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The Heroine’s Journey – a guest post by Marion Chapsal

As first published in Geronimo Coaching Now:  Once upon a time, in the bleak Welsh valleys, there was a little girl. Her name was Sylvia Ann…

Cwmystwyth hills in Ceredigion Wales and ruins of the old lead mine.

I grew up in the Welsh mining valleys. I was one of 6 girls children in a family that struggled a lot with unemployment.

We didn’t have a refrigerator or a telephone or anything along those lines and I did understand the bleakness of my environment when I was growing up. In my valley, the unemployment rate was 38%. The coal mines were all closing down.

And my dad pointed out to me when I was a small child, “the only thing you could do as a girl in this community was to marry an unemplyed miner or get the hell out!” Not a whole lot of options.

So when I was 13, my dad took me by bus to Cambridge University. I spoke English with this thick unfashionable accent. I had never eaten in a restaurant or stayed in a hotel. I didn’t know how to deal with knife and fork almost.

He was convinced that if I saw Cambridge, this land of opportunity, maybe I’d get inspired. So he showed me this campus which is gorgeous and has lashings of opportunities all over it….

And he said: “You work hard. You go there.”

Cambridge University

In a strange way, he was right. I did go back to Wales. I did work hard. 8 years later I was one of these affirmative action people at Cambridge University and true to my father’s promise.

The labour party was forcing the universities to open to two groups :

Women and folks from the wrong side of the track.

I got to qualify on both!

Sure I worked hard, but that wouldn’t have been enough. There had to be a change in the structure too.

It transformed my life and I was true to my father’s promise.”

Who is Sylvia Ann Hewlett  and why do I talk about her?

hewlett_lg1Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a Manhattan-based think tank. She is the author of eight books, including Top Talent. She directs the Gender and Policy program at Columbia University. She writes regularly for the Harvard Business Review and for the Financial Times.

Dr. Hewlett is the founding director of the Hidden Brain Drain a Task Force, comprised of 46 global companies committed to the full realization of female and multicultural talent. Working with Goldman Sachs, BP, GE, Microsoft and others, Dr. Hewlett has authored and developed innovative models of best practice.

Why do I talk about her?

Because when you first read her bio and watch her talk, you’re impressed. You forget that before reaching the bright heights of Manhattan and Forbes, she started in some bleak coal mine valleys in Welsh.

Thanks to DiversityInc, I have been able to watch this short video of her, where she shares her journey, very simply.

This is the story I have transcribed at the beginning of this post


The resemblance with Arianna Huffington‘s story.


While I was preparing for one of my Organizational Behavior lecture, on diversity, I came across Sylvia-Ann video on the excellent online magazine DiversityInc. The next day, I started my post on Arianna Huffington and heard her telling her story to Sheryl Sandberg. 13 year old…Cambridge. Gulp… Poor little girls…Change in the destiny… The power of the mentor, mother ot father… Hard work and education can change your life….Happy ending, high achievements. Wow!

They share similarities in the social context where they spent their childhood. Both had a “calling” around the same age, when they were teenagers, to leave their home country and go to Cambridge, namely to Girton College, where Education would change their life.

The difference being the role played by the mother in Arianna’s story and the role played by the father, for Sylvia-Ann Hewlitt.

In Arianna’s story, she stumbled upon a photo of Cambridge in a magazine. Pure serendipity. She already knew where to focus her attention. Then her mother provided encouragement and support.

In Sylvia-Ann’s case, it’s her father who opens her eyes and takes her, on purpose, out of their difficult context.

Both of them, afterwards, had to gather their own strengths and work hard towards their objective. The very amusing detail is that they both studied at Girton College. That was the place where my father’s sister, Odette de Mourgues, was a French Literature Professor and fellow of Girton.That’s  where I visited her one month every summer, starting at the age of 13. At 17, I also took part to an international summer programme, at Girton College, in Economics. Funny when you think about this coincidence…

For Sylvia-Ann Hewlitt, there’s also a deep gratitude for the structural changes taking place in the society. She couldn’t have done it all by herself.” It wouldn’t have been enough”.

That’s why, after so many years, she’s still fighting against dicrimination. She’s focused on helping organizations leverage top talent across the divides of culture, gender and generation.

Isn’t it incredible to see how these two stories are alike? How, by sharing their journeys and their trials, these women have opened up new possibilities for our own lives?

I believe that each one of us is on a hero’s journey. An abundant literature exists around the male hero, starting with Joseph Campbell , The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

It’s only fair we start to acknowledge the heroine’s journey.

Watch this place, for it’s just the beginning!

Now, to you. What does this story inspire you? What specific element resonate with your story? What permission does it give you?

About the Author | From Lyon in France, Marion coaches and trains International leaders and business owners in Leadership and Presentation skills and is the author of


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