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It’s an understatement to say that Rebecca Contreras had a rough start in life.
Born into poverty to a drug-addicted mother, she was abandoned at the age of five.
When you hear the whole story of her early years, you might even say that was the good part. Her youth was defined by betrayals, uncertainty, neglect, and unimaginable abuse. She found herself as a welfare-dependent teenage mother with little hope.
But with a heavy dose of grit—and the focused help of some generous miracle-working mentors—Rebecca spent nearly a dozen years working with George W. Bush, first as his human resources director when he served as Texas governor, then as a White House staffer during his presidency.
Today’s she’s happily married and the president and chief executive of a public sector consulting practice with more than 100 team members spread across seven states.
Rebecca’s story would make a movie screenwriter jealous. It’s much more than a rags-to-riches tale. It’s a case study in what can happen when people take the time to notice the potential in someone who’s down and out and struggling to get a foothold on life.
This tale-worth-hearing is in Rebecca’s book Lost Girl—From the Hood to the White House to Millionaire Entrepreneur.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Throughout your personal and professional journey, you have benefitted from the focused attention of many mentors. What were the common denominator behaviors of your most helpful mentors?
Rebecca Contreras: I am honestly a product of my mentors. Early on in my career I had several of what I would call “powerhouse people” take me under their wings. One of them was Donna Reynolds, who worked for (state treasurer and later U.S. Senator) Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas. The other was Clay Johnson, one of Governor / President George W. Bush’s right hands. They played critical roles in empowering me to grow early on in my government career and as an entrepreneur. Donna was one of my first bosses when I started my state career. But she also took personal interest in helping mentor me as a mom and wife. Early on, due to my upbringing and environmental trauma, I had no clue how to navigate being mom or wife in the middle of also trying to establish my government career. Clay has done the same. Although they were career mentors, when I have had challenges or issues in life, they were always available to me to help provide solid counsel.
The biggest common denominator I’ve noticed is their passion in mentorship. They felt very strongly about wanting to guide me and help me succeed and have taken a genuine interest in both my personal and professional development. When they have seen me succeed, they are thrilled and proud.
Duncan: You begin your book by quoting St. Francis of Assisi as saying, “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” How have you experienced that perspective playing out in your own life?
Contreras: That quote has always resonated with me because it is, very simply, what I lived firsthand. As someone born into a poverty-stricken, abusive household, one of my first life lessons was to adapt in order to survive—emotionally and physically. I did what was necessary. Later, when I became determined to change the direction of my life, I started doing what was possible, one step at a time. Obtaining my GED, enrolling in a training program, applying to receptionist positions, hustling to find the next opportunity to move me forward.
By staying this course—and using grit, faith, and valuable guidance from mentors—it wasn’t long before I was, in fact, doing what I never thought possible. I was working in the White House for President George W. Bush. And it didn’t stop there. After gaining such amazing experience, I founded my own human capital consulting firm, growing it up to a 100-plus person company with the level of success that, at one point in my life, was only a dream to me. My life is layered with so many “impossible” situations that I trail blazed through to make things possible.
Duncan: Forgiveness, you say, is the catalyst for change. Earlier in your life, you suffered unspeakable harm from other people, including your own mother. How has forgiveness helped you “move on” to a productive life of positivity?
Contreras: Forgiveness can be a very difficult personal journey, especially when it involves loved ones. But I’ve found it to be very liberating, too. I’ve come to understand that forgiveness is essentially a process to attain closure for trauma I experienced, allowing me to focus on the opportunities that lay ahead rather than dwelling on the pain of the past. I can’t change what happened to me, and I’ll always carry it with me in some shape or form. But I don’t want it to define me.
By forgiving those who hurt me, I could release the burdensome anger that the pain created. Forgiveness has given me the option of mending some damaged relationships, although others were beyond repair. My end goal, however, was the closure and peace of mind that empowered me to move forward on my path toward success. Forgiveness is for you, not about the other person who hurt you. It’s such a powerful and essential element in life, learning to forgive and move forward. It’s hard to move forward with unforgiveness in your life. Unforgiveness is toxic.
Duncan: Early in your career you immersed yourself in books on leadership, management, communication, and related topics. What did that practice do for you?
Contreras: I was always very self-conscious of my lack of formal education, as I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. So, I was determined to study and absorb those books and all the knowledge and insight they offered. It helped, significantly, to gain so many different valuable perspectives and develop a deeper understanding of what drives successful business leaders. Even though I’ve found success myself in many ways, I continue to seek out sources in books and news and podcasts that expose me to different points of view and on these topics. I have also adapted a lifelong journey of continuous learning. We never arrive or achieve success without the essential of understanding the power of that continuous learning.
Duncan: What lessons in leadership did you glean from your years of working closely with George W. Bush, both while he was Texas governor as well as when he was president?
Contreras: I learned so much over the years from President Bush’s leadership—much of it witnessed up close and behind-the-scenes. Perhaps the lesson that left the deepest impression was how he truly cared about the people he led and how incredibly loyal he was to his people. He took time to listen and understand the challenges that individuals faced, and he supported their growth and achievement. In fact, “leading with love” is how others now have come to describe my own leadership style, and those principles were shaped in large part by my time with President Bush. He recently sent me a personal handwritten note sharing with me that he read my new book Lost Girl and how it deeply affected him after learning for the first time about what I went through and overcame in my life.
President Bush’s transparency and authenticity in his leadership is also something I aspire to have. Clay Johnson also had these qualities. Despite being powerful people, yet they “disarm” the power notion and lead with humility and deeply care for those they are leading.
Duncan: For more than a decade and a half you have lived in Texas while commuting back and forth to your Washington-based consulting firm. What has that challenging schedule taught you about balancing your personal and professional priorities?
Contreras: I started that commute when we had taken in my 17-year-old niece who was having problems at home and in school. So, (along with my middle school son) we essentially had two teens at home. My husband and I were also starting our nonprofit. Yet here I was, hauling to DC. For the first six years, I commuted every other week, then scaled back to twice a month until Covid hit and I was grounded.
After the first few years, the commute became second nature. One major challenge was keeping my energy up for the commute while being mom, wife, and helping lead the nonprofit. So, I had to incorporate a disciplined workout schedule and change my diet to focus on eating healthy, which can be a challenge itself.
The schedule was and continues to be intense. Those who know me know that everything goes on the calendar to organize my life, even hosting my now-adult kids for Sunday funday. I find that organizational detail is essential, given all the various moving parts of running a fast-growing east coast company from Texas, plus scheduled activities such as public speaking, events, and podcasts.
Duncan: During your personal and professional journey, what specific values have you seen embraced by people you most admire, and today how do you keep those values front and center while mentoring people in your own company?
Contreras: People I’ve admired most have shown gratitude, compassion, and resiliency. I try to live those values and instill them in my mentees.
I’m grateful for the opportunities to become who I am today and be able to mentor young women who can benefit from my experiences.
I’m compassionate toward others who have not been as fortunate, or who face challenges even more difficult than my own. I’m eager to display this compassion both in the leadership of my company (“leading with love”) and by giving back to the community through a disadvantaged youth outreach non-profit my husband and I founded.
And although my resiliency was tested much more early on, it’s still a value I strongly appreciate because there’s no lack of obstacles in running and growing my business. The hardships I endured in the past have tried me, toughened me, and taught me how to navigate and overcome all kinds of challenges. When I recognize resiliency in others, I see their strength and courage and I want to encourage them to use those traits to become the best version of themselves.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.