Sunday, February 18, 2007

How My Folks Taught the Five of Us to Be Successful

The Wall Street Journal article, “Raising Women to Be Leaders”, reminded my husband of the Mims girls. He knew that I was raised in an environment that fostered success, too. The article describes how Dennis and Connie Sullivan prepared their four daughters to be highly successful businesswomen. These four women lead major companies.

None of the five Mims kids lead major companies, but we do lead happy, productive, and successful lives. Though the tactics and environments were different, our parents also taught us to be independent, accept responsibilities, work hard, pitch in (now its called teamwork), be confident about our work and abilities, and get an education. Although these expectations were not explicitly stated, we knew what we were expected to do and how we were expected to carry ourselves.

Only eight years separates the five of us; the only male is in the middle. I am the fourth child. Unlike the Sullivan girls whose father was an AT&T executive, we lived in the Upper Coastal Plains of Alabama and most of my family's income came from farming and pulp-wood businesses. During the 1970s, my father switched from growing cotton to growing vegetables. Several reasons prompted his decision. High fuel and chemical prices of the 70s made making a profit in cotton production difficult. Vegetable farming promised to be very profitable, albeit very labor intensive. Vegetables, pecans, and pine trees funded our grade school and college education. We learned so many valuable life skills by "truck" farming.

Hard Work
My father did not believe in making work hard for the sake of working hard. He did want us to accomplish something worthwhile, though. In order to earn money for our education, we have to work hard at growing and selling vegetables.

I could describe the harvesting and marketing activities of any summer, but one particular summer is worth noting. For the summer after my oldest sister entered Washington and Lee Law School, the second oldest was in Pharmacy School at Auburn, and my brother would soon be a freshman at Auburn, we had planted more corn—sweet and field corn—than in any other summer. My dad “gave” my oldest sister a 9-acre field of corn for her tuition. This was not the only field of corn, but this one field was “hers”. He said everything that we sold from that field would fund her law school tuition. Many days would start at 4 AM and end at 10 PM. We would rotate trips to the market. At any given time at least two trucks were on the road or at the market, and the third truck was being loaded. .

I don’t recall at anytime my parents ever saying that we girls should be independent. In fact, the first time I ever heard my mother state her philosophy was this past December. She said, “I just wanted you girls to be able to live on your own and not have to depend on a man.” We grew up with an independent mindset and continue to be that way today. We are all successful individuals. We are all confident, that if by any unfortunate event, we are able to make our own decisions, take care of ourselves and families, and be successful on our own.

Allowing and expecting us to make our own decisions in lots of different situations helped us learn to be independent. We learned to negotiate with wholesalers and individual consumers at a very young age. Even in our social life, we were given the opportunity to make our own judgments. We were not given curfews—we knew we were expected to behave appropriately and we did!

Also, our dad taught us skills so we did not have to depend on others. For example, our father taught us how to change a flat tire and change the oil in our cars. I am not very efficient at either of these activities, but I know how to do them. Today, I am glad to pay someone to change the oil in my car, but in college, I did it myself.

The level of responsibilities, expectations, and opportunities were the same for the four girls and my brother. I realized that many folks viewed the level of capabilities to be different for boys and girls when my brother and I were selling produce together. Customers would invariably turn to my brother to bargain with him. Even though our customers may have perceived that there were differences in our abilities, our folks did not. We were given same opportunities and responsibilities as my brother. Certainly, our parents never said, or indicated, that men and women should be valued differently.

Our parents gave us confidence by giving us responsibilities at an early age. When I was 8 years old, my dad told me and my little sister to learn to drive because more help was needed to haul hay. The two of us were too small to pick up the bales, but if we learned to drive, then the older siblings could toss the bales onto the truck while we drove. We were thrilled to learn to drive! How did my dad teach us? In a field about an acre big, he told Kathryn and me to each drive a truck around the field until we were comfortable driving. We already knew the basics: the gas pedal, the brake, P for park, D for drive, and R for reverse. Our dad’s only instructions were to ease off the gas pedal before braking. We understood to keep the trucks out of the ditch and to avoid hitting each other. We were driving the hay trucks the next day AND happy to be able to drive and contribute!

Directly selling produce meant that we youngsters learned the value of “repeat” customers, negotiation tactics, and marketing strategies based on customer demands and our product availability. Selling to individual consumers and negotiating with vegetable wholesalers built our confidence and helped us learn to communicate with all kinds of people.

Our parents encouraged involvement in school activities—not just playing sports, but also becoming leaders and participating in youth and government programs that created opportunities for us to meet people throughout our state and around the nation. Our parents supported us in every activity. They managed to watch every every ballgame and listen to every speech. They even made trips to Auburn for some of our college events. Their support and belief in us made us believe in ourselves.

We were not given allowances; we worked and made money for the family—for the greater good. We never compared what one child got over another. We knew the shares would equal out “in-the wash” and what we received at any given time was what we could afford. Our parents taught us how to work hard and to work together. We knew when to pinch in—whenever something needed to be done. We never called it teamwork, but that is what it was. We knew we had to get the work done, and sometimes, we had to adjust and be flexible for others. Looking back, I realize that working together is what made life fun. Certainly, in my current role, the most fun is when I work with others.

Our parents modeled perseverance. Sometimes, our life was economically tough. Our parents always looked for improvements in our situation. We were responsible for making opportunities out of the situations that were given to us. Perseverance led to adaptability and flexibility. Every summer, we made adjustments from the summer before. Dad was always willing to try a new variety of corn and tomatoes. We adjusted to what was available and what we capable of doing. For example, when we all were able to drive, we planted more because we had the ability to market more.

Our parents believed in education. They made great sacrifices so we could get a very good education during our grade school and college years. Our parents never demanded or even asked if we were going to college—we knew we were going to Auburn. Like one of my colleagues, Barb (and like her father told her), tells all female students: “Your education is your meal ticket”.

Our parents expected a lot of us. Their expectations led to successful results. We are all well-educated and successful. By May, the five of us will hold a total 10 degrees—one law degree, two doctorates, one masters, and six bachelors degrees. We are known for working hard and being dependable, fair, kind and level-headed. We are influential and making a difference in our organizations. Jenelle is the associate dean of a law school. Nancy led the top branch of a major pharmaceutical company for several years. William, joining the Guard in his mid-thirties, has advanced rapidly and is known for his problem-solving skills in tight situations. He also runs his own business. I help lead a computer department. Kathryn has been an accountant, but later became a nurse, is known for her very caring and nurturing nature, and will get her Doctorate of Pharmacy in May. Of course, we continue to believe in ourselves with an independent mindset.


Anonymous said...

Hi Anne,

I really enjoyed reading this. I particularly enjoyed the anecdote about your sister's "law school field"

Thank you for sharing it with us.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anne,
It is so great to have great folks! Reading this made me reflect on my parents and relate how good they were to me too. It was a calm steady and consistent direction.
Enjoyed your blog.-e

Ron Wolford said...

Hi Anne,

Really enjoyed reading about your family. Reminds me of my childhood helping my dad and 4 brothers with our 3 acre veggie garden on my grandparent's farm in central IL. The produce from that garden got our family through some tough times over the years.