My name is Rita Meyerson. I am a 40-year old single working mom of a wonderful 7 and half-year old boy. Although I did not plan for this path, I am determined to be a great role model and leader for women in front of me, beside me, and behind me.
In my recent application to pursue doctorate work in organization change and leadership at The George Washington University, I opened my personal statement with a quote from John Quincy Adams: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.“ I truly believe this and hope that my story, as humbling as it is to write, inspires you to do more of whatever is your passion to the best of your ability.
Background (Childhood - The Road to Today)
I grew up in an upper middle class Jewish family where the pressure to succeed was high. We lived in an affluent suburb of New York City, Great Neck; however my upbringing was far from traditional.
My mother (born and bred New Yorker) was the second wife of a self-made business man, from the Midwest (25 years her senior). Both extremely competitive, my parents instilled in me a sensibility of hard work and success from a very young age. I cannot think of a time when success – winning – was not of the utmost importance in my family. Whether it was learning the alphabet through hot pink glittery letters in Kindergarten to swim meets in elementary school or a report on Australia in the 4th grade – everything had to be the best!
Diagnosed with Dyslexia in the 1st grade, that definitely was not going to stop my academic pursuit (or my parent's push). I was lucky – my parents could afford the best doctors and tutors to help me develop coping mechanisms that I continue to use today.
And amidst the intense pressure to succeed with real challenges – I found (and still do) a sense of comfort in working extremely hard – rising to the challenge and achieving my goals. And here in lies the conundrum.
I was raised to be a leader – to be a Hillary Clinton. I could do anything I wanted. But then I went to college, The University of Pennsylvania – the Ivy League (the Holy Grail) and for first the time in my life getting married was front and center.
No one ever told me to make marriage and raising children a priority. I can distinctly remember, my friend (who was studying at Wharton at the time) father’s career advice: “Don’t major in finance. As an investment banker you will have no time to date. Accounting is a much better major. It’s the common language of business, and being an accountant will provide you with better balance and more flexibility to date (code for finding a husband).” This advice became pervasive – from Wharton to political science majors on their way to law school. Of course now this makes sense to me – these were women from well-off families, who wanted their daughters highly educated and to have something to “fall back on”, but being a wife and raising a family was most important.
Although, I heard that message – it didn’t resonate with me and my upbringing, so I continued to plow ahead, determined as always. I was pre-med (of course pushed by my parents). My father told me to never depend on a man (likely projecting his own issues). He said, “You are smart and like science, become a pediatrician because you are so good with kids." My mother agreed – but to her, I believe it was the prestige of the letters M.D. that made the career of being a doctor so alluring.
Keep in mind, it was the early 90s. A time heavily foreshadowed by what health care would become today in 2013 – a very different picture. It was a complicated career choice with many opinions swirling college campuses. I later moved into business, after a summer internship at Merrill Lynch and two classes in Wharton’s MBA program. I would be able to combine my love of psychology and explore the many facets and complexities that exist in business and organizations. I was lucky to be guided in this direction. A great fit for me – suiting both my interests and natural talents.
I always had tutors and champions throughout my academic life, because of my learning disability. I went to any extra help classes or teacher after hours that were offered. Not only for the extra credit that would boost my GPA, but I knew the one-on-one help would definitely be beneficial. This is very important. Despite the extreme pressure my parents put on me, I was determined to succeed and I would find the resources to help me achieve my goals. This behavior I developed overtime of seeking out help from the right sources, has ultimately enabled me to prevail.
Professional Section (My "Ah" Moment)
Fast forward, fifteen years later. I am thirty. I have landed my dream job at American Express – working for the closest person I can think of to Hillary Clinton in Corporate America – the head of Human Resources. I was brought on to be the Director of HR Communication following eight successful years in change management and communication consulting at leading global consulting firms – Accenture and TowersWatson, and completing a Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at New York University in record time at twenty two.
Two months into the job, the head of HR, my role model was going to retire and I was going to help through the transition. I felt so defeated – Now what? Have a baby? I was married, no one was interested in my career, my passion to be a leader, and I succumbed to the pressure.
I spent the next ten years debating all the feminist thought leaders – from an in person discussion with Gloria Steinem to living Sylvia Ann Hewitt’s work, On Ramps and Off Ramps and being scared to death by Leslie Bennetts book, The Feminine Mistake.
The “brightest” and who I used to think were the “best”, had "Opted Out". That was my generation. Determined to continue working with a new born at the marathon pace I was used to – I struggled with all of these questions. There were no role models for me to look towards for inspiration. Rather, there was an extreme push for work life/balance, which was not the right message for me and my super achievement-oriented needs. Although, I did not know that at the time, I was just very unhappy, confused, and failing in every aspect of my life.
Personal Section (Building a Better Future)
For me it’s hard to separate the professional and the personal sections, because they are so intertwined and the waters are just so muddy. This struggle ended up costing me my marriage and the hope of having a traditional family with many children.
Today, with the help of wonderful, "Rock Star" mentors (primarily very successful men, believe it or not), I am proudly succeeding. Overcoming incredibly challenging personal circumstances, I re-started my own company, after an early go and stopping out of fear that I would not be able to support my son and I financially, and in January I applied and was accepted to a terrific executive doctorate program in organizational change and leadership at The George Washington University.
I finally feel that I am on the right path for me to be the leader I am and one that women of generations to come need in their corner. I know it’s a lofty goal – but you can tell from my history that doesn’t scare me. Because I now understand, if I surround myself with the RIGHT supporters (mentors and role models) I WILL succeed. Thank you so much for reading my story. I hope that I have I provided you with some inspirational messages and fulfilled my intention of encouraging you to do what you love – I certainly try to do this every day.