Our very own COO Lisa Laws sat down with nine incredible people from her personal life to chat about their stories, in her very own speaker series: I Got A Story To Tell. 

This speaker series is our second annual summer program designed to inspire & motivate our interns at 1871 with introducing them to individuals succeeding in their professional industries. 

While these individuals have experienced & lived different lives from one another, what each brings to the discussion are hidden “gems”—as Laws likes to call them— they’ve learned from their own journey. 

From each speaker we’ve narrowed down 9 gems that anyone can add to their own personal story: Betsy Ziegler, Ryan Mundy, Jonathan Williams, Curtis Johnson, Yemi Akisanya, Chasity Williams, Mike Tresvant, Matt Forté, and Pete Opalacz.

Own your life, and bounce back from your mistakes

We kicked off our series with our very own 1871 CEO Betsy Ziegler

From her past employment roles to  CEO of 1871,  Ziegler has learned over the years the importance of “owning” your life and the mistakes you will make along the way. 

“Your life story is the summary of the choices you’ve made over time, and if you don’t like  a choice you’ve made, make a different choice,” Ziegler said. “You’re always defining who you are and who you want to be, so actually owning that, and not letting others own that for you is key.” 

Ziegler learned this as she made her “40 by 40” goal list for her life before she turned 40 years old. The list helped Ziegler think about her time in life and how it should be, and not worrying what others thought about a choice, but ultimately what she thought instead. 

Her other biggest motto in life? “Bouncing” back from the mistake. 

“The first time you make a mistake you think it’s going to be job ending or career ending, and five years later you’re going to look back on it and think, ‘why was I even worried about that’,” Ziegler said. “People are going to remember your response to the “bounce” more than they’re going to remember the mistake.” 

With any mistake you make, be sure your “bounce” back is stronger and own the choices you make in life, because ultimately that is YOUR story.

Endurance is key—rest and recover

Former NFL player Ryan Mundy is the founder and CEO of Alkeme Health— a mental health platform that offers culturally centered therapist-led courses and expert guided mindfulness and meditation practices.

Mundy played in the NFL for 8 seasons from 2008-2016, and a lot of what he learned—from a physical standpoint— wouldn’t transfer into the real world. But, what he did carry over from his time in football was discipline, working hard, being a better communicator, and especially, endurance. 

“Having the ability to endure the good, the bad, the indifferent—endurance is so key. You need to rest and recover, and you need to take care of yourself,” Mundy said. 

This drove Mundy to create Alkeme Health, so his platform can help support others be the best they can be, but also learn how to rest and recover. 

“Everybody talks about working really hard, but no one talks about the side of taking care of yourself mentally and physically so that you can show up to be the best version of yourself for everything,” Mundy said.

Learn from your failures

Jonathan Williams is the Partner Chicago Market Head with Dialexa. Before his current role, Williams  guided leaders at the world’s most influential companies, such as Apple, Bloomberg and BMW, through digital transformations. 

As a co-founder of  businesses in the marketing, digital & health care industry, Williams said his biggest takeaway was being able to see the successes of his businesses, but also acknowledging where the company could approve and using those as teachable moments in his career. 

“Looking at the work I’ve done and looking at what I’ve contributed honestly and deciding, ‘Did I hit the outcomes and the goals that we’ve had for success, and if I didn’t why didn’t I’,” Williams said. 

Instead of letting these failures get in the way, Williams used these teachable moments to continue to build his career—and businesses— and he encourages others to be critical and persevere through their own challenges. 

“Space is the key to allowing yourself to be critical of the situation and learning from it, but not internalizing it. Take the lessons and move forward,” Williams said. 

Williams has found that his career has been a decent amount of learning from his failures, and seeing these “lumps” in life as teachable moments to learn from later on. 

“Your journey is not linear as you build out your career, everything won’t always be smooth,” Williams said. “ It’s really about trying to keep yourself in the game, and trying to keep yourself available to take advantage of opportunities.”

Tie yourself to what you’re good at

Curtis Johnson, Executive Director of Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE), is passionate about public service & the opportunities a high-quality education can provide. 

As the first and only Black American leading a Fulbright Commission globally in 75 years, he’s currently focused on growing “Educational Diplomacy” between Malaysia & the United States. 

Johnson said growing up in his household he was told ‘you can be anything you want to be’.  Which is exactly what he believed for himself and his professional career along with his strive to work hard. 

“My focus is I’m going to be the best I am at whatever it is I do,” Johnson said. “And I’m going to throw myself into whatever it is I do.” 

With Johnson’s extensive background and experience in global & political affairs and his strive to be the best he could be, his advice to anyone: Figure out your “5 skills” you’re good at. 

“It’s not about the field you’re interested in, but there’s a specific skill set that each and every one of you have— and those skills are transferable to any job you want to go into,” Johnson said. “Tie yourself to what you’re good at, versus tying yourself to an industry.”

Use your influence to help others

Yemi Akisanya is the Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Groupon.  

Prior to Groupon, Yemi served as a Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Options Clearing Corp (OCC), where he was responsible for building the first-ever Diversity & Inclusion office.

He’s also the current Chairman, Board of Directors for Digitalundivided, a leading non-profit leveraging data, programs, and advocacy to catalyze economic growth for Black and Latinx women entrepreneurs and innovators.

Akisanya said his time at boarding schools in Nigeria and his experience in the U.S. has shaped him to be inclusive and  to use his influence to create opportunities & access for those in need. 

My purpose is being able to influence or be part of a team that influences access for opportunities for those who typically don’t get it,” Akisanya said. 

Akisanya, with his passion for Nigerian fashion and business degree, created ‘BOLD’, a fashion line that brings Nigerian fashion &  its culture to the United States. 

To help young girls and women in Nigeria struggling to get their certificate from high school due to financial constraints, Akisanya partners up with nonprofits in Nigeria who help pay the costs. Twenty percent of all profits from BOLD clothing goes directly to these nonprofits to help those in need. 

“I’m hoping to change the narrative about Nigeria and Africans, since there is a stigma that comes along with it,” Akisanya said. “I’m hoping BOLD will begin to shift that narrative.”

Communicate with empathy

Chasity Williams is the Digital Venture Advisor for Media & Entertainment at Microsoft. She currently serves on Microsoft’s Media & Entertainment digital advisory where she co-creates, co-innovates and co-invests in new digital businesses with corporate clients. 

 In January of 2020, she created Collective Intelligentsia to empower humans to meaningfully enhance their lives through digital experiences. 

 “Inclusive design is a huge topic of radar for me being from an underserved and underestimated community, so how do we create communities for women and women of color and people from all different walks of life in this space?” 

Williams says her key to building relationships and communicating with others to know exactly what they need, she uses empathy. 

“Empathy is one of the greatest soft skills that’s never talked about,” Williams said. “How do you get to a level where you have empathy towards another person, and through that empathy, you’re then able to have a different type of conversation with them.” 

Through this, Williams and her team at Microsoft are able to help businesses build relationships with their customers and understand exactly what technology solutions can do to help different needs from customers and people. 

Williams also invests and advises Black & LatinX women-founded startups and nonprofit organizations  to help grow their businesses and close the wealth gap between differing communities. 

“Being grateful for it all, creates an opportunity that you learn from every experience, you grow from every experience,” Williams said. “But it also gives you humility and a sense of empathy for other people who are going through a journey as well.”

Chase your dream and keep working

Mike Tresvant is the Senior Vice President at Complex Networks and the creative consultancy Climate.

With over 20+ years of agency, client & publisher expertise, Tresvant has fueled strategic marketing solutions for brands such as McDonalds, Gatorade, MillerCoors, FritoLay, State Farm, General Motors, Toyota, American Express and Citibank. 

Tresvant said his career was motivated by constantly chasing his dream— even if the finances weren’t there in the beginning. Along with his interest in pop culture, music and his strong desire to not  be a “suit and tie” worker. 

“A career is supposed to be really about discovery, and sometimes a discovery may be challenging and you might fumble along the way,” Tresvant said. 

Now, Tresvant is continuously thriving in his industry and loves his work. His team is his inspiration, since they are a part of his “tribe” of others who are interested in the same field and career as he is.  Tresvant said he wouldn’t change a thing. 

“You never know what the path will take,” Tresvant said. “So take the internship,  learn from what you can, and continue to find places where you can see an opportunity, and it will always open up opportunities when it’s right for you.”

Be resilient and keep evolving

Matt Forté is a former running back for the Chicago Bears and Co-Founder of What’s Your Forté Foundation. 

During his time in college, Hurricane Katrina impacted where he was raised and threw obstacles in his and his team players’ way. Forté was resilient and kept his dream to become an NFL player, and after retiring, used his status to help others  persevere like he did. 

“ It [Hurricane Katrina] taught me to be resilient, it taught me to be grateful for what you have and not grateful for what you don’t have in the moment,” Forté said. 

After playing football for over 25 years, Forté wanted to evolve his opportunities and experience into something that can help others. 

“When that’s  over, you have to throw yourself into something that has a purpose in your life, and that is what’s going to give you the fulfillment you’re looking for,” said Forté. “So to me, that ended up being the foundation.” 

In 2013, Matt founded the What’s Your Forté Foundation with his co-founder and wife Danielle Forté. 

The foundation provides a network of people & resources to build capacity and shape youth on the South & West Sides of Chicago that will help them & their families to grow and prosper by giving opportunities to harness talents and learn skills to help evolve their lives. 

“In life, when things happen, the world doesn’t stop,” Forté said. “Be grateful for every single moment, and take advantage of the opportunities that have been given to you. No one is going to feel sorry for you, so go out there and get it done while you can.”

Set goals and be a leader in your life

Pete Opalacz is the  Divisional VP at Martin Brower. Prior to his time at Martin Bower, Opalacz served in the United States Marine Corps & retired after almost 8 years of service. 

His extensive experience and background resulted in his three deployments with the Marine Corps and was selected for several positions and academic opportunities that resulted in many awards and honors of service. 

“What I learned in my time in the military is to be a leader and figure the problem out and be there for the team, then go from there,” Opalacz said. 

He took this mindset from his service in the Marine Corps to his work as a head leader for international business companies.  

“It’s all about how do you become a better person and leader,” Opalacz said. “You learn a lot about yourself through those types of situations.” 

Now, after several promotions at Martin Bower; from Global Operations role, to  Director of Operations for the Central Division and finally to Divisional VP, Opalacz uses his skills learned from being in the Marine Corps and his climb up the corporate ladder to motivate others to continue to grow and don’t hold on to past mistakes. 

“Set goals for yourself,” Opalacz said. “If you’re not potentially  achieving goals or outcomes for you to live your best life and be happy, then you might need to have a change in profession or life. Because life is too short to be unhappy professionally and personally.”

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