Wednesday, February 10, 2010

International House, Philadelphia

Outside my son's picture window at the International House in Philly, the snow keeps coming down. The sky is thick white and the plows try to keep ahead of the accumulation.

This morning, though, you could see the sun peeking through the weary clouds and you could feel it even more inside at today's ihouse, Leadership Breakfast. Today, at 9:00 a.m., I was speaking to a group of international residents about my own journey towards leadership and how this might help them grow into their own roles as global innovators.

I decided to start with my life story, but not only mine. I began with Elizabeth Bennett - my grandmother - herself an immigrant who came to the United States at the age of twenty, never to return home to her native Ireland again. As she moved towards America to a new world that she could never have imagined, I wonder what was she thinking?

Her tiny waist, most certainly smaller than nature had created it (due to intense whale bone corseting), was a source of pride to her. In the picture above, she stands outside of her ship's stateroom, proud to come to Ellis Island in style.

But once she got to New York, her life changed drastically and she began a hard life of caring for four sons, running a rooming house in Rockaway Beach, N.Y. and cleaning the "legitimate theater" along 42nd Street when money was low.

Her husband, Arthur, was a bookish man. He was the son of a teacher who had to reinvent himself for his life in America. For years, he worked as a New York accountant, in a company which specialized in creating the ornaments for lady's hats - great clusters of fruits, flowers and other outrageous items. When fashions changed, so did the market for such adornments and the company closed.

Arthur had to scurry to get any kind of job he could, eventually settling into a position as a security guard. In between shifts, he would come home to 51st Street and 10th Avenue to brew homemade beer in the family bathtub. Nobody bathed in this sixth-floor apartment, after this beer brewing cottage industry was created by the prohibition. The YMCA became that "home away from home," where one could bathe and learn to swim with the likes of champion, Buster Crab.

Immigrant stories.Then, I told everyone my life story and how I became a global gal, living in Spain and struggling with the glories and defeats of living life biculturally.

What followed was the best part. One by one, the residents of International House shared their personal stories, their fears about leading, their insecurities. I listened to the tales of young professionals from Korea, China, Vietnam, India, the USA and Capetown, South Africa. Everyone understood how hard it is to feel totally confident about everything. As Mary Beth Blige, the 1996 National Teacher of the Year said, "We are all imperfect, but we have some truly excellent parts!"

Such empowering thoughts and cultural sharing will get us far.

After our session, I went to my son's ihouse dorm room, where he is a resident advisor for programs. The tiny room houses a small single bed, his computer stuff and clothes and some very heavy weights for working out.

"I cleaned for you," Joe says. "I hope it's ok."

I complimented him on the spartan tidiness of the room and accepted his wonderful hospitality. What mother gets the chance to do this?

To Joe's surprise and mine, I'll be here overnight since the visibility is getting lower and lower. Right now, I can only see the parking lot across the street in University City, Philadelphia, but nothing beyond it. Night is approaching and everything is turning a pixilated grey.

I'll stay here, tucked away in this global oasis in Philadelphia and will meet with the International House directors - Debora and Glen - about ways to create more leadership and diversity events with ihouse as a hub. Until then, I'll watch the darkening snow blowing like dune sand across the sky.

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