The title of Steve Pemberton’s best-selling 2012 memoir is A Chance in the World. A babysitter gave Pemberton, then a-year-and-a-half-old, much lower odds of enjoying any kind of happiness or success in life.
At the time, Pemberton was living in the care of his struggling single mother, who surrendered him to foster care when Pemberton was three years old. By the time he landed in an abusive foster home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Pemberton had never known his African-American father and had only a dim memory of his Irish-American mother. Both parents were drug addicts, he would learn later, and throughout his childhood, Pemberton contended not only with violence, neglect, and emotional cruelty at the hands of his foster family, but with painful questions about his identity and where he fit in.
But Pemberton did defy the odds. One break came when a kind neighbor supplied him with a steady stream of books, which fueled in Pemberton a laser focus on education. Others conspired, “mostly unbeknownst to them,” to encourage and support him in realizing his dreams, Pemberton said, helping him escape his foster home as a high-school student. He attended Boston University on scholarships and from there, Pemberton went on to become vice president and chief diversity officer at Monster Worldwide, the vice president of diversity and inclusion at Walgreens, and chief human resources officer at Globoforce, his current position. He is married and the father of three children.
Rather than hiding his traumatic past, Pemberton began to share his story with others and will be a Main Stage speaker at Convening Leaders.
I was riveted by the story of how you transcended your circumstances as an adolescent. To what do you most attribute your success?
I’m glad to see that it’s struck the chord that it has. I think it’s a combination of things, and those things are instructive for all of us. I did have, certainly, a sense of a different vision than the circumstance that I was in, which is, I think, the most important thing that’s required for you to have in that moment.
Now, that [vision] came to me because of how much I read and what I read. And so that love of reading gave me a North Star. In the books that I read, I saw kind parents. I saw intact families. I saw people who did not live in the shadows, who were moral and righteous and impactful in a positive way. So it was a wonderful and very, very important counterbalance to what I was experiencing on a daily basis, and so as a result, I began to believe that that world, the one that I read about, was possible for me. You’ve written that many people, beneath their facades, also have had to overcome circumstances that might surprise others.
That is the single biggest revelation I have had since the book was published, [that there] is a universal story that we all carry of family and belonging, and longing. Fortitude, forgiveness, and faith are things that we all have to summon at some point in our life. And you learn that because of the stories that are shared back with you.
And there’s something so powerful and instructive for all of us, particularly in these times when there’s so much division as a business model, negativity as a destination. But if we take the time to hear one another’s stories and then look for these moments of recognition, well, it doesn’t mean that you’ll agree on everything, but it does mean that you’ll find these common threads that connect you. And I am reminded of that every single day. And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you every single day. Every single day, I will hear from someone, somewhere, in some part of the world, from all different walks of life, who says, “This is a chapter of my life. We don’t have the exact same story, but we have a similar chapter.”
Is it part of your message that everyone has the capacity to overcome circumstances?
I absolutely believe that. And that may be an opinion singularly held, but I do. It’s a complete miss to think that I’m somehow exceptional or extraordinary or possessed of some capacity that others don’t have. I think we all have it. Somewhere in everyone is the “enough” instinct: I’ve had enough of this.
How you define diversity, and do you think that that’s different from the definition one typically encounters?
It is. When I did meet both of my families, the Pemberton family and the Murphy family, I was struck by the similarity of their narratives in America. Two immigrant families, one West Indian, the other Irish, who had traveled similar paths to America, who had faced similar kinds of discrimination, who had, at the same time fought for a new beginning, who had lost family members. And the concentric circle they have is that the family members they lost, in this case, to addiction, were my mother and father.
And the only thing that was different about those families was their complexion. But the narratives were nearly identical, though neither family ever knew that, because my parents kept my identity secret.
› Learn more about Steve Pemberton at stevepemberton.io.
› For more information on PCMA Convening Leaders 2019, Jan. 6–9 in Pittsburgh, visit conveningleaders.org.