We all know our classmates at Wharton are exceptional, talented, and diverse in both thought and background. It is a true gift, however, when a truly inspirational peer steps forward to share stories of moving determination and resilience. In his Peer Perspectives on Leadership lecture this past Wednesday, Charles de Villaines addressed a packed classroom of his peers and shared how he overcame seemingly insurmountable hurdles to thrive, lead, and achieve.
Growing up in France and the United Kingdom, Charles lived a self-proclaimed fortunate childhood. It wasn’t until age eighteen, during a vacation with friends, that Charles faced his true challenge. After a typical night out, Charles awoke in the local hospital in pure darkness – when he asked the nurse to turn on the lights, she informed him he had just awoken from a five week coma and was now completely blind.
Charles deftly shared the moments of extreme sorrow immediately following his accident, in contrast to the attitude he was forced to adopt to focus only on the present. He even surprised himself with how “happy and serene” he could be in the simple pleasures of daily life, such as having lunch with his grandparents.
Navigating his new life was challenging. For example, Charles has faced discrimination from a world that may have not been quite ready for such a determined disabled person. Teachers suggested his desire to work in investment banking was too ambitious, and instead recommended a vocational path towards piano tuning or massage therapy. Institutions of higher education were resistant to alter the required examinations to accommodate his application. While at Wharton, Charles has co-founded Scribe, a software company that provides assistive technology for the hearing impaired. He admits he has not met many other people like him in the workplace or at Wharton – and hopes that his work can help change that. Throughout his talk, Charles made clear that he didn’t have any superhuman determination in getting through this drastic change in his life. Instead, he chose what he perceived as the only good option—continuing, one day at a time, to strive towards a full life and preserving the future he had always imagined for himself. He has applied that attitude to everything from his professional goals to his favorite pastimes, such as snowboarding and even going on a snowmobiling excursion in the Arctic Circle.
Charles provided some key insights to the audience including: 1) the concept of full self-reliance is an arrogant illusion, 2) the power of absolute trust in others, and 3) to never let society or any individual define who you are. With equal parts humility and humor, Charles explained that his ambition alone could never explain his ability to achieve. He also made it clear that he owed so much to the support of his friends and family and believes that no individual can claim full self-reliance. This concept serves as a powerful reminder to us all that success is as much a product of our support systems than any individual alone. Many times, Charles reinforced what he has learned about the power of building deep and trusting relationships with others. This trust is a gift – so pure and absolute that it is symmetrical.
Despite overcoming incredible challenges these past fifteen years, Charles’s outlook on life is refreshing and often humorous. In this life, he has chosen to address obstacles with determination – an attitude that is truly inspiring.
A video recording of Charles’s lecture is available on Spike: https://spike.wharton.upenn.edu/media/index.cfm?method=read&video_id=39777
If you are interested in nominating a classmate with a compelling story to speak for the Peer Perspectives on Leadership series, please contact Matt Deitch, (WG’15) at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, like our Facebook page (Wharton Peer Perspectives on Leadership) to stay up-to-date on upcoming presentations!