That was something. First of all, Alex, thank you so much. The words coming from you, such an incredible leader, such an inspirational leader, such a real leader that everything that you see with Alex is so genuine and is so touching. But that video, I have to say, to see all of these people that you’ve worked with over the years, I just want to thank everyone.
I want to thank all the members of HBA and the HBA leadership and all the winners today. And I want to thank my J&J family for coming here and to see you guys getting off the bus and taxis and planes, trains, automobiles, right, it’s absolutely incredible; and my friends and family here that really traveled because you guys mean the world to me.
You know, I reflected so much about what I was going to say. I typed some stuff in, put it in the teleprompter; and yesterday I went to the teleprompter and I was like, “I don’t think so.” Right.
What I want to leave you with today is why it’s so important for us as women to be represented at each level in organizations. Why? Because we came here to make a difference. We came here to make a difference in the lives of those that we have the privilege to serve in healthcare. We need to be represented.
And at the same time we need to be strong. We need to have the courage, we need to have the boldness, we need to learn from life lessons of others. And so I want to take, if you’ll indulge me just a few minutes, and I will tell you my story.
I know everyone’s going, “I know it’s going to be more than a few minutes, Denice,” but there she goes again. I grew up in Gary, Indiana. And if anyone knows Gary, Indiana, that’s something– because it used to be the murder capital of the US. It is certainly home to Michael Jackson; but growing up, I grew up in a very blue collar neighborhood.
Across the street from us was a trucking garage and next door was a Kareful Kar Wash – Kareful spelled with a K. And I think, you know, sums it up.
And my parents – my dad’s Hispanic, my mom’s Polish, such different cultures. And what they really wanted for us was to have possibilities and opportunities. I always say that when I was born, my parents took the birth certificate and wrote on the address like, “You are going to college.”It didn’t really happen, but that’s how it was.
I have a brother and sister and my parents sacrificed everything. My dad worked in a steel mill for 30 something years and my mom became one of the first school nurse practitioners in Indiana. She was like a version of Maude, if anyone remembers that show. So really, very strong.
I did 13 years of Catholic school, which also has a statement there of understanding uniforms and all of that stuff, which I totally revolted against through the rest of my life.
But going through that, I have to tell you and for all the women that are coming up is that I was motivated by two things. One, this strong sense of wanting to accomplish and the other thing I was like Forest Gump running down the street – a sense of anxiety and a fear. Through my whole career, looking back now saying, “My gosh,” on one hand, thinking that I could be two levels above and I should be two levels above. And then going through tough times and you’re like, “Oh man, I hope I don’t get fired today.”
So, you know, going through that and going to school and I’m doing marathons and whatever because it was never enough. And so many of you know that feeling of going and going and going and there’s the high of it, right? There’s the high of it.
And then there’s like, whoa, I’m getting a little tired here, right.I give myself a little slack here.
So on one of these trips, I had gone to law school. I go into law firm. I’m the third woman, 50 attorneys. So I step into that law firm and you know what? You know how they go apples and oranges are different? I mean, it was like a pair of shoes and like a $10 shoes and a Prada handbag, right? I’m so different.
I walk in and I’m like, “Oh my gosh! I do not fit in here. This is a very – and no offense to attorneys, and I mean that. Kind of. But the thing is I was a team person. I’m going like, “Hi.” And so people are like, “Billable hours, please.”
So I go in and I’m like, “I do not belong here.” So after 18 long months, I learned a valuable lesson which was, you know what, if you don’t like something and you’re passionate about it, make a change. And so you guys I quit.
I had a 50% pay cut. I fell in love. I got into advertising and marketing and strategy and I fell in love with that. I go back to business school and I’m like, “This is it.” I joined Lilly.
So I’m from Indiana, right, and so I joined Eli Lilly. So to all my Lilly friends, hello.
So this is where the Catholic school thing comes in and you guys know this. I come into work and the first thing I see is the big bow blouse, the Talbot skirt and I’m like, “Oh, come on!” Right? That was the uniform.
And I thought to myself, “Someone is going to get hurt with that bow. It’s going to be on a door. Like what the heck?” So I put the stuff on and it was just like, right?
And the guys, I felt bad for the guys because – and you guys know this – just to get up and go to a meeting, you had to put your jacket on. And through this whole approach I thought to myself, “My gosh, what energy are we leaving behind? What energy?”
I loved the work because I love healthcare. I love it. And the possibility of impacting someone’s life or changing a life, of improving a life, I so wanted that. But I still had this feeling like I don’t belong.
Well one of the reasons I felt this – this is before Ellen, this is before Tim Cook, this is before Anderson Cooper – I go to this outward bound trip and I had seven days and I’m on top of this mountain. I have some solo time by myself and I just begin to cry. And it was the first time really the girl from Gary had gone hiking.
I was mountaineering so I had this backpack of 60 pounds. And I’m like, “This backpack is heavy.” But the reality is my backpack was so heavy. It was filled with so much baggage and things that I pretended to be or thought I should be and anxieties.
And on that mountain, I said, “That is it. I have to empty this backpack.” And that backpack has become very symbolic for me.
I write this note to my parents. “Dear Mom and Dad, I am gay.” This is before email. So I have to wait for the letter to mail and I wait.
I see my parents at my sister’s house and I walk in the house and I’m crying. And my mom says to me, “Honey, what’s wrong?” I said, “Did you get the letter?”
She said, “Honey, we’ve known that since you were a little girl.” Yes, and I said, “You could have told me!” My dad said, “I always want you to be proud of yourself.”
So lo and behold, I meet Kim, my spouse of 18 years, and we decide that – thank you. We decide that we want to have a family and so, again, this is 14 years ago and I’m in Indianapolis and I’m pregnant.
So I walk into the corporate setting and at some point, you start to show. And I tell my boss and he says to me, “How did that happen?” And there was this very awkward, face red. And, I mean, seriously. And we looked at each other. It was unbelievable.
But I want to tell you something that what happened – I was 31 weeks pregnant and this so changed my life – I ended up getting a virus and at a meeting at work, actually, and then what happened is that at 31 weeks of pregnancy I did not feel well and within 24 hours, I actually had to go talk to my doctor and they’re taking a little bit of time.Then what happened was the doors swing open and I am whisked down the hall.
They’re cutting my clothes off and giving me an epidural. They took some other woman and threw her off the Operating Room table and my daughter, Sierra, she was not expected to live. So she also had this virus. She had swelling of the brain and heart. Her lungs weren’t functioning, her kidneys, high blood pressure, all of this stuff. My girl’s a fighter.
So a month later, we get to go home and I knew that there would be – and I wanted that girl– and I was like whatever comes with it. Just let me be her mommy. Let me be her mommy.
So as time played out, what we found out that today Sierra’s 14. She has cerebral palsy, she is nonverbal, she’s still in diapers and in a wheelchair. And we still watch Blue’s Clues and I think when she’s 30, we’ll still be watching Blue’s Clues.
But I will tell you she is a joyous girl. And every morning she gets up laughing. We hear her. We have to get her out of bed. And she is laughing and through all of her physical therapy she gives her best.
And it was something that my mom said to me, “Nobody wants a pity party.” Right? And it’s so easy to say, “It’s a tough situation and you know what, I’m going to feel sorry for myself.”
And I think because I wanted that girl so much…. I remember, the first time that I got diapers I was like walking down the asile in the Shop Rite and I tell you I heard John Travolta music. And I was like, “I’m getting diapers,” because I wanted to be that mom.
But what I have learned from her is how much attitude is choice. That we can choose in the midst of challenge – and I’ve been through all kind of turnarounds – that we could sit and feel sorry for ourself or we could be numb or we could say, “I will be grateful for what I have. I will be grateful,” and how much life and attitude is a choice.
Sierra has taught me that over and over again. She has taught me the gift of empathy, of listening, and that eyes are, indeed, the window into the soul.
So as I have moved forward in my career and have had the absolute pleasure to work at wonderful companies and especially to work at Johnson & Johnson over the last 10-1/2 years, to have leaders like Alex, to have a mentor like Sandy Peterson, to have someone to say, “You know what, I see you for who you are and I not only accept that, I embrace it, I celebrate it.”
So today I celebrate you, Sandy Peterson. I celebrate you for seeing the possibility. Alex Gorsky for being the leader that you are in saying that diversity and style and approach and all that is not something that we accept. It’s something that we must seek out. So today as I think about impact, as I think about influence, as I think about all of you, I want to tell you be bad ass.
I want you to be bad ass, I want you to be bold, and for all of you – and you know who I’m talking about – when you’re at home and something goes wrong, you’re not messing around. But get to work and what happens? You’re like, “What?” Find your voice because it is there.
And when I would say to myself, “Ooh, I feel a little nervous, but I would say, “Sierra’s mom is not nervous. Sierra’s mom is a toughy.” I’d begin to see all these different sides of who I am. I went from the journey of self-acceptance to self-celebration because I will tell you my competitive advantage is me.
So, in closing, I celebrate all of you and I ask you to dream big. Dream big in your professional life, dream big in your personal life. And I will tell you going through change, I have taken on all those tough assignments. And when you say like, “Hey, you know what, was it worth it?” In the moment, hell no. Right? But over time, the skills we build, the tenacity, the resilience that we build it is worth it.
Challenge yourself. And more than anything, more than anything, please, please enjoy the day because one day turns into a week, turns into a month, which ultimately turns into a lifetime. Put it altogether. Enjoy it, make a difference, and celebrate you. Thank you so much for this honor. Thank you. Thank you very much.
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