Intrepid Woman: Bonnie St. John, Former Director for Human Capital Issues at the White House National Economic Council, Paralympic Champion

BonnieStJohnBy Hua Wang (Kansas City)

“I remember the moment when this idea was planted in me,” says Bonnie St. John, Former Director for Human Capital Issues at the White House National Economic Council and Paralympic Champion. “When I was ten, my mom brought home a picture of a silhouette of an amputee on skis. The picture had the words, if I can do this, I can do anything.”

St. John said her initial reaction was: “Ski?! It doesn’t snow in San Diego! Black people don’t like cold weather!” But at that moment, her mother planted the seed without knowing how it would work. She was “a single mother who had more time left at the end of the month than money. But she knew how to dream and believe in things that don’t seem possible,” she explained. That crazy vision propelled Bonnie to fundraise, go to Denver and Vermont, find coaches, ski in the Paralympics and overcome all the subsequent challenges to win bronze and silver medals at the 1984 Winter Paralympics.

In addition to her multiple medals, St. John has led a distinguished career, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, and winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. After earning her master’s degree in economics, she joined the Clinton administration as Director of the White House National Economic Council. Today, she explained, she is CEO of her own company Courageous Spirit. She has also published three books, and has another due out in April which she wrote with her daughter: How Great Women Lead: A Mother-Daughter Adventure into the Lives of Women Shaping the World.

“Sometimes you have to break through all the barriers and figuratively build your own runway,” she said.

Getting Up Faster and Charting Your Own Path

Considering the fact that women receive the majority of college degrees and that women are well represented in entry and mid-level positions, it is easy to think all the challenges are over and that women can do anything they want. However, a benchmarking study by the White House Project showed that women account for only 18% of our top leaders. How do you provide role models for the next generation of women and help close the gap?

Research shows that 62% of Gen Y women don’t want the high-powered, extreme hour careers that their mothers had. Gen Y women are more educated, face less discrimination and have more opportunities than ever before, but many of them are saying that they don’t want the top jobs and they don’t want to break through the barriers. “The challenge moving forward,” says Bonnie, “is to help women find their own way and chart their own paths.”

St. John was once featured on a Starbucks cup, with the following quote: “I was ahead in the slalom. But in the second run, everyone fell on a dangerous spot. I was beaten by a woman who got up faster than I did. I learned that people fall down, winners get up, and gold medal winners just get up faster.”

She continued, “We all have our share of obstacles. I was always falling down and getting up. I lost my leg at age five and I overcame abuse as a child. My faith is really important to me and has helped me get up in tough times. I choose to stay positive and focus on joy.”

“We have so much pressure to do what is right now and not what is right,” she explained when asked about her experiences as an economic advisor to the White House. “You focus on the next election or the results for the quarterly report. It is so hard for leaders to make decisions that are right ten years from now.”

Blending Work and Life

As for chasing the elusive work-life balance, Bonnie prefers to focus on “blending” instead of “balancing.”

“For example, I chose to write the leadership book with my daughter. Otherwise, the book would have taken a lot of my time away from her. It ended up being a phenomenal experience that brought us closer as opposed to being further apart.”

As for managing work/life balance in a challenging career, she said “You can do it on your own terms. My friend made partner [at her firm] not by working long hours but by being the best in her field and getting publicity. Her firm was hesitant about making her partner given her hours, but when other firms wanted to make her partner, her firm decided to promote her.”

As for her parting message, St. John thinks it is important for everyone to “help the next generation of women to redefine, embrace, and own leadership. It is important for women to share leadership experiences with men because we do bring a different perspective. We must be ourselves and not try to be men.”

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    This blog is so refreshing. I’ve been struggling with a “new feminist” and her posse for the last few days and was feeling a little down about the way some women in the world perceive other women and themselves.

    I hope I did justice to women like you:

    You really inspired me!