I grew up in a single-family home in a mostly underprivileged, rural community in southern Louisiana. That short description alone encompasses many challenges and preconceived ideas of what my life could become. I have never let that narrative define me or what I could do.
Many people would say it was a less-than-ideal background, but I only saw and experienced unconditional love and limitless possibilities. Our home was full of joy, spirituality, fellowship, determination, and a strong work ethic to have a life of meaning and purpose.
My grandmother played a big part in taking care of us. She worked the farm, made sure we had homegrown vegetables to eat year-round and took care of the chickens and pigs that fed us. My mother was a math teacher. It was an uncommon job for a woman in that time and place, especially a Black woman. Looking back, even though we didn’t have money, I can’t imagine a better foundation for me. Life was simple. I could focus on important things like education and self-determination.
Early on, I recognized that being a woman meant something different than being a man. I watched and took note as I saw intelligent women holding their tongues or saw men dismissing their opinions for a reason I couldn’t understand. But I was blessed to grow up with strong women leading me. My grandmother would tell us, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” Translation: you’ll never get what you want if you don’t ask for it.
Not only did I see my mother ask for what she wanted, but I watched her go out and get it. Three nights a week, she would leave work and make the two-hour commute to and from the college where she eventually earned her Bachelor’s, and subsequently, Master’s degrees. Most of those days, I would ride along and sit in class with her, listening to lectures right beside her. Later, we would do our homework together at the table. To this day, I like to joke that I have four degrees—two of my own on top of my mother’s two.
I didn’t grow up around computers or even have much knowledge about what they could do, but not being a computer scientist hasn’t stopped me from building a strong resume of impressive accomplishments. I credit that partly to being a fast learner and partly to my willingness to embrace challenges. I am a lifelong learner, and I believe that is the only way to succeed in the world.
After all, I did grow up around my grandmother’s hard-earned insights and my mother’s extraordinary determination, which showed me to make the most of every opportunity I got.
Four things I learned specifically stand out.
My mother’s drive to become educated and my grandmother’s penchant for timeless wisdom originated from being curious individuals. Partly, it was a natural curiosity, but part of it was learned. No one was looking for Black women in the South to hand out information to, so keeping on top of things meant staying inquisitive. Observe, pay attention, and ask questions. I picked up these habits early from the women in my life, and I can’t count all the ways they have helped me forge a successful career.
“Always follow up” is a good rule for business, but it’s also a good rule for life. The people who are diligent about it build a reputation of trustworthiness. I can’t remember a single thing my mother promised me that didn’t happen. Part of what I learned from my grandmother’s never-ending hard work and my mother’s educational pursuits is this: if you don’t care about seeing something through, then don’t start it — but if you do care about it, don’t stop until it’s done.
There’s not much to say about gratitude that hasn’t already been said. One thing I’m grateful for is that I wasn’t just raised to say “thank you,” but to understand why it matters. Even a small gesture, like someone opening a door for you, is a gift worth honoring. Countless times in my life and career, expressing gratitude or taking on a thankful perspective has made the difference in turning something negative or insignificant into a positive, meaningful experience.
Even being curious and persistent and thankful sometimes isn’t enough. For me, there have been times when it felt like the only thing pushing me onwards and upwards was blind faith that nothing was unachievable. I’m fine with things being improbable, but the word impossible just doesn’t feel at home in my vocabulary. I know it’s not just me. Many of the most successful people I’ve known (including my mother and grandmother) constantly exhibit a positive, can-do attitude. And then they put in the work to back that attitude up with real action.
So, as it turned out, an upbringing rooted in values like empathy, kindness, integrity, and hard work ended up as the perfect springboard for a career in the fast-paced tech world. I work alongside many people that I consider smarter and more creative than I am, but I’ll put all of those traits plus my work ethic and determination up against anyone else’s. The privilege of being an executive could disappear at any time, but I’ll have my accomplishments—and the qualities I credit them with—always.
Sharon Harris is the CMO of Jellyfish.