If you asked Ginni Rometty’s mom how she managed to raise four high-powered executives, she’d be as stunned as you are.
“My mom [is] always like, ‘How did this happen?,'” Rometty, the former CEO of IBM, said on Wednesday at the World Business Forum summit. “To this day, she’ll be like, ‘What did I ever do?'”
Rometty’s youngest sister, Darlene Nicosia, is the CEO of food manufacturing company Hearthside Food Solutions. Her sister Anette Rippert served as chief executive of strategy at consulting firm Accenture before retiring last year, and her brother Joe Nicosia is a trading operations officer at merchant firm Louis Dreyfus Company.
One particular lesson from their mom helped them all grow into successful adults, Rometty said: “Never let someone else define who you are.”
Growing up, the family lived fairly normally, Rometty said. That changed when she was 15, and her father, their primary source of income, left. “[He] left us with nothing, no home, no food, no money,” she said.
The family was forced to relocate, accepting food stamps and government aid. Her mom — who didn’t have a job at the time, Rometty told the Horatio Alger Association in 2016 — managed to land a job at a local hospital.
Her mother never let her circumstances “define her future as a victim,” Rometty said on Wednesday, adding: “This idea of hard work, this idea of a way forward, this idea of … only defining yourself would become the core of who I’d be over time, as I look back.”
For the four siblings, witnessing their mom’s experience empowered them to work hard, complain less and constantly “work on solutions,” Rometty said. She referenced a quote from bestselling author and leadership researcher Brené Brown, which helped put the experience in perspective for her as an adult.
“She said what she worries about today is parents who want to fix everything for their kids, versus letting them endure adversity,” said Rometty. “My mom didn’t choose those situations [we were in], but we made the best of it … [and] it set a bar.”
She’s not alone: Plenty of business figure have discussed the hardships they faced before finally finding success. Oprah Winfrey has spoken about growing up in Mississippi without water and electricity, for example. Mark Cuban slept on the floor and used “nasty” Motel 6 towels in his 20s while trying to launch his first startup, MicroSolutions, he said at an SXSW panel earlier this year.
Everyone faces obstacles, and it’s how you respond to them that determines how successful you’ll become, according to Christine Carter, a sociologist and VP of transformation science at BetterUp.
“Elite performers turn adversity into success,” Carter wrote in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine in 2013. “Since adversity in life is a given, our success and happiness depend on our ability not just to cope with it but to actually grow because of it.”
Rometty agrees: Overcoming hardships taught her to be more optimistic and forward-thinking. “After that, nothing ever really looked bad to me,” she said. “I always felt like, there’s no bad ending after this.”
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