In honor of Black History Month, Target invited Olympian Bonnie St. John to share her personal story and professional experience with Target team members.
Despite having her right leg amputated at age five, she became the first African American ever to win Paralympic medals in ski racing, taking home one silver and two bronze medals at the 1984 Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
In recognition of this historic achievement, Bonnie was quoted on millions of Starbucks coffee cups and was honored at the White House by President George W. Bush.
Bonnie is certainly an inspiration—NBC Nightly News agrees, naming her “one of the five most inspiring women in America” in 1996. She has never let obstacles prevent her from becoming a champion skier, Rhodes Scholar, best-selling author, single mother or successful business owner.
Below, we talk to Bonnie about Black History Month and what it means to be a great leader.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
As the first African American to win an Olympic medal in ski racing, I guess I am Black history in a way! By celebrating breakthrough moments in history, you’re celebrating people who took risks and persevered despite hardships along the way. I think about amazing African American women who achieved historic “firsts,” like Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice and Lisa P. Jackson. These women are history, and I take this time to reflect on their accomplishments. There are a lot of lessons to learn from diversity history.
What lessons have you learned from these women?
Take Condoleezza Rice—she started out in a world where she couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain as some people and she went on to hold one of the most powerful positions in the world. In the face of discrimination, she had the strength and optimism to challenge the status quo and move forward. There’s a lot of inspiration in her story for today’s women. Yes, we still have challenges—and they may not look exactly like those that women of the past faced—but stories like Condoleezza’s demonstrate that you can always achieve more than you realize.
How did you develop such a strong sense of confidence?
I’ve written a lot about confidence, and while writing my book “How Great Women Lead,” I came to realize that my take on confidence might be a little unusual. As an African American woman with a disability, confidence is often about going beyond other people’s low expectations. Confidence is a muscle you have to develop, so you’re not thrown off by what people’s perceptions or biases might be. You have to know who you are.
How do women become great leaders?
Women become bold leaders when they celebrate their unique passions, values and beliefs. They have to be themselves. It’s difficult to be an audacious leader when you’re always trying to be someone else. Accepting and celebrating yourself may not be easy because it may not be the path of least resistance. During a lot of my life, I was very much a chameleon—I used to cover up my leg with pants when I was younger. African American women have a history of straightening our natural hair, which I also did for many years. These types of things might be easier, but are they you? You can’t lead if you’re constantly hiding.
How does Target help make great leaders and celebrate diversity?
I’m the kind of person that’s always aiming for the next thing, which is much like the Target culture as a whole. When you love excellence and competition, you keep raising the bar because that’s what makes life interesting. You don’t rest on what you did last year. Target knows and wants everyone to bring their “A-game” to work, and diverse teams are stronger. The best work is composed of multiple points of view—Target doesn’t want only one point of view, because Target guests don’t have one point of view. You want to represent internally the way your customers are externally, which brings the most creative solutions.
So what’s next for you?
I’m working on my next book, which is all about resilience. Stay tuned!
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