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How these CEOs transformed their careers and their lives


This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets to grips with successful business leaders to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what gets them out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

From billionaire investor Ray Dalio to former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, some of the country’s top executives have chosen 2021 as their opening year.

This year, CNBC Make It got personal with over 30 CEOs covering their lives, careers, mistakes, leadership styles and of course, Covid. They discussed their secrets to success – and how they struggle with everyday problems as well.

Some have fought against child poverty and drug addiction. Others have struggled with their sexuality or endured years of failure and regret. They all shared a particular strength: throughout their challenges, they never stopped pushing towards their goals, whether personal or professional.

Here are the six most successful CNBC Make It CEO stories of 2021, and what you can learn from them:

Wynne Nowland, CEO of insurance brokerage firm Bradley & Parker, on her transgender identity: “I am much more at peace with myself”

Wynne Nowland behind her desk at work.

Courtesy of: Peter Ross

For nearly 30 years, Wynne Nowland buried herself in work to avoid having to deal with her two characters: at work she was Wayne, but inside she was Wynne.

On the career side, her strategy has paid off: in 2017, she became CEO of her midsize insurance company in Melville, New York. But inside, she was reaching a breaking point.

So, a few weeks before her 56th birthday and about four months after her promotion, she sent a company-wide email to her staff of 70. “I plan to start working as Wynne from this morning,” she wrote in the email.

In March, Nowland told CNBC Make It she felt more comfortable at work and much more at peace with herself. She also said she was greeted with open arms by colleagues, clients and board members.

Her advice: “Once you’ve come to the conclusion that this is what you are … don’t delay.”

Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space, on treating “people who didn’t think I needed to be there”

The five NASA astronauts assigned to fly aboard Space Shuttle Discovery for the 1993 STS-56 / Atlas-2 mission are pictured in training versions of their partial pressure launch and entry clothing. From left to right, astronauts Kenneth D. Cockrell, Steven S. Oswald, C. Michael Foale, Kenneth D. Cameron and Ellen Ochoa.

History | Corbis History | Getty Images

Ellen Ochoa might not be a household name, but she just might be: in 1993, Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman in space. Twenty years later, she became the very first Hispanic director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

It was not an easy race for Ochoa, especially as a Hispanic woman in the 90s. She faced discouragement right from college, while studying electrical engineering at San State University. Diego. During her graduate studies and early career, she met people who “didn’t think I had to be there”.

In September, Ochoa told CNBC Make It that instead of listening to opponents, she stepped up to fight discrimination in the workplace.

Her advice: “You don’t want to listen to the discouragement of people who don’t know you. It really tells you more about them. It doesn’t say anything about you or your talents, interests or passions.”

Wes Moore, former CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, on being guided by faith, not fear

Robin Hood CEO Wes Moore speaks on stage during the 2019 Robin Hood Benefit at the Jacob Javitz Center on May 13, 2019 in New York City.

Kevin Mazur | Getty Images

The Wes Moore neighborhood in the Bronx, New York, was one of the first to be supported by the Robin Hood Foundation, now one of the nation’s largest anti-poverty nonprofits.

During her childhood in the 1980s, her widowed mother held several jobs to send her to military school. Moore became a member of the White House under former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and an investment banker at Deutsche Bank and Citibank.

And in 2017, he became CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, although he wasn’t sure about the decision at the time. “I actually didn’t realize how deep Robin Hood’s connection was with my own personal travelogue until I got to Robin Hood,” Moore told CNBC Make It in February.

For Moore, tackling poverty involves, in part, re-framing “charitable work” as a means of fostering positive social change. “In fact, I think a ‘charity’ can often come across as paternalistic and inaccurate,” he said.

In May, he left Robin Hood and, according to his LinkedIn page, launched a campaign for governor of Maryland the following month.

His advice: Change organizations shouldn’t be run with a feeling of sympathy, but rather with a feeling of empathy “where we understand that the pain of others should be our own.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, explains why she was late going out to work: “There weren’t any lesbians who had great careers”

GLAAD CEO and President Sarah Kate Ellis attends the 29th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at the Mercury Ballroom at the New York Hilton on May 5, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim / WireImage)

Rob Kim | WireImage | Getty Images

As President and CEO of GLAAD, Sarah Kate Ellis is a passionate advocate for LGBTQ + rights. But she wasn’t always like this: As a magazine director in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she was silent about her own sexuality.

“I wanted to be successful,” Ellis told CNBC Make It in June, “And I felt that once I got out of work, I wouldn’t be known for my job, I would be known for my identity.”

Ellis said she had delayed dating as a lesbian for years. Over time, the agony of hiding and lying to others became too intense. One day at work, she let it slip that she had a girlfriend – and after that, she said, her career took off.

“I took everything about me to my job and didn’t hide any part,” she said. “It takes a lot of brain capacity to hide who you are.”

Her advice: “I befriended people. I wanted people to like me. I know the power of meeting people, knowing people and having empathy. If people like me. knew, they couldn’t hate me when they found out I was gay. “

Dawoon Kang, Co-Founder of Dating App Coffee Meets Bagel, Explains How Being an Immigrant Shaped Her Identity

Coffee co-founder meets Bagel Dawoon Kang

Noam Galai | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Today Dawoon Kang is the founder of the multi-million dollar dating app Coffee Meets Bagel – and she may never have made it without first being an immigrant.

At age 12, Kang emigrated from Korea to the United States with his two sisters, while his parents stayed behind to run their business. The siblings lived with a family friend, learning English to acclimatize.

It was hard. In May, Kang told CNBC Make It that she had simply been silent for a long time, fearing she would make grammatical errors. Her turning point came when she realized that mistakes were okay with everyone.

“If you believe [mistakes matter], then it’s going to become a hindrance to whatever you want to do, “she said.

Eventually, she ended up working at JPMorgan – and when one of her sisters graduated from Harvard Business School with a passion for starting a business, she couldn’t resist the urge to start an entrepreneur. She quit her job in 2011 and the two siblings co-founded Coffee Meets Bagel.

“I immediately knew, instinctively, that I was [regret it] if I didn’t really take the time to try, “she said.

Her advice: “Everything comes together at the end, even if you haven’t really planned it, which is why I think it’s important to follow your gut. See what kind of stuff draws you in because you never know how it’s going to play out. “

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, on Ending Hate: You Must ‘Change Hearts and Minds’

WASHINGTON, DC, UNITED STATES – 2018/05/06: Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of ADL, at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Brochstein / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

SOPA Pictures | LightRocket | Getty Images

Jonathan Greenblatt’s hands have been pretty full in recent years: he’s the CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the world’s oldest anti-hate nonprofit and one of the oldest civil rights groups in the United States.

Earlier this year, an ADL report showed hate crimes have skyrocketed in the United States over the past four years, doubling in 2020 from the previous year. Last year, the country recorded an average of more than 14 incidents per day, according to the report.

But in March, Greenblatt told CNBC Make It he learned you can’t legislate or arrest people to fight hate. Instead, he said, you can use education to change people’s “hearts and minds”.

Greenblatt said his passion for helping others came from his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who eventually settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut: “His experience of going through the worst of the worst and yet having hope really shaped my perspective.

His advice: take calculated risks. “It’s not about jumping into a lake and you don’t know how deep it is. It’s about being smart about the risks you take,” he said. “I would encourage people to step out of their comfort zone.”

Don’t miss more from Behind the Desk:

Co-founder of the $ 1.6 billion Skims brand: “I have a rule: you must do things that scare you”

Why SoulCycle CEO Accepted Job Following Company Controversy: “I’m Not Afraid of Challenges”

Designer Vera Wang talks about starting her business at 40: “I thought it might be too late for me”

Alex Rodriguez, CEO of A-Rod Corp, on his life and career: “It’s a flawed story”

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