Pemberton, Okamoto on Overcoming Adversity, Championing Others


Steve Pemberton shares his story Jan. 8 on the Main Stage at Convening Leaders 2019 (Jacob Slaton)

Shifting your mindset from adversity to ambition isn’t an easy thing to do, but at PCMA Convening Leaders Opening Main Stage on Jan. 8, executive Steve Pemberton and social activist Nadya Okamoto showed it’s not impossible.

Pemberton, who like Okamoto received a standing ovation, recounted how he was orphaned and placed into foster care, then abandoned and betrayed by the individuals entrusted with his care.

“I wound up in foster homes that saw me as a way to make money,” he said. “Every day was a battle to feel safe, to learn.”

This toxic living situation only fueled his desire to become a person of resilience, determination, and vision. Pemberton harnessed his love of reading and key moments of recognition from supporters in his life to lift himself up.

“You never forget who sees you first,” Pemberton said. “Someone who sees not the circumstances of your life, but the possibilities.”

From the neighbor who gave him books, to the smiling judge at an elementary school spelling bee, to the mentor who helped him apply to colleges, these seemingly small gestures had a life-changing impact.

“We spend too much time judging one another above the waterline, based on what we look like,” he said. “We need to spend more time below the waterline … to find the commonality of the human experience.”

Pemberton’s triumphant life journey was made into a film, “A Chance in the World,” drawn from his critically acclaimed memoir of the same title. Today, in addition to being the chief human resources officer of Globoforce, Pemberton is a passionate champion for disadvantaged youth, serving on several boards, including the United States Business Leadership Network and UCAN.

Nadya Okamoto shares her story Jan. 8 on the Main Stage at Convening Leaders 2019 (Jacob Slaton)

Okamoto’s story of childhood discrimination and abuse served as the catalyst for her humanitarian work. When she was a freshman in high school, her family was homeless for several months. Her commute to school went from 12 minutes to more than two hours each way. After striking up conversations with the homeless women she met at the bus stop, she learned the most challenging aspect of their living situation was menstrual hygiene.

“It not only angered me that they had to use trash to take care of their periods,” said the now 20-year-old who is on leave from her studies at Harvard University, “but how we had to talk about periods — as if we had something to hide.”

After relentlessly researching the issue, Okamoto decided to launch her own nonprofit at just 16 years old to address the gender inequity surrounding the issue of menstruation and access to feminine-hygiene products. Since 2014, PERIOD has served thousands of women in partnership with hundreds of campus chapters and nonprofit partners.

PERIOD aims to break the stigma surrounding the topic of menstruation and make menstrual hygiene more accessible for all women and girls, regardless of their backgrounds.

“If you believe men and women are equal and that we deserve the same opportunities and success,” she said, “you have to be a period warrior.”

Convene content partner Ascend wrote this story.