Wonder Women is a blog series that lets me introduce you to amazing businesswomen doing remarkable work. Meet Trudy Bourgeois, CEO of The Center for Workforce Excellence, a consulting firm whose vision is to create a business world where every person can be embraced, accepted, and valued for their diversity.
A dynamic keynote speaker, Trudy electrifies audiences wherever she goes, challenging them to have “courageous conversations” about uncomfortable topics. Gender parity, inclusion, opportunity and performance – these are just a few of the areas where Trudy and her team offer coaching and training to build diverse leadership pipelines in some of the biggest, most successful companies in the U.S. I’m proud to serve alongside Trudy on the advisory council of the Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP). Read about how Trudy overcame circumstances to realize her dream of helping others succeed.
Q: When did you first realize you were doing your life’s work?
A: Ten years into my professional career, I did an exercise that I have people do now. It is to look back at the 10 most defining moments in your life and to tease out what you learned about yourself and how it shapes who you are as a leader. When I first did this exercise myself I remembered Jackie, a boy from my neighborhood who lived around the corner. My parents had ten kids and I grew up on necessity only, but Jackie had it worse than me. I remember one Easter, he came to our house and we were getting ready for Easter. He saw that we all had Easter baskets, but he didn’t have a basket. That moved me to no end; I thought: “This is just not right!” Each of us gave Jackie some of the treats in our Easter baskets. That moment in my life taught me the power of reaching out to someone else, being empathetic, and understanding that to connect with people, you need to meet them where they are.
Q: What is the one word that best describes you?
A: Resilient. I grew up in the Deep South and I was born into segregation. So, my whole life has been about overcoming challenges, barriers and dealing with the cold, hard realities of life and trying to figure out how to find a path to success. In third grade I was spit on and called the N word. My first child was born with Down Syndrome. In my corporate career, I was the only black female who made it to the vice president level. Through it all, it has been my faith that sustained me. My faith makes me resilient.
Q: What is the one daily practice that energizes you the most?
A: Prayer. It energizes me because it helps me to stay in a positive frame of mind. On a daily basis I want to be intentional to count my blessings. I also want to be prayerful and continue to use every minute that God gives me to touch as many people as I can. If it weren’t for prayer I think that resiliency would fall to the wayside. Daily we have to thank God and remember how grateful we are and look to the future.
Q: What can women do to realize their ambitions?
A: I spent 18 years in the corporate arena and have been an entrepreneur for 20 years and I will tell you, women need to give themselves permission to dream bolder, to dream bigger, to be louder, to be unapologetic for saying I can do X, Y, and Z. So often we shrink. We shrink because of the itty-bitty committee of self-doubt in our head. We shrink because we don’t think that we can measure up and we let the fear drown our voice. We shrink because someone else’s definition of success is not our own. We shrink because the thought of being that great is almost overwhelming. We need to realize that sometimes the best thing for us to do is get out of our own way, mentally and emotionally and just unleash our own selves by dreaming big! That is the other thing we as women need to do for each other, we need to breathe words of possibility into each other’s spirits. We must infuse a mental attitude of can do versus can’t do. We need to be intentional about being public and supporting each other without regards for background or race. We need to be a part of the leadership and not the follower-ship.
Q: Speaking of leadership, how has communication enabled you to be an effective leader?
A: I think communication is the pathway to connectivity. It’s through connections that leaders are able to unleash talent and foster environments where people can perform at higher levels and drive innovation. The tragedy that I see is that we’re all so busy running and we all just need to take a breath and talk to each other. Nothing happens without a conversation. For me, spending time conversing with people opens the door to possibility. I think communication is underrated in the business world. I think rhetoric is overrated. When I speak about communication, I’m really talking about the connection between the head and the heart so that we can do something together more powerful than we could have done on our own.
Q: Who is the most interesting influencer for you right now?
A: Jesus Christ. I wrote my second book and I called the book, The Hybrid Leader: Blending the Best of the Male and Female Leadership Style, and growing up with five brothers and four sisters the boys were allowed to do whatever the girls did and the girls were allowed to do whatever the boys did. My brother could iron better than me, my sister builds her own furniture, and we all know how to change the oil in our cars. There is nothing we couldn’t do, but society said: “you’re a woman, you can only do this.” The person that I believe in for my salvation represents the world and everything in it – male and female. That is a spiritual influence that I hope to never lose.
Other important influencers come to me by way of the women in my life who have gone on. My mother was so remarkable in terms of her ability to strategize. My grandmother was the product of a slave and a slave master so she appeared Caucasian. She taught me forgiveness. My other grandmother was probably one of the most resilient people I ever knew. Sometimes I think we look at big names for inspiration and evidence of success, but that is not where our true power comes from. I think our power comes from understanding the blood that runs through our veins.
Regarding the influence we have on others — I say this a lot when I’m speaking to audiences — all of our careers are going to come to an end and no one will remember how many products we sold or created. They’re going to remember how you treated them. It’s in how you carry yourself that you can make a really big impact upon others.
When I was being interviewed for a magazine article the other day I was asked for advice that I would give to women and I said that we need to stop hiding and stop admitting that we have pain. We need to tell our stories, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Because, when we tell our stories and people see that we’ve actually come through the other side, that’s the reason communication is so important. When we keep our challenges to ourselves, we’re robbing the world of the greatest impact that we could ever offer because the power of making it through is the real inspiration. The stories that you share can be the spark that changes someone’s life forever. We need to give ourselves permission to have more courageous conversations!
Q: What is a courageous conversation?
A: I believe that courageous conversations are the catalyst for something meaningful happening. You can’t make any progress if you’re not willing to touch the truth. You can’t touch the truth if you can’t speak it out. Courageous conversations take that sting away and I know people get scared to have them. When your intent is right, your impact will be positive. If the intent isn’t right, everything else falls apart. This goes back to the questions on leadership and who you are and how you show up and what you stand for. If you stand for possibilities, you will breathe words that transform others’ beliefs into possibilities. We as leaders have to be mindful that we are always on stage and always touching someone. Our core intent has to be for the greater good.
Q: What motivates you?
A: Growing up poor I am motivated, not by money itself, but by what I can do to help my family members get a little bit more ahead. And, I want to use my gifts and talents to make a difference for others. I get up everyday and deal in a world where people really don’t necessarily want to hear what I have to say. I’m telling them that they need to look at privilege and understand it and I’m telling them that equality is right and that diversity and inclusion is meaningful. For a long time, I ran away from this work because it’s so hard. This work is about the heart and it’s about moving people’s value systems and beliefs. I am motivated that if I can take it five steps then the person who comes next will take it five steps more. All of us have to find a deeper level of motivation that’s bigger than us. It’s so shallow if it’s just for us. We’ve gotta dig deep and figure out why we’re here and what we can do to that will make it better for the next generations to come.