How Good Mentoring Changed A Life

To say that Rebecca Contreras had a rocky start in life is an understatement.

Born into poverty to a mother addicted to drugs, she was abandoned at the age of 5.

If you hear the full story of her early years, you might even say that that was the good part. Her youth was marked by betrayal, insecurity, neglect and unimaginable abuse. She found herself a teenage welfare dependent mother with little hope.

But with a great deal of determination — and the focused help of a few generous, miracle-working mentors — Contreras worked with George W. Bush for nearly a dozen years, first as his human resources director when he was governor of Texas, then as the White Housekeeping staffer during his presidency.

Today, she is happily married and the President and CEO of a public sector consulting practice with more than 100 team members in seven states.

The story of Contreras would make a screenwriter jealous. It’s much more than a rags to riches story. It’s a case study of what can happen when people take the time to see the potential in someone who is down and struggling to find a footing in life.

This story worth hearing is in Contreras’ book Lost Girl – From Hood to White House to Multimillionaire Entrepreneur.

Rodger Dean Duncan: On your personal and professional path you have benefited from the focused attention of many mentors. What were the common denominators in the behaviors of your most helpful mentors?

Rebecca Contreras: I’m honestly a product of my mentors. Early in my career I had several of what I “powerhouse people“Take me under your wing. One of them was Donna Reynolds, who worked for (Treasurer and later US Senator) Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas. The other was Clay Johnson, one of Governor/President George W. Bush’s right-hand men. she played a crucial role in enabling me to develop early in my government career and as an entrepreneur. Donna was one of my first bosses when I started my state career. But she was also personally interested in mentoring me as a mother and wife. Early on, due to my upbringing and environmental trauma, I had no idea how to navigate being a mother or wife while also trying to build my government career. Clay did the same. Although they were career mentors, whenever I faced challenges or problems in life, they were always available to help me provide solid advice.

The biggest common denominator I’ve noticed is their passion for mentoring. They were keen to guide me and help me succeed and have shown a genuine interest in my personal and professional development. When they have seen my success, they are excited and proud.

Duncan: You begin your book by quoting St. Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” How have you experienced this perspective in your own life?

Opposites: This quote has always touched me because it is quite simply what I have experienced 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 was determined to change the direction of my life, I started doing what was possible, step by step. Getting my GED, enrolling in an apprenticeship program, applying for receptionist positions, rushing to find the next opportunity to advance myself.

By staying on this course – and leveraging courage, trust, and valuable guidance from mentors – it wasn’t long before I was actually doing what I never thought possible. I worked in the White House for President George W. Bush. And it didn’t stop there. After gaining such amazing experiences, I started my own HR consultancy and grew it to a company with over 100 employees, with a success that at one point in my life was just a dream for me. My life is littered with so many “impossible” situations that I have paved the way to make things possible.

Duncan: Forgiveness, you say, is the catalyst for change. Earlier in your life you suffered untold harm from other people, including your own mother. How has forgiveness helped you “move on” to a productive life full of positivity?

Opposites: Forgiveness can be a very difficult personal journey, especially when it involves loved ones. But I also found it very liberating. I have come to understand that forgiveness is essentially a process of ending a trauma I have experienced, which allows me to focus on the opportunities that lie ahead rather than dwelling on the pain of the past. I can’t change what happened to me and I will always carry it with me in some form. But I don’t want it to define me.

By forgiving those who hurt me, I was able to let go of the burdening anger the pain generated. Forgiveness has given me the opportunity to mend some damaged relationships when others were beyond repair. However, my ultimate goal was graduation and the peace of mind that empowered me to move forward on my path to success. Forgiveness is for you, not for the other person who hurt you. It is such a powerful and essential element in life to learn, to forgive and to move forward. It’s hard to move forward with unforgiveness in your life. Unforgiveness is poisonous.

Duncan: Early on in your career you have dabbled in books on leadership, management, communication and related subjects. What did this practice bring you?

Opposites: I was always very aware 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 these books and all the knowledge and insight they offered. It has been instrumental in gaining so many different valuable perspectives and a deeper understanding of what drives successful business leaders. While I’ve been successful myself in many ways, I continue to seek sources in books, news, and podcasts that expose me to different perspectives and on these issues. I have also adapted a lifelong journey of continuous learning. We never arrive or achieve success without understanding the power of this continuous learning.

Duncan: What leadership lessons have you learned from your years of close association with George W. Bush, both as Governor of Texas and as President?

Opposites: I have learned so much from President Bush’s leadership over the years – much of it up close and behind the scenes. The lesson that left perhaps the deepest impression was how much he genuinely cared about the people he led and how incredibly loyal he was to his people. He took the time to listen and understand the challenges individuals faced and he supported their growth and achievement. In fact, others are now describing my own leadership style as “leading with love,” and those principles were shaped in large part by my time with President Bush. He recently sent me a personal handwritten note letting me know that he had read my new book lost girl and how it touched him deeply after experiencing for the first time what I had been through and overcoming in my life.

President Bush’s transparency and authenticity in his leadership is also something I strive for. Clay Johnson also had these qualities. Although they are powerful people, they “disarm” the notion of power and lead with humility and deep caring for those they lead.

Duncan: For more than a decade and a half, you’ve lived in Texas while commuting back and forth to your Washington-based consulting firm. What has this challenging schedule taught you about balancing your personal and professional priorities?

Opposites: I started commuting when we took in my 17 year old niece who was struggling at home and school. So (along with my middle school son) we essentially had two teenagers at home. My husband and I also started our non-profit organization. Yet here I was, dragging to DC. I commuted every other week for the first six years, then reduced to twice a month until Covid struck and I was grounded.

After the first few years, commuting became second nature. A big challenge has been keeping up my energy for the commute to work while being a mom and wife and helping run the nonprofit. So I had to implement a disciplined training schedule and change my diet to focus on eating healthy, which in itself can be a challenge.

The schedule was and is intense. Anyone who knows me knows that everything is on the calendar to organize my life and even hosts my now grown children for Sunday Funday. I find that organizational details are essential given all the different moving parts of running a rapidly growing company on the east coast of Texas and planned activities like public speaking, events and podcasts.

Duncan: Throughout your interesting personal and professional journey, what specific values ​​have you seen in the people you most admire, and how do you keep those values ​​central today as you mentor people in your own organization?

Opposites: People I’ve admired most have shown gratitude, compassion, and resilience. I try to live these values ​​and pass them on to my mentees.

I am grateful for the opportunities to become who I am today and to be able to mentor young women who can benefit from my experiences.

I am compassionate to others who have not been so fortunate or who face challenges even more difficult than my own. I strive to show that compassion both in running my business (“Leading with Love”) and by giving back to the community through a non-profit organization for underprivileged youth that my husband and I started.

And although my resilience was tested much earlier, it’s still a value I hold dearly because there’s no shortage of impediments to running and growing my business. The hardships I have endured in the past have tested me, hardened me and taught me how to navigate and overcome all sorts of challenges. When I see resilience in others, I see their strength and courage and want to encourage them to use those traits to become the best version of themselves.

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