Even those who deemed an “overnight success” have rarely achieved that success in one swift and smooth motion. In fact, the source of success can often be pinpointed to a time rooted in one’s childhood that, at first glance, may seem unrelated—a family’s work ethic or a triumph over tragedy, for example.
To learn more about the ways one’s upbringing has the power to shape our future, we tapped into the inspiring journeys of 33 women from the Dreamers & Doers network. Their reflections are an important reminder that even the unexpected parts of our past have the potential to contribute to the most significant moments in our lives.
Elise Schuster, Co-Founder and Executive Director of okayso, an app helping young people get personalized answers to questions about sex, relationships, and identity.
“I grew up in a midwestern, evangelical Christian home and was not allowed to take my high school sexuality education class because it was taught by someone rumored to be a lesbian. As I began to realize that I was queer and nonbinary, this meant that I went out searching for information myself. I discovered that I loved talking about sex and identity and I saw firsthand how hard it is to find good support.
These experiences have helped me stay really tuned in to the challenges young people are facing as they navigate growing up and finding themselves. I know okayso users very well because I was one myself.”
Ko Im, Founder and Wellpreneur of konakafe, a mindfulness-based creative and hosting service provider.
“Growing up as a poor immigrant with bicultural confusion and trauma helped me become both more compassionate and ambitious. My awareness was so high as a child and made me a more sensitive adult. I’ve turned this appetite for a good, positive life into something I can share with the world. I don’t regret any part of my journey and am grateful for all the lessons I have had. I hope to impart some learnings and insights to others in what I do.”
Shanley Knox, Founder of ABLE, a company that offers transparency across raw material supply chains by creating connected communities from source to factory.
“I grew up homeschooled, and my parents co-developed my school curriculums in community with other families they shared common beliefs with. We also grew our own food, and my dad taught me business through the lens of our California farm that I was responsible for, like selling our goat milk and chicken eggs.
Growing up in a self-sufficient social system had its pros and cons, and sorting through both has helped me to see opportunities to create healthier systems in the world. This has directly informed my work with my startup, ABLE, which works to create communities across value chains in the global south as a way to develop transparency across raw materials.”
Cecilia Pagkalinawan, Founder of Dance4aCause, an event marketing and production company that works with causes to raise awareness and funds via live stream and real-world events.
“My family immigrated to New York City when I was eight years old. For my parents, taking a huge risk and their five children to a place they’d never been to start brand new lives left a huge imprint in my mind. It taught me to be unafraid to take risks. Knowing that my parents took a huge risk and the outcome was positive for my entire family has given me a higher tolerance for change and confidence about our ability to adapt and stay resilient no matter what.”
Dina Kaplan, Founder and CEO of The Path, a meditation community dedicated to bringing meditation into the mainstream.
“When I was in high school, the Advanced Placement European history teacher called me into her office one day. She said the faculty of the school were all hoping I wouldn’t take the AP European history exam because they were worried my score would bring down the school average. I looked at her and said, “Well, let’s see about that.” I then took the exam and got a great score. I think I am successful now in part because of this experience. I am driven. I am passionate. I will work harder than I need to so I can prove to others that I am smart.”
Georgie-Ann Getton, CEO and Execution Expert of GSD Solutions, a boutique consulting agency working with clients to develop inclusive, innovative, and experience-driven brands.
“I grew up in the countryside of Jamaica where there was very limited technology. That is, until my dad started selling and repairing technology. I became very interested in how different technologies worked, how they could be optimized, and how they could be taken apart and then rebuilt.
Fast forward more than 20 years. I run a successful business creating tech solutions. It is so powerful to see how those experiences as a young girl impacted the work that I love to do and want to do for the rest of my life.”
Thea May, Founder and Lead Coach of Working With Voice, a company that provides speaking coaching for the new wave of soulful and inspiring communicators leading the way.
“I was born into a family of introverts as the sole extrovert. The communication challenges were immense, and everyone was often left with their communication needs left unmet. I’d often feel slightly used, and entirely unseen and unheard. And conversely, they’d often feel pestered and intruded upon by my more emotionally expressive communication needs.
This familial disconnect of communication needs led to me following a path to become a spoken communication coach. It has spurred me even further to create a unique approach to respectful, ethical, and aligned communication.”
Meha Agrawal, Founder and CEO of Silk + Sonder, a subscription-based mental wellness experience for the modern woman that makes daily self-care easy and fun.
“As the daughter of a professor, I was always naturally curious and constantly questioning everyone and everything around me. Being South Asian, we’re often expected to take a safe and secure path. And while that path was great for my father, I knew I had to do something different.
My dad always encouraged me to stay curious and to follow my heart rather than my head. As a founder, this curiosity has ultimately been what has made Silk + Sonder such a success. I have learned to operate outside of my comfort zone, take risks, pivot, and continue to learn from the people around me.”
Keira Kotler, Founder and CEO of Everviolet, an apparel company that creates functional and beautiful intimate apparel for the special needs of women after cancer and other physical challenges.
“I was raised by an entrepreneurial father and a healer mother, so it’s no wonder that my business combines both of these aspects. Watching my dad build his business while taking extraordinary risks along the way taught me that, so long as we have our basic needs met, we can always find ways to thrive.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was learning to be risk-tolerant, creative, resilient, and gritty—all necessary qualities for a founder of a startup. When I faced cancer at the age of 30, and then again at 40, I was forced to lean into my strengths in a whole new way, and self-advocate and fight harder than ever before. I now know that there is nothing I cannot achieve, so long as my body is sound, and I make a point to value every moment, every life lesson, and every challenge as gifts and evolve as a person and a founder.”
Shivika Sinha, Founder and CEO of Veneka, a capsule wardrobe featuring sustainable, ethical and cruelty-free brands.
“I was raised in India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. We lived in the poorest parts of the world as a result of my father’s career in impact investing, and I witnessed first-hand the power that business has in uplifting global communities. After more than 10 years in marketing, I decided to pivot my career to transform the fashion industry so that every closet creates a positive ripple effect.
My front-row seat to the most urgent humanitarian and planetary challenges of our time has given me passion, determination, urgency, and an unwillingness to give up. Knowing we cannot fix climate change or realize global gender equality without the proliferation of impactful fashion gives me energy I never thought I’d have.”
Jessica Kelly, Founder and CEO of THR3EFOLD, a SaaS platform providing apparel brands with access to an ethical supply chain and training to grow their business for people, planet, and profit.
“I was raised with the idea that I could be absolutely anything I wanted to be as long as I was willing to work hard enough for it. Even as a child I would fundraise door-to-door to do things our family couldn’t afford that I dreamed of, like going to summer camp.
This set me up for a life of entrepreneurship without me even knowing it. My confidence and joy to get out there and talk to others have helped me network into rooms far beyond my experience level and land partnerships with top global brands—all because I was willing to reach out and deliver their company value.”
Chithra Durgam, Founder of Blue Check Skill, a company that works with celebrities and large brands who want to amplify and monetize their owned content through Amazon Alexa voice skills.
“I have always been very independent and took many risks growing up. This foundation made me take calculated risks and manage multiple opportunities as I grew older. I’m an operator who developed, branded and marketed a business. I don’t let the judgment of others dictate my social media branding, the diversity of my work portfolio, or the amount of time I put into work. My attitude has enabled me to be a leader in the voice community and a thought leader in branding.”
Jill Goldenziel, Professor, speaker, and consultant at Jill Goldenziel, where she speaks and consults on law, leadership, and international affairs.
“Growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania gave me a very different frame of reference for what it means to achieve the American Dream than some of my Ivy League classmates. I showed up at Princeton mispronouncing words and using local phrases in a way that caused friends to kindly pull me aside and correct me to help me sound properly educated. I had never heard of The Economist, investment banking, or secret societies like all of my classmates.
My background has since taught me about the importance of teaching and giving back to others so they can share the opportunities I’ve been fortunate to have. I don’t take certain comforts or good education for granted—which enables me to approach my work with curiosity and gratitude every day.”
Rana Good, Founder of Naïra NYC, an online magazine for women of color.
“I grew up in Switzerland, which was not a particularly diverse place, and didn’t see many people who looked like me in the media or everyday life. Then I moved to the U.S., which was a lot more multicultural, but I still noticed an absence of women of color when it came to overall representation. This motivated me to create a magazine for women of color. There’s a growing understanding that diversity and representation aren’t just ethically correct, but also good for business. My website is gaining more visibility each day and brands are aligning with us through partnerships, which confirms that we’re on the right track.”
Lindsay Gordon, Career Coach for at A Life of Options, LLC, which helps analytically-minded people stop doing what they think is “right” in their career and start doing what’s right for them.
“My family let me explore everything I was interested in. I did musical theater, played violin, spent a year abroad in Belgium with a host family and learned French, ran a children’s craft camp, played four different sports, and more. Similarly in college, I went to a school that encouraged pursuing all of your interests and I was able to do engineering, French literature, finance, trapeze, and more. I never had the pressure that I had to choose just one thing to focus on.
The permission to honor and explore all parts of myself have continued to be present in my personal life, along with supporting my clients in my professional life. Society does not encourage us to be generalists or to relish the exploration of all of our interests, so it’s incredibly meaningful that I get to support people to do just that.”
Ada Chen, Founder and CEO of Chuan Skincare, an affordable, hand-crafted skincare line made from all-natural ingredients.
“When I was in high school, my dad was laid off, which put our family in a precarious financial situation. This impacted me in obvious ways, like teaching me how to be more resourceful and how to budget, but it also unexpectedly opened my eyes to entrepreneurship as a career option. It sounds silly but up until that point, I had only envisioned myself working for other people.
Once I understood that entrepreneurship was an option, it was like something clicked for me and my future self. Not only did this period of my life allow me to understand and identify my current career path, but it also made me more resilient and resourceful. I am a more creative problem solver and instinctive entrepreneur because of this part of my upbringing. I’m not afraid to think differently, take calculated risks, or approach business problems from another angle, which has set me apart and set me up for success.”
Amber Milt, Founder and Host of Art Beauty Podcast, an unsponsored beauty podcast that talks to beauty experts and brands in a refreshingly honest way.
“My grandmother learned to ski in her 60s and became a model at 65. She was in a movie with Meryl Streep and was a black-diamond skier by the time she passed away. This showed me it’s never too late to learn a new skill or go for your dreams. In my 40s, I figured my on-air career was over, but I was inspired by my grandmother to go for it once again. The podcast led to getting hired by NewBeauty Magazine as their on-air host.”
Shabrina Koeswologito, Content Creator of Slow Travel Story, a travel platform that encourages exploration of the world more slowly and sustainably.
“When I was 11 years old, my parents sent me on my first solo overseas trip. It was a one-month exchange program in Sweden, reputed to be a tough transition. After being exposed to different cultures, I was hooked! This short stint of solo travel led to more international opportunities, such as an internship for a nonprofit in the Philippines and an exchange program in Thailand.
Most importantly, I had a career in New York City less than five years after I graduated. Growing up in Indonesia, a country where women are not encouraged to speak out, live alone, or dream outside of their cultural barriers, the experience of living abroad is considered one of the most significant achievements one can hope for.”
Erin Tarr, Confidence Coach at fierce&flourish, a coaching and event-based company teaching young girls how to choose their thoughts so that they can change the world.
“I didn’t know how to ride a bike until I was in the fourth grade. Even as a kid, I was afraid to fail, so I often stuck with the things that I knew I could be successful at and avoided the things that made me uncomfortable or that seemed intimidating. When riding finally clicked with me one day, though, I realized how much easier and more fun my life had instantly become.
As an educator, I was planning to do everything “by the book.” But the “scary” and unknown entrepreneurial path kept calling to me. It seemed uncomfortable and definitely intimidating, but when I finally took the plunge as a full-time entrepreneur, the alignment in my spirit made my life instantly more fun—maybe not easier, but definitely more fun.”
Kimone Napier, Founder and Head of Talent Strategy of Kimone Napier Consulting, a consulting agency helping business owners attract, hire and retain their dream teams.
“The most important part of my upbringing was seeing my parents immigrate here and start their own entrepreneurial journey. They always shared the importance of creating a business around your passions and how that unlocks your true purpose in life. It’s because of this that I’ve always been confident and truly believe the sky’s the limit. Watching their journey and successes always pushed me to pursue my dreams and unlock my own potential.
Whenever I feel stuck or I feel unsure about my next moves, I think about their journey and how they have never stopped pursuing their own interests. This drove me to get multiple degrees, certifications, and finally start my business. It’s been an amazing journey and, because I saw this very early on, it really pushed me to strive for success even amid setbacks.”
Mimi Bishop, Co-Founder of The Resting Mind, a company that propels high-achieving, 40+ women who want greater success (and more money, too!) in their business or career.
“I am a surviving sibling, losing two of my younger siblings. I remember thinking that these tragic events would stop me in my tracks forever. However, my mother, while admitting we were all “hanging on by a thread,” made sure we looked forward, dusted ourselves off, and got back up. It taught me that difficult times do not dictate how our lives turn out.
Life is too short to not go after your dreams and what calls you from your heart. Being an entrepreneur can be difficult—you get knocked down—and having the resilience to dust myself off and get back up has been the secret to my success.”
Pascale Joseph, Associate Director of People and Culture at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a nonprofit committed to empowering young people from underserved communities.
“Although I was born in the U.S., my first language was not English. It was Haitian-Creole. Being raised with such a significant awareness of the beauty of my culture and my ancestors made me value the differences in others and push for the unapologetic celebration of those differences. I am inspired by pride in myself, my ancestors, and my culture. I believe the resilience of those who came before flows freely within me and pours itself into my determination to dismantle systems of oppression.
Having learned the stories of those who came before, and learned to embrace my own story as well, has been the foundation for me to empower others to share their own and to amplify the stories of others loudly and proudly.”
Grace Blacksea, Founder and CEO of Quench Collective, a community and education platform for modern leaders.
“As a first-generation Israeli woman, I come from a family of entrepreneurs. However, growing up, I wanted nothing more than certainty, a steady paycheck, and a 401K—all of the steadiness I could find. My family’s stories of starting something from nothing were both exhilarating and terrifying.
It wasn’t until hitting major corporate burnout that I realized I was meant to lead in my own way. The journey of entrepreneurship was in my blood—it was up to me to embrace it. My family had a rule: “Try it. If you don’t like it, try it one more time. Then make up your mind.” That ideology has played into my success because it’s given me a foundation to build upon. It’s those lessons that helped me become resilient in the face of a challenge and a better leader because I am able to make more thoughtful decisions.”
Nina Kong-Surtees, Founder and Chief Art Legacy Advisor of smART Advisory, a company that empowers, elevates, expands the cultural, economic, and social values of high-achieving visual artists.
“I come from a family of artists with a “finish what you’ve started” mindset. As a result, I’ve always strived for mastery and full commitment to projects. Although this mentality is an admirable trait, it has led me to a few burnouts and made me realize how restrictive it was for me to explore other possibilities in the past.
However, when I took a step back to reassess my purpose and readjust my focus, I realized my upbringing was a key to my success as long as I was committed to things that had the most impact on my life and business. As an updated version of my upbringing, my new mantra is ‘finish what you’ve decided.’”
Elizabeth Davis, Investor at Anthemis, an early-stage venture capital firm committed to cultivating change in financial services.
“Growing up as a fifth-generation Montanan with a grandmother who lived in a household with no indoor plumbing until she went to college, I saw the importance of hard work, kindness, integrity, curiosity, and authenticity. From a young age, I was encouraged to “find my passion and do it in the service of others” and not be afraid to ask for help.
When I was attending the University of Notre Dame, I saw for the first time the power of an ask. I wanted to work in global sustainability at a multinational company. Everyone I spoke to told me it would be impossible and the roles were only for experienced hires. Instead of giving up, I started emailing CEOs and chief sustainability officers and asking for 15 minutes of their time. Not only did I get a lot of yes’s, but I also ended up landing a job at The Coca-Cola Company on their global sustainability team.”
Marla Isackson, Founder and CEO of Ossa, a podcast network connecting women-hosted podcasts and women-focused brands.
“I grew up in a middle-class family in Long Island. My mother re-entered the workforce when I was in high school due to family financial difficulties. Initially, she was insecure about her capabilities—classic imposter syndrome—but she became more confident as she was given more responsibilities at work. She was my role model and inspired me to go big at work and become an entrepreneur. I am driven to help women achieve success however they define it. I launched Ossa to empower and help women in podcasting understand that their voice has value.”
Alex Cooley, Founder and CEO of AC Electric, a womxn’s leadership consultancy that supports ambitious mid-career women and the organizations that support them.
“I grew up in a bi-cultural family. My father was a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, my mother was from Peru, and I was a blond and blue-eyed kid. It was deeply impactful to watch my mom fight for her inclusion in our family and in an affluent Northern Virginia suburban context. At the time I was embarrassed. I vowed I’d never be this kind of woman—one who took space; spoke up for herself.
Decades later, I now spend my work life helping women manage their leadership. To others, this is deeply embarrassing. I learned from the best. My mother’s context shaped her behavior, and that context set a powerful example for me.”
Tamara Laine, Founder of Mind the Ceiling, a podcast featuring candid conversations with disruptive womxn leaders, breaking career journey myths giving them the tools to get to the top.
“My father hated flying, so we didn’t do normal vacations. Every year growing up, my family would pack up an RV and travel around the United States for at least three weeks. So instead of going to the beach, I found myself exploring small towns off of interstates and finding new friends to play with at campgrounds. Every summer RV road trip expanded my understanding of people and places around me and forced me to learn how to make new connections in any situation.
The curiosity that this instilled in me really set the course for my work in journalism, strategic communication, and now my work with mission-driven brands. I never flew over the life and communities between home and the destination. Every summer was a journey. That is how I approach my work now.”
Hannah Gräfin von Waldersee, VP of Strategy and Innovation at Insight Partners, a software-focused investment firm.
“My mum was the inspiration for never taking no for an answer and relentlessly finding new and better ways to do things. She was a trailblazer for asking “why,” and surfacing the underlying reasons someone might be resistant to a new idea or suggestion.
Her compassionate listening taught me the transformative power of empathy. It shaped me into the leader that I am today. I use the skills I learned from observing her every day—in my role leading innovation programs at McKinsey, Buckingham Palace, and in the investment world, listening is everything. Constantly paying attention to others, understanding their inner motivations, and gently pushing the boundary of their thinking is the very fuel of all innovation operations.”
Trish Boes, Founder and CEO of Soul Leadership Solutions, LLC, a leadership and life coaching company focused on supporting people to discover, own, and amplify their greatness.
“I was a first-generation Australian who grew up in a small predominantly white town. Having a multicultural background and growing up with different languages, food, and cultural traditions set the stage for me to have a genuine curiosity about the world. As a kid, I wanted to blend in and be like all of the other kids. Now I see that having such a rich family history has helped me to develop a growth mindset and to always seek out new challenges to constantly push myself out of my comfort zone. My parents’ courage to leave their homes and family behind to start a new life in a foreign country has always inspired me to be bold and to go after what I really want.”
Lauren Richardson, Founder and CEO of Radiance & Romance, a line of custom art jewelry for those who defy conventionality.
“I went to a school where shoes were optional, speaking out was encouraged, and students would visit the principal’s office not because they were in trouble but because they wanted to debate current events. It taught me to always question the status quo, to seek my own answers, and to find my voice.
At the same time, I struggled because I didn’t fit into this box that others saw for me. Constantly working to maintain who I was while feeling undervalued made me passionate about creating an environment where all humans are appreciated for the unique magic they bring to this world. Making sense of these two contradictions gave me the courage to not fear being different and to fight back against any voices that dissuaded me from pursuing my dreams. Your bravery isn’t measured in your lack of fear but in your willingness to do it anyway.
I hold this lesson very dear to my heart; I wouldn’t have started my business without it. Radiance & Romance is more than just a jewelry company—it’s a place to celebrate that strength in all of us and where we can let our true selves sparkle.”
Jessica Greenwalt, Founder of Pixelkeet, a company that works with crypto companies to design, build, and launch products that change the world.
“My childhood was shaped by constant change. I moved frequently to different homes in Washington, Hawaii, and California, which meant moving away just as I was getting comfortable with my classmates and community. My parents divorced when I was young, which compounded the variety of my living situation—on top of moving to different states and cities, I was going between different homes each week.
I now thrive in environments that have a high degree of uncertainty, making me feel at home in the tech world, and more recently in the crypto space. Rather than finding unpredictable work situations stressful, I find them comforting because they align with the world I grew up with and know best. This disposition has served me well through my years of building and growing startups. I don’t expect certainty or permanence from life, so it’s not a shock to my system when things inevitably change. I see change as life’s way of surprising me with opportunities for joy, pain, excitement, and radical shifts that all ultimately contribute to my personal and professional growth.”
Haley Lieberman, Founder and CEO of ShopTomorrows, a social recommerce network for trading up between friends, neighbors and beyond—minus the cash.
“It wasn’t until I started my first company that I realized how impactful it was on my career that both of my parents started and ran their own businesses and that neither of them worked in corporate. They were self-starters and did everything from bringing in clients to managing the books and schedules of patients.
My parents’ careers motivated me and helped me see that one can create their own path. Growing up and watching my mother take care of her own business, often from the kitchen table, taught me the hard skills I needed to start my own company plus the life skills I needed to survive and be resilient. Plus, they both loved what they did. My success is largely owed to the fact that every day they went to work as their own bosses and loved it along the way, which has helped me fuel my career with grit and passion.”
All individuals featured in this article are members of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies extraordinary entrepreneurial women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and high-impact resources. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.
Subscribe to the BlogHer newsletter for more tactical advice, exclusive content, and timely event updates.