This article is part of Citi’s sponsorship of the Urban Progress section on Huffington Post.
This post is inspired by Pathways to Progress, a Citi Foundation initiative that works with community partners, city officials and Citi employee volunteers to help low-income urban youth develop the leadership experience, professional skills and the workplace know-how they will need on their path towards college and careers. Follow the conversation on social media using the hashtag #Pathways2Progress
Do you remember the summer you spent working as a lifeguard, or the semester you were a barista during college? Can you draw a parallel between that sunburned kid and the career person you are now? That inner youth is still in there, shaping every decision you make.
The challenges you once faced are the ones you built around; the activities you did informed your worldview; and the things that used to light your world now inspire you. The most successful people capitalize on their inner child, infusing hard work with creativity and soul.
We partnered with Citi, and talked with nine influential entrepreneurs, policymakers, and legendary artists about the surprising first jobs that made them who they are today. Whether you’re already what wanted to be, or you’re making your first career moves, you’ll find major inspiration.
1. Cyndi Lauper – U.S. Recording Artist, Co-Founder, True Colors Fund
Earlier job: File Clerk
Girls just want to have fun, but Cyndi Lauper believes that everyone needs to have access to basic civil rights first. In 2008, she co-founded the True Colors Fund to raise awareness about homelessness among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, and to encourage all of society to participate in advancing safety and equality for all.
As a teenager, Lauper says, she didn’t fit in. Always a dreamer, she didn’t have any luck at “normal” jobs, such as the one she held at a major publishing house.
“I tried really hard to blend into the regular, straight world, and it didn’t work,” she says. “When I was a kid, I didn’t feel successful. When you can’t do things, it doesn’t make you want to go out into the world and win.”
In a world that left Lauper feeling useless, she found that singing was a challenge that actually uplifted her, and wants to help others find their niche, regardless of their background or orientation.
“When I see kids who feel like nothing and need a boost, I have to show them that you can’t let life run you over – you can’t remain a sleeping lion,” she affirms.
“There are a lot of gatekeepers to your goals,” she concludes. “Always look around the gatekeeper, because there are a lot of ways to get where you’re going.”
Earlier job: Parks and Recreation department worker
Three-time All-Star Curtis Granderson has been indispensable for several baseball teams including his current team, the New York Mets, he worked to make his neighborhood shine.
“I worked with park and recreations cleanup,” he says. It was a summer tradition for kids in the suburbs of Lynwood, Illinois, who often went straight from work to evening sports and activities. “If there was anything I could take from that, it was time management: the ability to get things done so I didn’t have to worry about doing it the next day.”
The future sports star put his enthusiastic, easygoing attitude to good use during the hours he and his teammates spent painting curbs and fire hydrants, cutting grass and removing trash in minimal shade.
“It kept you busy with positive things instead of getting into trouble,” says Granderson. “You begin to prioritize, and realize that even if you’re tired, you still go in or you miss out on the day’s pay.”
Once he began taking responsibility for his time and his finances, Granderson’s parents relied on him to do it consistently. Awareness and humility gave the outfielder a winning edge in the ballpark.
“If you’re having fun, you’re getting positive results, and those results end up being the ones you want to add to the excitement of what you happen to be doing,” Granderson says. “Whether it be in the batting cage, practice field, or during the game, I do the things I have to do.”
Earlier job: Summer counselor
Blackwell gained her fearless tenacity during the sweltering Missouri summer, when she worked as a girls’ summer program leader. It was her first summer home from college, and it was her first job. She later went on to found PolicyLink, a premier research and action institute for social equity.
“I don’t know how much you know about Missouri,” she recalls, “but in the summer, it can be so hot that you cannot breathe.” One day, the temperature hit an unbelievable 105 degrees. Angela came to work to find the asphalt playground empty besides her four coworkers – no children had come out to play in the heat.
“That day my father drove up with an ice chest with ice cream and root beer, and aluminum glasses that were popular in the 60s,” she says. He made them all soda floats.
“I thought, ‘My dad’s come. He’s going to take me home,’ but after that he just packed up the cooler and left. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I have to stay here until the end.'”
To Blackwell, “equity” means a fair, just, inclusive society in which everyone can reach their potential.
Her father’s actions taught her about justice in the face of challenges, but also that effective organization takes hard work to achieve, “even if it’s hard, and even if it’s hot.”
4. Lorena Feijoo – Principal Dancer, San Francisco Ballet Company
Earlier job: Outreach program contributor
Feijoo’s disciplined passion for dance grew from an early age, when she was required to not only study art, but also to teach it to those who didn’t have access to the stage.
In Cuba [where Feijoo was raised], involvement in outreach programs came with ballet school,” she explains. “Even as a little kid, we did outreach programs to regions of Cuba that were very poor and didn’t have access to art forms in order to get kids to understand why art is important in a person’s life.”
“When a little seed is implanted early on — whether you are introduced to an art form, a way of studying, or a certain career — it gives you the ability to choose whatever you are most inclined towards as a human being,” says Feijoo, whose mother was a ballerina. “I have friends who have made a great career in great companies all over the world, who came from the neighborhoods we went to with the outreach programs.”
5. Suni P. Harford – Managing Director, Regional Head of Markets for North America, Citi
Earlier job: Swim coach
Suni Harford oversees every aspect of Citi’s capital markets business in North America, including sales, trading, and origination of securities and banking business. As a physics and math major in college, she excelled in a field in which women hold only a quarter of jobs. Previously, as a swim coach, she empowered kids to find their athletic strength.
“You want the kids to develop the talents you’re teaching them instead of [you just] babysitting [them], and of course you want to win, so you have to hit multiple objectives,” she says. “You’re handling multiple constituents, working for your employer, making sure the kids are enjoying themselves, and managing parents who often have different objectives for their kids than the ones you have for the team.”
The skill includes the easier-said-than-done effort of being a positive influencer, keeping personal objectives out of her job, and creating a team that plays off each other’s skills while supporting individual weaknesses with everybody’s strengths. Still, the most important lesson Harford learned is a surprising one.
“The side benefit of having the job of being a kid’s coach is to learn that you have to have a sense of humor. Watching everyone get serious about something as inane as who’s going to swim and win the 25-yard freestyle at age seven is really something,” she says. “Few of us are doctors saving lives every day, and while what we’re doing is important, it’s not worth the stress that we think it is.”
Earlier job: Sierra Club intern
If you listen to Internet radio, use a solar panel, or own an electric car, you can thank Nancy Pfund. As managing partner of venture capital firm DBL Investors, Pfund not only invests in revolutionary new companies, but she also makes sure they positively impact the communities in which they operate. Her “double bottom line” policy stemmed from an internship at the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental organization.
As a college student, Pfund became interested in the still-emerging field of gene research, which was causing waves among scientists and policymakers who “didn’t speak the same language.”
“It’s now a technique that everyone uses for scientific research, but back then it was controversial,” she recalls. “The opportunity was to break down the division between conservation-oriented people and politicians to find common ground, and talk through some of their jargon and the biases to realize that solving problems is important to all of us.”
She says that she didn’t let go of her principles, but recognized that she lives in a society with diverse principles – a lesson she still cherishes.
“I saw that it really wasn’t so much important about how you view an issue or a controversy,” says Pfund. “The art of compromise is what good policymaking is all about, and that’s what makes progress.”
7. Jacob Singer – President, Chief Executive Officer, Oakland Business Development Corporation
Earlier job: Distribution business machinery operator
Jacob Singer was driving trucks and forklifts for his family’s distribution business by age 17. Having worked mostly in South Central Los Angeles, he understands the importance of giving entrepreneurs who don’t qualify for traditional bank financing access to business loans and assistance.
“I was much more interested in learning philosophy, psychology, and going to college, but it was a valuable, fascinating time in my life,” says Singer. “[My job] was located in one of the most significant low-income communities in Los Angeles. I spent my youth working in a really diverse environment.”
He developed a passion for making small businesses the nexus of job creation and vitality in communities – so much so that after graduate school, he left to find the “human element” in the often ruthless business world.
“I spent my late 20s and early to mid 30s coming to understand a lot of the complexities of the human spirit and mind that allowed me to come back to this work with a higher level of appreciation.”
Earlier job: Legal aide
Like Singer, Maria Torres-Springer, New York City’s Small Business Services commissioner, built her career from the ground up. As a first-generation child of immigrants, Torres-Springer says she never took for granted any opportunity that allowed her to understand the professional world.
During her work-study job at a legal aid clinic while in college, Torres-Springer had regular contact with those who dealt with truly gritty challenges.
“One of the most fascinating things I did was open dozens of letters from incarcerated people from across the state who were trying to get representation,” she says. “It was fascinating to see the worries of a number of individuals who are incarcerated, struggling to get representation, and on their own quest for justice.”
She says, “I wake up every morning thinking about what it means to create those opportunities for others. I try to keep luck out of the equation for New Yorkers and ensure we’re doing as much as we can to help entrepreneurs and job seekers, no matter what language they speak or background they come from, get opportunities they want.”
9. Lisa Baird – Chief Marketing Officer, United States Olympic Committee
Earlier job: Bartender
Lisa Baird makes Team USA look good. As the United States Olympic Committee’s chief marketing officer, Baird redesigned its brand and polished its winning image to award-winning success. And she credits her sparkling people-skills to years spent working behind the bar.
“I had no prior work experience, but I had the confidence that I could pull it off, and I got hired,” she says. “This was in 1980. I’ve worked across industries, taken on different assignments, and moved functions. It all goes back to that first risk.”
Bartenders have to keep a full room happy, watch out for irresponsible people, make drinks and manage money in the limelight while making it look effortless — a skill Baird now counts as career strength.
“Kids today are so concerned about running a hedge fund or being a manager at 22, but first you have to learn responsibility, accountability, and prove that you’re good at working with people,” she advises. “We all don’t have to make that ‘perfect career choice’ right away.”