Bonnie St. John is an Olympic medalist, Rhodes scholar, and best-selling author, but the biggest role in her life right now is mom to her 17-year-old daughter, Darcy Deane, a junior at High School North. And now these two dynamic women who share bloodlines but different generational perspectives have teamed up to write a new book gleaning leadership insights from some of the most accomplished and heroic women in the world today.
“How Women Lead” is based on heart-to-heart conversations with 20 extraordinary women including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and three leaders with connections to Princeton University –– Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America; Lisa P. Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Denise Dresser, a Mexican political analyst, activist, and professor.
St. John and Deane traveled around the world to get the stories of these women and find out what makes them tick. Now the authors are bringing their own stories of their extraordinary adventures to Princeton.
How Great Women Lead: A Mother-Daughter Adventure into the Lives of Women Shaping the World, will be held at Princeton University’s Carl Fields Center, 58 Prospect Avenue, on Saturday, April 14, from 4 to 6 p.m. The event is open to the public. RSVP to 866-592-1488. The mother-daughter duo also appear on the Today show on Thursday, April 19. Visit www.howgreatwomenlead.com for more information.
Any teenage daughter and mother can relate to the issues of finding shared time and common ground, which is why this project became so close to St John’s heart as well as her daughter’s.
I talked to mother and daughter by telephone; thanks to the miracle of modern technology, to Deane who was in San Diego on spring break visiting her father, Grant Deane, a physicist at UC San Diego, and to St. John, who was traveling to the Catskills before Easter weekend.
“It definitely brought us closer since we had lots of time together we wouldn’t otherwise have had,” says Deane. “We had long road trips; we flew to places like Nicaragua and England, and we spent lots of time thinking of the questions together and writing. At the beginning of the project, I didn’t have much of a concept of leadership or seeing myself as a leader. My mom has always been a huge source of inspiration but I’d never had the opportunity up close and personal to see her leadership in action. Writing this book, I began to see myself as a leader and my mom as well. I learned a lot from my mom. Seeing her perseverance and ability to push through things and keep us motivated — I was so in awe of what was going on.”
St. John admits that researching the book required a skilled juggling act where sometimes she felt like she didn’t know if she could keep the balls in the air. In fact, there is a chapter in the book called “Truancy” based on the challenges she faced helping her daughter balance her work as an honors student at High School North while trotting around the globe.
“There was the challenge of Darcy taking a full load of honors classes,” says St. John. “How do you get the work done? How do you make up the work in math and science? As a mother I felt a little bit bad. Darcy was meeting all these great people, but I was making it impossible for her to get As in school. There were some breakdowns in the middle of sophomore year; she was getting up at 4:30, 5 in the morning to make up work, but she got through it and it was definitely worth it.”
Helping her daughter learn to overcome challenge of all kinds is something St. John literally was born to do. The story of the woman named by NBC News as “one of the five most inspiring women in America” has been told many times on television and in the newspapers. She grew up in San Diego. Her father left the family before she was born, and she started life with a condition that forced her to have her right leg amputated above the knee when she was 5 years old.
But her mother, an English teacher and later a high school principal, planted a positive attitude in her daughter, and one day brought home a brochure about skiing that would change her life. As St. John has said, “I mean, here I was a black girl living in San Diego who only had one leg. I wasn’t exactly a star candidate to become a skier.”
And yet, she did, in a very big way, winning a silver and two bronze medals in ski racing in the 1984 Paralympics in Austria, becoming the first African-American to do so. That can do attitude also got her through Harvard University with honors and won her a prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. She was appointed to the White House Economic Council and has become a highly sought motivational speaker and author.
Even so, when she and her daughter started their journey with this new book, they faced ups and downs and even some rejections from interview prospects.
“We got a no from Sally Ride (the astronaut) and when we first went to interview Condoleezza Rice, she had had a death in the family so we had to try again later,” recalls St. John. “We had some women who said yes and then things didn’t work out because an emergency would come up. We had some discouragement in the beginning but that was all part of the learning curve for Darcy. It was also great for me doing that part of the process together. She’s been listening to me since she was born, and now she’s looking beyond me so it was great to get life advice from other people.”
St. John explains that she and her daughter sent out queries to a list of people they knew for feedback on who they should include in their book. They got so many responses they made a spreadsheet and then parsed their list even further to include women from different fields, ethnicities, and ages.
“People were really passionate out this project,” says St. John. “It was humbling and inspiring to see how many amazing women there are. It’s an exciting time when there’s a burgeoning of women in leadership, but at the same time women are still breaking new ground in many areas and there are still a lot of firsts.”
Deane says the most life-changing encounter for her was her conversation with Condoleezza Rice. “Before then I didn’t really have a concept of myself as a leader. Talking to all these women, I formed a better sense of the different kinds of leadership. Dr. Rice helped me realize that language and culture are important skills for people in the future and she got me interested in studying linguistic anthropology as a way of understanding people and cultures.”
Her mother chimes in with this: “Before her conversation with Rice, Darcy thought she would become an academic, but that conversation changed how she viewed her own place in the world. In addition to her studies at High School North, she also takes courses online through Stanford, and she was inspired to start a virtual global team for Model United Nations. One of the key questions for our interviewees was ‘What kind of training do you think the leader of the future needs?’ The answers Darcy got from Rice helped point her in a direction she might not have considered.”
St. John homeschooled her daughter through elementary school, and then sent her to Dalton Middle School, a private school in Manhattan. But when the time came for high school, she researched the possibilities and then chose to move to Plainsboro for the opportunities offered by WW-P High School North. Since the fall of 2009, mother and daughter have made their home in the Forrestal Village area of Plainsboro.
“It’s great living here,” says Deane. “I have a lot of friends who have a strong work ethic in academics and there’s competition but in a healthy way. The diversity is fabulous. I’ve got friends who are Palestinian, part Cuban, Trinidadian, or born in China and India. I’m taking AP classes in world history, statistics, and language and composition, and I’m taking Chinese and Spanish. I love it.”
What’s next for this mother-daughter team? In addition to book signings and speaking engagements, they are committed to helping with a summer leadership program at Princeton University this year for minority students. Next year they are planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for a fundraiser for Opportunity International, a nonprofit that helps break the cycle of poverty in the developing world by providing microfinance loans, savings, insurance, and training. Planning to join them is Allen Haines, St. John’s fiance, who helped write the book and is featured throughout. He has a background in film and television.
“We met because he was working on a pilot for a new TV show, directing and producing, and I was a guest,” explains St. John. And in a display of family unity, Darcy’s father, is slated to join them on the fundraising trip.
St. John and her daughter concur that writing the book was a huge labor of love, a learning curve for both, and according to St. John, “We could easily do 20 more; there are just so many amazing women out there. I also think dads care a lot. Dads say I want to get this book for my daughter. It engages teens and dads. Men understand they may work for a woman some day, and women need to develop as leaders. I think women’s leadership is everybody’s issue.”
She also has the highest praise for her daughter. “Watching Darcy rise to the occasion by researching, interviewing, looking these extraordinary women eye to eye with confidence, having to do these kinds of interviews to articulate what she’s learned, watching her go through this process is awe-inspiring. I hope this project inspires other mother-daughters to do the same thing.”
How Women Lead
Condoleezza Rice, former United States Secretary of State, professor at Stanford University
“Principally, leadership is about inspiring people to work toward a common goal. I use the word ‘inspiring’ because I think it’s no longer possible to think of leaders who simply command people to do things. We’re long past that as a culture, and as a society. People just don’t respond very well to command leadership any longer. Even in the most command-like orientation, for instance, the military, you’ll find that leaders can command, but the best leaders are those who also inspire.”
Sharon Allen, first woman chairman of the board of Deloitte, LLP
“The leadership style that has worked for me, because it’s natural for me, is a very direct, very inclusive and welcoming style. I like to look someone in the eye, be very present, and have a direct conversation. In today’s world, not being in the moment really gets in the way. I see far too many leaders who are worried more about the next meeting than the one they’re in. They’re worried about the next interaction more than the one that they are currently having.
Some leaders have their Blackberry sitting next to them and are constantly checking it while they are talking to you. That isn’t my style. If you look at the leaders you admire most, I think you’ll see that they are very present with people.”
Cathy Sarubbi, homemaker, mother of five.
“I’m not just the mother of my children. I’ve found that I’m their PR person, personal assistant, and agent all wrapped into one. I’m their ‘Momager’ — Mom plus Manager. That’s what it comes down to. I know I take it way too seriously. I should chill, but I feel like this is an investment. If I do it right the first 20 years, they’re not on my couch for the next 30, you know? So this is my full-time job from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. There’s school, but then there is homework, football practice, softball clinic, etc. I’m their personal trainer, tutor, and driver.
My husband gets done with his workday, and asks, ‘Where are you?’ I tell him, ‘I’m still working.’”