The U.S. Army’s first African-American woman major general says her path to success was littered with inaccurate, negative labels placed on her by others that she shook off and used for motivation rather than let them deter her.
“People should not be so quick to label and, if you are on the receiving end, don’t let those labels define you (negatively),” said retired Gen. Marcia Anderson during the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s IceBreaker Luncheon at the Kohl Center on Thursday.
Anderson, as well as Syovata Edari, a Madison chocolatier, and Julia Nepper, one of the youngest Ph.D. recipients in the country, spoke about the courage, passion and tenacious drive it took for them to break all the barriers — self-imposed and otherwise — during their unique paths to success.
A Beloit native, Anderson recalled how she was one of two African-American children in her kindergarten class and spent two years there before she was allowed to advance to first grade. There, she was grouped with all of the slow-learners even though she was an advanced reader.
She said her first experiences with negative perceptions and labels made her mad and determined to prove them wrong during every phase of her life, including a well-decorated 36-year career in the military that she helped make more diverse and inclusive. “Those (early) experiences defined who I am today,” said Anderson, who lives in Verona.
Anderson’s first leadership role in the Army was to manage 12 drill sergeants. On her first day, she heard one of them say, “She’s cute, but can she lead?” After earning her law degree, she said she was often mistaken as the court reporter when her work took her to a courtroom.
A motivated Anderson said she shed the labels by taking calculated risks and accepting tasks that nobody else wanted. “It was never enough just to do them well,” she said. “I had to excel.”
That attitude served her well in the Pentagon where promotions are earned by gaining the trust of higher-ranking officers.
Anderson recalled how her early accomplishments caught the eye of several high-ranking officers and they became her mentors. She said the majority of her mentors were white men who reached their rank by following tried-and-true paths laid out for them by relatives and friends. To their credit, they realized Anderson’s path was uncharted.
“They made it their mission to help me like they were helped,” Anderson said. “They allowed me to excel by allowing me to make mistakes.”
An appreciative Anderson said the key for anyone who is being mentored is not just absorbing information. “It’s about producing” with that information to cement the mentor’s trust, she said.
Edari told attendees at the sold-out luncheon that she had to shut off all the voices of friends, family and others who cast doubt on her decision to set aside a successful career as a trial attorney to start making chocolates. She recalled how those voices grew louder and she had to fight off feelings of embarrassment and her fear of failure as she kept making mistakes learning her craft while investing more time and money into her fledgling business.
“Truth is, if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t trying hard enough,” she said.
Edari persevered and her company, CocoVaa Chocolates, was selected this year as one of the top chocolatiers in the United States by the International Chocolate Salon. It was given the ultimate title of Grand Master Chocolatier after winning multiple gold medals for its caramels, chocolate bars, white chocolate and truffles at the International Chocolate Salon’s annual competition in 2017.
She also successfully represented herself and her company in federal court in Virginia last year as the defendant in a trademark lawsuit filed by Mars, Inc.
Edari said she was motivated to succeed as a chocolatier after learning that some of the world’s most successful people were curious sorts who made mistakes in their quest to improve, innovate and expand their minds.
Obstacles can become opportunities for risk-takers, according to Edari. “As long as you learn to engage (the obstacles) you can define your heritage instead of having others define your role,” she said.
Nepper, 23, who earned her doctorate in biophysics at UW-Madison in December, also used failure as a motivational tool. The native of North Carolina received nothing but straight A’s after enrolling in Cape Fear Community College when she was 12 and North Carolina-Wilmington for her degree in biology at 16. But Nepper recalled that she struggled during her early years in grad school and was full of self-doubt, anxiety and depression.
She said didn’t quit because she didn’t know how. “I had never given up on anything before,” Nepper said.
After meeting with other struggling and empathetic students, Nepper began understanding the passion needed to grapple successfully with failure. “Failure taught me two things: That none of us can be too smart or talented to avoid failure and that life’s path is rarely linear,” she said.