I was never quite the activist type. Growing up as an immigrant in a single-parent household, I faced challenges that required all of my attention if I was to achieve something greater than my circumstances—or at least something more. It wasn’t until college that I found the spark that would lead me to dedicate my time to battling the social constructs that can hold people back from living their lives to the fullest. That spark was a single question someone asked me when I got into college, seemingly against the odds of my upbringing: “Why you?”
As I entered high school, I was on the wrong path. I was hanging with the “tough” crew, rocking that J-lo look (yes, lip liner and all) and was a lackluster student. My mother worked long hours and was still learning English; so when it came to choosing my high school courses, my middle school teachers automatically placed me in the lowest academic track, typically reserved for lower-income minority students who barely made it to graduation.
Thankfully a young, spunky history teacher looked past my disinterested façade and saw that deep down, I had potential. She convinced the school to give me a chance at regular and advanced track classes. Four years later, I graduated in the top five percent of my class. I am forever grateful to her for being the first person to pivot me towards a life of opportunity that eventually led to profound educational experiences at Bryn Mawr and Wharton. Thank you, Ms. Dunne.
I take credit for the hard work that I put into my achievements. I started trying to teach myself years ago to stop giving so much of it to luck, the circumstances, other people, and countless external factors. It is a constant battle to own my success—something I know I struggle with partly because of being a woman in this world. But I want to take this opportunity to honor those who worked hard for me, those who took the time to think a little bit more about me, and those who changed my life through their actions and words. This kind of impact on a life is profound. There is no better legacy.
I want to honor them by challenging us all to acknowledge that the access, opportunities, and prestige of our Wharton degrees carry with them the responsibility to support the success of others. While Ms. Dunne was an educator, we don’t need to be to have a similar impact. Nor do we need to wait until we’re occupying that senior executive spot. Many of us will soon assume professional roles where our management style and decision-making will impact our colleagues throughout the organizational chart. It will not be obvious, but many of our future colleagues will need our support to ensure that the social constructs which impact each and every individual in this world don’t limit their opportunities for success. They’ll need us to be their Ms. Dunne.
So what does that mean? It means recognizing the opportunity you have in building this inclusive world. It means understanding your own biases—we all have them—and checking yourself when you find that you are advocating primarily for those who look or think like you, or the typical successful type. It means creating an organizational culture where people will feel supported enough to have wildly successful professional and personal lives. These tools are not in the Wharton curriculum and will not automatically appear in your list of to-dos at work. I urge you to seek out this learning and to make it part of your business education.
Why me? Because one person looked beyond the likeness of a lackluster teenager. They saw the spark of potential in me, coached me to see and use that potential, and encouraged others to do the same. This changed the course of my life.
Why should we as Wharton students be in the business of helping others make it? Because one of the greatest traits of leadership is unlocking the potential of others. Because we are all here individually thanks to at least one person who helped unlock the potential in us.