If you’re a coffee fan, you may already know of Bonnie St. John. In 2006 she was quoted on a Starbucks cup during its “The Way I See It” campaign: “I was ahead in the slalom. But in the second run, everyone fell on a dangerous spot. I was beaten by a woman who got up faster than I did. I learned that people fall down, winners get up, and gold medal winners just get up faster.”
That anecdote refers to St. John’s Paralympics run in 1984, when she became the second-fastest female amputee skier in the world and the first African-American Olympic ski medalist. “That’s a powerful metaphor for today’s business world: There’s change, there’s competition, there’s technological shifts, and we will get knocked down,” says the upstate New York resident. “The prize often goes to the team that can get up the fastest and get back in the game.”
The way St. John’s train of thought leads her from skiing to a business lesson reflects the trajectory of her life.
With the Paralympics behind her, St. John graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, earned a Rhodes Scholarship for economics (and a graduate degree from Oxford), worked in the White House and wrote six books. As a leadership consultant and keynote speaker for 20 years, she has worked with 500-plus organizations, such as FedEx, Shell, Disney, AT&T, Merck and Target. “I’m here to inspire other people and to help them reach their potential,” says St. John, 49. “Whether that’s to inspire a group in a speech or to work with a team on a consulting basis to help them achieve their potential, that’s what gets me going.”
She began to understand the importance of potential at age 5, when her right leg was amputated because its growth was stunted. “I had to push on a heavy bathroom scale with my stump to toughen up the nerve endings so I could bear weight on it. It was horrible, but I learned that you have to push through the pain to get to a better place.”
St. John’s father left the family before she was born, and her mother married a man who physically abused Bonnie and her sister. But her mother worked to remain positive and set a powerful example for her three kids. “She took us to hear positive speakers and made positive affirmations. She put effort into changing her life,” and she treated Bonnie the same as her siblings. “She expected me to do my chores. She bought me a bicycle, and she set the expectation that I should be able to do anything I wanted to do.”
Which included skiing. When Bonnie was 15, a high school friend—a white girl from a privileged family—invited her to go skiing. “For Barbara to reach out to me, her one-legged friend from the other side of the tracks [in San Diego], and say, ‘Hey, let’s go skiing’—what a phenomenal person,” St. John says. She learned then the power of surrounding yourself with “people who bring you up versus people who bring you down.”
On that ski trip, unable to use traditional stopping techniques with one leg, St. John was battered and bruised. “But I had seen skiing on television, and the idea of going fast and being graceful made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. That vision of being so free kept picking me up.”
She devoted four years to full-time, year-round training. At age 19, St. John competed in the Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria, where she won the aforementioned medals—one silver and two bronze—in downhill events. Preparation was key. “I skied all summer with the best two-legged skiers. I wasn’t trying to be as good as the other one-legged skier; I was trying to be as good as anybody.”
St. John pushes toward excellence in all her endeavors, and in 1992 President Bill Clinton appointed her to the White House National Economic Council—“an incredible experience. It was such a team of talented people, and serving my country meant a lot to me.”
She left that role in 1994 to have a child, daughter Darcy Deane, and to change career paths for more flexibility. So St. John began consulting and speaking, applying her economics education and personal story to inspire organizations and individuals to reach new heights.
A recent talking point for her has been the concept of breakthroughs in performance. St. John remembers a lightbulb moment when looking at a brochure for an elite skiing academy after deciding she was “really going for it” with her ski career. She noticed that no photos featured black people or one-legged people, and the cost was steep. “I turned to my brother and said, ‘This is impossible. I might as well get started.’
“That’s a message a lot of people want to get out to their teams right now. Things may look tough, but let’s get started. Let’s figure it out.”
Another message she shares: Don’t let your circumstances define you. She points to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom St. John recently interviewed for her book How Great Women Lead. As a child, Rice had to drink from separate water fountains because she was black, but her parents taught her that if she “worked hard and set her goals high, she could achieve anything. Her circumstances were not defining for her—it was what’s inside her,” St. John says. “It’s important to remind people of that, because they can get stuck in the daily grind. Just lift your head up and think about what’s possible.”
Currently creating leadership development programs across the United States, St. John says helping others grow is her greatest accomplishment. “I think of the different businesses I’ve touched, the different teams and divisions and CEOs I’ve worked with, and it’s the sum of the difference that they’ve made in the world that I’m most proud of.”