. She was now a secretary to an HR executive. But, this executive traveled 80% of the time. When her boss was in town and at the office, Karen’s main duties consisted of taking the executive’s emails, printing them out, and filing them. (I joked with Karen that she was basically a computer mouse!)
As Karen saw the writing on the wall (the days of individual secretaries were numbered), she knew an evolution was necessary. While her boss was away, Karen started teaching herself IT and PC applications. She was getting quite good and enjoyed learning this relatively new skill. Sadly though, she had no way of applying her new skill set, until one fateful day…
One momentous bathroom trip.
Down the hall, the DuPont HR department started working on a project to upgrade the payroll system. An entire new group moved in and seemed to be having a blast as a fully cohesive team. Karen’s shyness kept her in her part of the office, except for an occasional waive hello or exchange of pleasantries.
Shortly thereafter, things started to take a turn for the better. Karen not only met her soul mate (and got remarried), but she also got her first real break. One day while Karen was freshening up, the women from this HR group invited her to have lunch. Of course Karen jumped at the opportunity. Over lunch, Karen mentioned how she taught herself IT. She even offered to help the new team, if they ever needed an extra hand.
Turns out, they took her up on the offer. Karen worked closely with them during her spare time documenting and testing parts of the new system. She absolutely loved working with this new team.
After 6 months of helping, Karen gave birth to her second child. When she came back after her maternity leave in 1993, her fear was realized. DuPont made the decision that everyone didn’t need an individual secretary. Instead, they opted for department admins. This left Karen without a clear path forward. She checked the internal job boards, but got wind her old HR group was hiring a compensation assistant in the payroll department. They put in a good word for her. The next thing you know, Karen’s path was set.
Time to shine.
Karen, now with two children and a happy marriage, knew this was the opportunity to seize. She worked as hard as she could and got promoted in ’95, ’98, and ’00. Her promotion in 2000 actually saw her responsible for managing an entire HR system. Promotions kept coming until in 2009 when she was told she could go no further without a college degree.
Do you want to guess what this resilient lady did? That’s right; she went to night school to get her degree. It took her six years (while raising two children and working full time), but she did it. Karen graduated with honors, boasting an impressive 3.85 GPA.
Today, Karen is a Corporate IT Program Manager managing multimillion dollar projects with 20+ people reporting to her on a daily basis
What Karen learned through this journey (and what I think is worth sharing for my children) is:
- Life may give you lemons, but it is up to you to make lemonade.
- There is no substitute for hard work and determination.
- You need darkness to appreciate light.
- You can do anything if you put your mind to it.
- We are tougher than we give ourselves credit.
- Be prepared to reinvent yourself.
- If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody will.
- A woman on a mission is something to be admired!
Karen, thank you for allowing me to share your inspiring story with others. You are an absolute inspiration, and I am honored to be able to work with you (and your husband). You rock!