by Linda Jimenez

Recently, I attended the 50th anniversary of Catalyst. As I watched the founders and leaders speak, I reflected on the myriad of women they have nurtured and inspired along the way.

They reminded me of my own mentors—the women who taught me to step up, speak up and not be afraid to lead. In particular, I thought of my mother, my biggest mentor, who passed away in March at the age of 88.

Mom was instrumental in shaping who I am today. She inspired me to dream big and be a leader. She came from humble beginnings. She was orphaned at an early age and received only an eighth grade education. Yet she had so much tenacity, and she taught me so much.

When I was a year old, I was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis in my left knee. I spent my first few years alternately in a leg brace, a wheelchair and on crutches. My mother was always by my side—during the multitude of doctors’ visits, numerous tests and treatments and seven major operations. She asked the doctors lots of questions and made them write things down for her so she could go home and look them up. At night I would see her leafing through encyclopedias, and with the doctors’ notes beside her, she would begin her research and educate herself about my treatment program. She was undaunted by her lack of formal education and committed to learning all she could to help me.

My most vivid memory of my mother was when the doctors told her I had been accepted into a pilot treatment program at age five, and I would have to undergo what would be my first exploratory surgery. As part of the program, we had to spend six months in Galveston, Texas, for the pre- and post-surgery observation and evaluation.

Later that day, I was surprised as Mom made an unexpected stop at our church in the middle of the afternoon. As we entered the church, my mother took my crutches and laid them on the back pew. Then she knelt on the floor and picked me up in her arms. On her knees she crawled from the rear of the church to the altar at the front, carrying me with her. She was saying her prayers softly and tears were running down her cheeks. When we got to the front of the church I asked her why she was doing this. She told me we were going on a “journey” alone. My father and brothers would remain in San Antonio. She admitted she was scared about the unknown and needed to ask for help from others. Mom said she was praying for the strength and courage to be a good mother.

I learned from Mom that you cannot achieve success alone—you need support for your efforts. As she told me, it is ok to ask for help—even though the risk of doing so may be high.

When I was little, I remember playing a game where I took a rolling cart and stocked it with “supplies,” pushing it to each room in the house, knocking on the doors and announcing, “Housekeeping—I am ready to clean your room!” My mother watched me do this a couple of times, and then she said, “Let’s go swing outside.” As she pushed me on the swing, she told me she wanted me to swing high and shoot for the stars. Mom said, “Being a housekeeper is a great job, and I would be proud of you if you choose that as your profession, but I want you to ‘dream big.’ Why not become the manager of housekeeping, or the owner of the hotel?” Mom inspired me to always set the bar high and never be complacent.

Years later, when I was considering a career transition from law to diversity and inclusion (D&I), I told Mom about my trepidation. She advised me to read and become an expert on the subject. My mother suggested that I identify the leaders in the field of D&I and then reach out to them, just like she did with my doctors so many years ago, asking questions, taking notes, and then reading and learning more. It is a practice I have continued throughout my career.

As I sat at the Catalyst dinner, I watched a parade of remarkable women leaders living my mother’s teachings. Like my mother, they had to conquer their fears to speak up and challenge the status quo for women. Like my mother, they had to ask for help to build the support they needed to realize their vision. Through their success, they continue to inspire and motivate others to set the bar higher, dream bigger and make it happen.

Linda Jimenez has spent 20 years specializing in labor and employment law.