Erica Dhawan

CEO, Cotential

Location: Boston, MA

"You can do it. Your 15-year-old self is cheering you on from the sidelines."

Growing up with two Indian immigrant parents in Pittsburgh, PA my childhood was completely mapped out for me—with love and many rigid expectations. There would be no sleepovers. There would be lots of SAT and college preparation. I would be obedient to elders and of course, no dating until I was about to get married.

I did well in school and was often known as a quiet voice in the classroom. Hardworking, bookish, soft spoken—these are not the things that middle school popularity are made of.

Then, at age 15, I decided I wanted to change that. I had my heart set on becoming class president. It was the most exciting thing I had ever done. I practiced my student council speech night after night, posted flyers around campus, asked friends to support me. It wasn’t easy. Not even a little bit. A few school bullies hassled me but I wouldn’t be deterred. Giving my class president speech was the most difficult, most defining leadership moment of my 15 short years.

But I wasn’t chosen—not by a long shot. I got fewer than 20% of the votes and wasn’t even elected to be a class representative. Of course, it felt like the sort of failure I’d never recover from and I was convinced I wasn’t good enough to succeed at anything.

As difficult (and disappointing) as running for class president was, it was also a lean in moment for me. It taught me about courage and that sometimes I won’t win. But more importantly, I’ll never win if I don’t believe in myself enough to keep putting my hat in the ring.

Eventually, I found my home in high school and became the president of Future Business Leaders of America and an editor for the school newspaper. Young as I was, that role helped me share controversial and diverse voices about the student community, leading me to the work I do today as a CEO, consultant and author.

Just last year, I was asked to be my high school’s commencement speaker and I was the youngest alumni speaker in decades. When I was on stage giving my commencement speech, I saw my 15 year old self giving her class president speech years ago in that same auditorium. That totally heart breaking experience taught me to lean in, despite the outcome. It gave me resilience I’ve used in every other aspect of my life since.

People talk about the importance of believing in yourself all of the time but it’s not as easy as those bumper stickers make it out to be. We can’t just lean in when it’s easy or comfortable or when things are going well. We have to lean in when it seems like nobody else wants us to and the goal we’re going after feels too big.

You can do it. Your 15-year-old self is cheering you on from the sidelines.

Erica Dhawan is the Founder & CEO of Cotential and co-author of the upcoming book: Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence.