Lately my friends and I have been talking about how people succeed, wondering why some are more successful than others despite comparable intellectual advantages or innate talents. Most of us have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and we’ve been comparing his case studies to our personal experience and pondering the implications.
Our Own Stories, And Belated Thanks
We’re been telling stories about how and when we got our lucky break, describing the people or events that were transformative in our lives. There’s a common thread to these stories: a handful of people who made a huge difference at a key moment in our lives. (What goes unsaid in these stories is that we were all lucky enough to grow up in homes that valued education and hard work, with parents who stayed involved and nudged or prodded us along the way.)
At some point in our stories we also acknowledge, with chagrin, that we’ve failed to reach out and say thanks to those early teachers and mentors for their pivotal contributions when we were growing up.
So here are my long overdue thanks to some key people at the early formative stages of my life. (And yes, of course, my parents are included but not described in this list.)
I tell these stories not to brag, but to reinforce one of the core messages from Outliers, that all highly successful people have benefited from “a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.” Here’s my community of people who made a big difference.
My high school French teacher. A Fulbright scholar and a demanding teacher who pushed her students to work hard, think critically, express ourselves clearly in a foreign language, and learn to appreciate other people’s cultural origins and frames of reference.
Thanks to her teachings and the high standards she set, college was a breeze. She was so demanding that most kids dropped her class after their first year, leaving me with only 4 and then 2 other fellow students in my last 2 classes with her.
Thanks in large part to Miss Scopoletti, I was able to pass the entrance exam to the Sorbonne while on an exchange program from Mount Holyoke. Passing the entrance exam to the Sorbonne is very challenging for American public high school graduates who have never lived in France or gone through foreign language immersion programs. Most Americans who get accepted there have a French parent or have lived awhile in France.
The experience of living in another country and attending a top-notch French university so far from home taught me that the norms and mental models I’d grown up with in New England were not the only – or even necessarily the best — alternative. I had to cast aside my provincialism.
Early on my high school guidance counselor recognized that Adrienne’s parents and mine would aim low, steering us toward “affordable colleges” that were not challenging enough. (Adrienne and I would later graduate as the top 2 students from our high school.) Mr. LaPore wanted us to get into college under early admissions programs, so we’d get first crack at good scholarships.
Mr. LaPore was so convinced we could do better than our parents’ aspirations that he drove us around New England on several college campus tours, getting us excused from school for that purpose. He ensured we were introduced to Admissions Officers at key Ivy League and other leading private colleges.
Mr. LaPore recognized that our parents did not understand the secrets of getting financial aid, and were unable to take time away from work to drive us to college campuses for admission tours. Mr. LaPore also pushed us to attend recruiting lunches and teas hosted by local alums of leading schools and universities in New England.
Thanks to his intervention, both Adrienne and I were able to attend Ivy League schools on full scholarships, instead of the state teachers’ colleges our parents had in mind. She went to Brown, I went to Mount Holyoke. She became a doctor.
A successful entrepreneur, business innovator and an early angel investor in New England, Robert McCray “relished the chance to bet on people.” He was the CEO of a small, forward-thinking manufacturing concern that employed me during summer vacations and college breaks. His company provided my first job, my first lucky break, and a key source of income to supplement my scholarship over a 4‑year period. (And my first real-world exposure to computers in business.)
When I was 16, I rode my bike to Worcester Controls to apply for a summer job at my father’s urging. (I didn’t want to flip hamburgers.) The head of HR saw me ride up to the front door on my bike, was charmed by the novelty of it, administered an IQ and aptitude test, and hired me on the spot as a clerk for the summer. (He also advised that it was not good practice to ride a bike to work in a mini-skirt, given a factory environment that was largely all-male.)
He later introduced me to the CEO, Bob McCray. Between them, they ensured I always had a job when on break from college, with a variety of job experiences. They were my first professional sponsors.
I was the only female college student they employed at that time. Over the next 4 years, the company ensured I got to experience multiple departments and job functions: from assembly line manufacturing, to inside sales, an entry-level drafting role in product engineering (revising basic diagrams and blueprints), plus a variety of secretarial and administrative roles (including a relief switchboard operator). At the time I was too naïve to realize they were preparing me for an eventual management training program, as their first female management trainee, starting from the ground floor.
When Bob heard I was heading to Middlebury for a PhD program right after college, he phoned me two weeks before graduation to say I was “copping out” and “taking the easy path” (fighting words in those days!). Instead he challenged me to spend a year working in the real world, at his company, rather than dive straight into academia. It was tough love, because it meant risking my fellowship and an all-expenses-paid PhD program at a prestigious school.
At a time when most execs placed women solely into clerical or secretarial roles, Bob found me an entry-level marketing role in his company and provided key mentoring opportunities. He taught me many basic lessons about business, such as how to profile the ideal customer, the benefits of focus, and competing to win. Had it not been for Bob, I might well have ended up in the ivory tower as planned.
When it was time to move to Hanover, New Hampshire, where my fiancé was enrolled in a doctoral program in ecology, my boss called his buddies from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. He wanted to help me uncover job opportunities that would not otherwise be available to a lowly student wife. (He knew enough about colleges’ employment practices to know I’d need a break.)
I didn’t interact all that often with Bob McCray, my role was way too junior to afford frequent encounters. But I was aware that he was paying attention behind the scenes, kind of like a guardian angel at work.
The New York Times wrote a wonderful tribute article to Bob, describing him as the early archetype of New England angels (in the sense of angel investors). They also described his amazing skill at matching people to opportunities. I am profoundly grateful to his intervention just before graduation. He made sure I was headed for a career in business.
Tom hired me to work for him at Dartmouth’s Kiewit Computer Center, based on a phone call from my boss, a fellow Tuck B‑School alum, that had taken place several months before I arrived in Hanover.
Tom had heard that I was moving to Hanover and would be looking for a job. He called soon after to ask if I’d be interested in applying for a staff job as the manager of customer service for Dartmouth’s computer center. I laughingly declined, saying my 14 hours of Fortran programming experience in college didn’t qualify me for such a position.
Months later I was in Hanover looking for a job, and was discouraged to learn that most of what was available to student wives was selling shoes – unrewarding retail jobs – or lowly secretarial positions. Dartmouth, like many top-notch schools with graduate programs, enjoyed a captive labor pool of highly educated spouses who had only limited job opportunities in a college town. I was discovering that my former glamorous marketing job was irrelevant in a college town that had a formulaic notions of how to employ student wives.
One day after yet another discouraging set of job interviews, I was heading back to the biology lab to meet my fiancé. It was a long walk, I had to find a restroom, and noticed the Kiewit Computer Center en route to the lab. I stopped in, happened to pass Tom Byrne’s office as I was leaving Kiewit, remembered his phone call several months earlier, and stuck my head into his office to introduce myself in person. (This sounds like an Outlier story, doesn’t it?)
Tom remembered me, noted that the computer center editor had resigned her position earlier that day, and offered me her job on the spot. I accepted.
And that was my lucky break into the emerging world of computers and digital communications. Thanks to my job at Kiewit, I was one of the first people on the planet to use computer-based publishing. (This became crucial to my job 10 years later at Apple.)
Thanks to my teachers and mentors along the way, I’ve been blessed with many opportunities, often in the early days of an industry’s emergence.
So, thanks for all your contributions! Since then I’ve tried to do my part, and “pay it forward,” helping key individuals in the next generation to find their calling.
I’m grateful to my community, the people who made it possible.