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A chance in the world

Steve Pemberton

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In his inspiring presentation, Pemberton shares how he defied seemingly impossible odds as an orphaned boy navigating the foster care system — all while trying to solve the mystery of his own identity and destiny. He also provides valuable lessons on self-empowerment, breaking negative cycles, creating a vision and achieving your goals — even when everyone says you don’t have a chance in the world.

George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics, was having a conference much like this but not nearly as big. He had a guest speaker arrive that day, a man of considerable intellect and importance. Their schedule got changed, and so he told the speaker that the hour he had been allotted was now reduced to 15 minutes. The man, apparently disappointed that his time had shrunk, asked George Bernard Shaw, “Well, how am I going to tell them everything I know in just 15 minutes?” To which George Bernard Shaw replied, “Oh, that’s easy. Make sure that you speak really, really slowly.”

We’ve all heard speeches, and we know that they didn’t get that wonderful counsel from George Bernard Shaw. The idea that I would be here talking to you is improbable on a couple of levels. One is my journey, which I’ll share with you momentarily. More importantly are the lessons that I learned along the way. Perhaps most importantly of all is the time that I decided to write a book about my life journey when I was well into my professional life. I’m the proud father of three children: Quinn, Vaughn and Kennedy.

Quinn, at the age of 6 years old, and I always had this morning ritual. He was always the first one to wake up in our home. He loved to read “The Lion and the Mouse.” He would always come wake me up. I’d hear the sound of his feet coming down the hallway, and I knew it was him. He always had his book clutched tightly. He’d jump on my back, and down the stairs we’d go. We’d sit by the fireplace, and I would regale him with the story of the Lion and the Mouse.

Quinn loved “The Lion and the Mouse” for two reasons. One, he really did love the idea that something so small could save something so big. He also really loved the idea that his father could imitate the voice of a lion. I would always roar in the appropriate places. One morning, he wheeled around on my lap to ask me a question for which I was not prepared, but I knew it would come one day. He said, “Now, Daddy, when you were a little boy, did you have a daddy?” I said, “No.”

He thought about that for a minute. His brow furrowed. He said, “Well, what about a mommy?” Again, I said, “No.” One question led to another question. I realized that I had to get down to the story of my journey for him, his brother, their sister, something I think we should all do — get down our family history. My family history actually began with this picture. [visual] This is me at the age of 7 years old. I am proud to report that I have since grown a neck. It took a little while, but I finally grew a neck. I’ve also been cured of the disease that afflicted all children raised in America in the 1970s, and that was the “giant collar virus.”

I don’t feel bad because some of you have photos with the same giant collar. I saw this picture for the first time about 10 years ago when I had requested my case file from the Department of Social Services. It’s very large. The sheer size of it amazed me, and, as I was flipping through it, and as I was reading the story of my mother’s journey in particular and some of my own that I was completely unaware of, this picture came tumbling out. When I saw it, I did not know who it was because nobody ever thought my life important enough to actually take a picture of me.

In fact, since we’re a family here, I can give you my first reaction. When I saw it, I said, “Oh, that’s a really cute kid.” I didn’t know it was me. I flipped it back over, and I said, “I have to return this photo because this is another child’s picture. I’m sure they want it.” That’s when I saw my birth name on the back of it, Steve Klakowitz. At that age, I’d been in so many different homes that I’d lost count because of this need to label and identify. I was then a young African-American boy. I often had a blond afro. My name was Steve Klakowitz. I am of a light complexion, and I have blue eyes.

Every day, I got asked, “Now, what are you?” That question always bothered me because I wanted to know just as much as the person asking me. I didn’t know at that time that I had already lost my mother to addiction, that I had lost my father to gun violence. That was how I wound up in the foster care system. Though there are many well-intentioned and well-meaning and wonderful foster families, regrettably, that would not be my experience. I would find myself lost in the gaps with families who took me in for money and who saw only the circumstances that I came from and not the possibilities that were awaiting me.

For a period of time, it seemed that all was going to be lost to this cycle of loss and pain and that suffering was going to be repeated because that happened sometimes. Cycles do get repeated, but that didn’t happen for me. It didn’t happen for me because of these people who I came to call human lighthouses. The lighthouse is the tallest and most powerful structure in the sea. It directs, it corrects, and it protects the traveler, especially in stormy weather. I found myself in stormy weather that was not of my doing. These lighthouses came along to shine and point their light at me at just the right time.

It’s a power that we all have, this ability to be a human lighthouse, because a human lighthouse does not care whom you worship, whom you voted for, your race, your gender, your ethnicity. The lighthouse says simply that I see you, and I had people who saw me. The very first was this kind neighbor, Claire Levin. Claire saw me reading the same book over and over and decided to bring me a box of books that very day, that night specifically. For the 11 years that I was in this terribly abusive foster home, she often brought me books. I would meet her later on in life and ask her, “Why did you do that? You could’ve kept walking. You could’ve pretended not to see me.” At first, she didn’t understand what I was asking.

I said, “That spirit of recognition — you saw something in me. Where did that come from?” She said, “Oh, yes. That. Well, I was doing something my mother told me to do: Give from where you are with whatever you have. All I had to give you were books that my sons no longer read.” Thirty-five years later after that first gift, I was able to see her again and tell her just how important she was to me. I had another human lighthouse in Ruby Dottin, who was a spelling bee judge. I loved to read. Naturally, it followed that I would be fairly good at the spelling bee. In fact, truth be told, I was the champ, and everybody knew it, especially my classmates. They always complained about having the spelling bee.

They said, “Why have the spelling bee because you know Steve’s going to win?” They were right. I would walk into the schoolyard, and I would say to all my classmates, “Second place is available.” All the children should walk through the world with swagger, and the one time I had it was the day of the spelling bee. There was one particular spelling bee. Every time I spelled a word correctly, this judge, Ruby, would stare at me with this magnificent smile. All these years later, she still looks at me the exact same way, that look of pride that says, “I see you.”

I overheard Ruby talking about me to another counselor one time. The counselor was supposed to give me something when I needed it and didn’t deliver it as quickly as I thought the counselor should have, and I wasn’t the most polite fellow about it. Ruby came to bestow some wisdom upon me. She overheard this conversation, and she wanted to make a point. She would slide her glasses down her nose and peer at you. When she looked at you like that, some wisdom was coming your way. If you were a wise person, you would embrace it. I did, and she said to me in that moment, “Steve, you can be 100 percent correct in something you’re saying and 100 percent incorrect in the way that you are saying it.”

“Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am.” She went to bestow this wisdom on a counselor who worked for her, and the counselor wasn’t as wise as I was. She didn’t know that you should probably just say, “Yes, ma’am,” and started protesting about how insolent and rude I was being, simply because I was asking for an application. I was going to apply to college, and Ruby said, “Oh. Well, maybe you didn’t hear me. That young man is going to change the world.” Now, the truth is, Ruby thought that of every young person she ever met. She thought that we could all change the world.

Can’t we all have that same kind of power? Believe, act, operate, touch, reach, connect, as if the person in front of you can change the world. It’s a unique power that we all have. I had another human lighthouse in this man, John Sykes. He worked for Ruby. It was two days after Christmas. I finally managed to escape this foster home. I had literally nowhere to go. I rode to my social worker’s office at about 11 o’clock in the morning. It was daylight out, but as the day deepened, daylight became dusk and dusk became dark. It was still just him and me in his office. I was watching his desperation. He was trying to get somebody to take me in. The hours passed. There were decorations all around the office and holiday music playing.

I was keenly aware that I was alone in the world. There was no place for a young boy like me. A moment of recognition, a lighthouse, appeared in this man, John, who worked for Ruby. I overheard him talking about me one time. He said to another teacher, “I don’t have any children, but if I did, I would love for them to be a lot like that young man.” I went to live with him that night, and that night turned into a week and then turned into my last year of high school. Today, my children call him Grandpa John. He means as much to me as anybody in your family does to you.

Now, John just didn’t stop with recognition. Every problem I presented to him — see, I had this ridiculous idea that I could get to college. I had no idea how to do this, and, most importantly, I had no idea how I could afford it. He said, “Well, you should apply for scholarships.” I didn’t know what a scholarship was. He said, “That’s free money.” Oh, I knew what that was. He sent me on this assignment. He said, “I want you to go to the counselor’s office. There’s a big book of scholarships. You bring it home, and we’ll flip through it and decide which ones you should apply for.” I did that. I flipped through it. I circled the scholarship for left-handers because there was a scholarship out there for left-handers. He said to me, “But, Steve, you are not left-handed.” I said, “I know. I can learn. I can learn, Mr. Sykes. I can learn.” He saw me doing this, and he circled the scholarship. He slid it back across to me and said, “I think you should apply for this one too.” And, as soon as I looked at it, I said, “Now, Mr. Sykes, I have no shot at Daughters of the American Revolution. I mean, it literally says ‘for young girls only.’” And he said, “Nope. I think you should apply anyway.” So I did that. I applied for Daughters of the American Revolution. And I was protesting the entire time. “Mr. Sykes, they’re going to reject me. I’m telling you, they’re going to reject me.” You know what? I was right. They did reject me.

I showed him my rejection letter, and he said, “That’s not right. I think we should write them back.” I said, “And say what? What are you supposed to say?” He said, “Ask them if they’re sure.” So I did that too. I wrote them back and said, “Are you sure?” And they wrote me back, “We’re real sure. We are not changing our rules for you.”

So I was told no a lot. But I was recognized just enough to make college a reality. See, it’s these three people: different walks of life, different faiths, different nations that their families came from. But they had this one common thread: It was goodness reflected in the metaphor that is the lighthouse. They are not, by any societal definition, at least the way that we have come to define it, great. There are no schools named after them. There are no streets that bear their name. They never in their life have had a big title. And they never needed one. They were simply good. And they poured that goodness right into me. And so powerful was that goodness that it just surrounded me. It gave me a North Star. It set my life on a different path, and because of their goodness, the arc of my life changed. Forever.

In that sense, I’m not an exception. I’m a reflection of what happens when we indeed see connections between and among one another. And my role as the head of global human resources at work, this is what we do every day, moments like I just described to you with Claire and Ruby and John. We’re able to show the power of connection and what that means and who is touched and impacted by it. Now, if I asked you, “Who were your lighthouses?” you know who they are. And it doesn’t take you long to remember who they are. And that’s true across cultures. All of us have lighthouses in our life. All of us do. How do we know that? Because we are here.

In my world, we see all of this power of recognition — 4 million employees, 160 countries, 40 million recognition moments — this opportunity to connect, to see each other. As I was walking though the hall, I could see this again, just these moments of recognition. Though we might come from different nations, different expressions, we still have that moment with our eyes, with our body language, to say, “I see you and the possibilities that await.”

All of us have this power. You can use someone’s name when you are addressing them. And if you don’t know how to pronounce it, ask them. Ask them to tell you their story. And when you hear their story, you will also hear chapters of your own. You’ll find these moments of connection that are so powerful. That’s an active process of recognition. It means that, as business leaders, we can drive greater return. We get greater effort. We develop new talent. We meet people that ordinarily we would never have met before.

So, in your time here, whether this is your first time or your 10th time, you should always leave saying, “I’ve met somebody here, and I will become friends with somebody here whom I didn’t know before.” It’s not a particularly high bar. When you do that, you further those kinds of connections. You see these common threads of humanity that exist in every single one of us. We all have this power, and it does not take any special credentials or degree to bestow recognition and goodness on someone else.

I was at a conference one time. A man was serving me. His name tag said Samuel. S-a-m-u-e-l. Although he did not appear to be a “Samuel” to me. And so I asked him, “How do I pronounce your name?” And he immediately knew what I was asking. He stepped back from me with the air of a king, and he said, “Mi nombre es Samuel. As is damn well like everything I do.” I have never forgotten Samuel and the importance of a name and using someone’s name when you talk to them, something that any of us can do at any point in time. Or give a box of books like Claire did. Or a home like John Sykes did.

And when we do that, we make these connections that are across all parts of life, all parts of society. We can drive greater inclusion through recognition. It drives so much more awareness for us. We create more innovative environments when we expand the network of talent in whom and for whom it exists, a power that we all have. I get to see it every single day, in small ways and in big ways. And it happens literally in our workplaces, in the people we meet and all around us.

But it requires us, oftentimes, to do something different. I had a moment like this not too long ago. It came in the form of this letter. It was written to me by a fifth-grader. Julian is his name. Julian read my book because his babysitter had recommended it to him as something that he should do. As soon as I read it, I said, “Wow. What fifth-grader writes to an author?” And then I thought, Well, how wonderful would it be if I just showed up and surprised him at his elementary school? So that was my plan.

The teacher and the principal met, and the principal said, “I don’t think it’s the right time to have Mr. Pemberton here.” And the teacher said, “Well, I’m going to bring you his book. Please read it, and then let’s talk about it.” They met the next day, and the teacher handed the principal my book and walked out of the office. She was barely through the office before the principal said, “Well, we would love to have him here.” The teacher was confused by this. “You just said no.” She said, “Well, don’t you want to learn a little bit more about him?” To which the principal replied, “Well, actually, I don’t need to. I was that man’s second-grade teacher 40 years ago.”

So I did go see young Julian, my favorite fifth-grader. I met his teacher, and I also met my teacher — again. That cascading effect of recognition, when you actually see someone. And I’m evidence of what happens when you see not circumstances but possibilities, when you dare to believe, when you decide that you can be a lighthouse. Of this life that it was said of me: not a chance in the world. It was because of those lighthouses that the arc of everything changed. And it changed forever, not just for me but for the next generation. This is my family today. [visual] My wife, Tonya, for the last 22 years and our children: Quinn, Vaughn and Kennedy. Quinn is on the left. Vaughn in the middle. Daddy’s girl, Kennedy. This is my favorite picture. It is a couple of years old, and my sons always protest that I use this picture. But it’s my favorite, so I get to make the rules. The reason they don’t like it is because they want to make sure that you know that it is two years old, and they are now subsequently taller than their father. Kennedy overheard them having this conversation one time about who’s getting taller than Dad. And she said, “Boys, I don’t understand what all this debate is about who’s taller than Dad. Don’t you know that little girls are always tallest in their daddy’s hearts?” Which is about right.

So, although Kennedy was last in the birth order, she came into the world and promptly staged a coup, because little girls do that. Nobody thought that that picture was possible. They said, “Not a chance in the world.” They said, “There’s no way that he can overcome this.” And, boy, did they get that wrong. Because they couldn’t anticipate these moments of recognition, this kind of goodness that exists between and among all of us.

I have one final request of you, twofold. In your daily interactions, be that lighthouse. Be a Claire Levin, a Ruby Dottin, a John Sykes. But for those of us here who remember and know our lighthouses, here is my last final request of you. Before this day is out, and it doesn’t matter who that lighthouse was, send them a note of gratitude. Let them know just how important they actually are to you. You can text them. You can email them. You can call them. And, if they have departed this world, you can say a prayer to them. That moment of recognition and of gratitude — I can assure you that they will hear you. They will hear you.


Steve Pemberton is considered one of America’s most inspiring business and HR leaders. Adversity only fueled his desire to become a man of resilience, determination and vision. A child orphaned into foster care, Pemberton went on to find success as a corporate executive, innovative diversity and inclusion thought leader, visionary youth advocate and acclaimed speaker devoted to inspiring and helping others. His keynotes, like his life story, amplify his highly motivational messages: Believe in your dreams, rise above obstacles, create opportunities for others, and most of all, persevere.


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