February 22, 2017
March is National Women’s History Month. As part of an ongoing series to celebrate the women who represent many diverse backgrounds, consistently challenge the status quo and break barriers in an effort to promote equality, we are spotlighting and celebrating women who have made a mark on their respective fields.
When I think back on the people who have most impacted my life and career, a handful of former professors, supervisors and coworkers come to mind. In the years following college, I was fortunate enough to have been mentored by a number of talented women who gave me the confidence and skills I needed to transform from a shy and sort-of-lost 21-year-old into a quiet (but much more confident!) professional.
But while professional skills are an incredibly important part of being successful in any industry, the skills I learned much earlier hold just as much, or even more, value than those I learned later in life.
I come from a long line of strong, hardworking women. My mother was point guard on the first-ever team to compete in and win the South Dakota State High School Basketball Tournament when they opened it up to women in 1975, and was recently inducted into her college’s basketball Hall of Fame. She was also a beloved second grade teacher, and should probably achieve sainthood for putting up with 8-year-olds for more than 35 years. My maternal grandmother graduated from college before raising eight children in rural South Dakota, and to this date is still one of the sharpest and funniest women I have ever met. And although my paternal grandma Barb passed away when I was still young, I was lucky enough to have her as an example of strength, independence and good humor throughout my childhood.
In addition to being directly responsible for my existence, these three women taught me a thing or two about how to take on the world. Here are a few of the ways they helped me grow not only personally, but also in my career:
Compete hard, but lose gracefully
My mom was a crazy talented athlete and taught me a lot about competition. I was raised to work hard and have high expectations for myself, but I was also taught to be a good sport and take criticism. While other parents tried to live out their sports fantasies through their children, my mom encouraged my brother and me, but let us chart our own course. Through her example I quickly learned I can’t be the best at everything — a lesson that is invaluable when you’re an intern and have no idea what you’re doing. I still have no idea what I’m doing some days, but that’s when the hard work needs to kick in. And I know I get a lot of that from my mom.
Gender does not define you
While I don’t think my mom was trying to make a feminist statement when she enrolled me in tee ball during elementary school, it’s not lost on me that I spent my early years playing in sports leagues that were 80 percent male. I grew up watching my mom and grandma Barb hunt, fish and play sports right alongside my dad and grandpa, an example I didn’t fully appreciate until I was older. While gender equality has surely made strides since I was a child, I feel grateful I had women in my life to set a strong example that I was no different from my male classmates, and could become whatever I set my mind to. In my case, that was not a hunter. Sorry, Mom and Grandma.
Speak your mind
Both of my grandmothers grew up in rural America in an age when I can only imagine women were expected to be seen but not heard. Yet, neither were ever shy to share their opinion. My grandma Barb was always quick to speak her mind, and had a very dry wit about her. And at 88, my grandma Pauline is probably more up on the current political scene than the majority of the country, and is more than happy to share her thoughts with whomever might listen. Now, more than ever, having an opinion is important, and I appreciate that I was able to grow up around women who had a whole lot of them.
As a kid, I don’t think I ever saw either of my grandmothers watch TV. Whether they were mowing the lawn, doing crossword puzzles or sewing something, they always seemed to be busy. My grandma Pauline has outfitted her retirement home with all new, handmade curtains for every holiday — she even became so useful that the staff gave her a free sewing room. My mother, who is currently two years into retirement, is so busy making crafts that she basically has a second career. Even if I didn’t inherit their craftiness, I definitely inherited some of their creativity and restlessness. So, apologies to my coworkers for all the 6 a.m. emails. It’s my mom’s fault.