A Cinderella Story: From Humble Beginnings to Leadership at Google

Devika Manoj Bade | Full-Time MBA, Class of 2022 | Careers

“The pen is mightier than the sword”, a proverbial phrase that was inspired by the play, ‘Cardinal Richelieu’, has been often heard in various contexts to underline the value of articulate communication and the ability to tell a story well.

I would like you to meet the human epitome of this phrase – Haviva Kohl, presently Lead of Talent Development Programs at Google. Recently, I had the opportunity along with other students at Asia School of Business to hear her #havivastory, and rest assured I was left inspired and misty-eyed by her story of resilience, strength and dynamism.

 

Finding freedom and escape through education

Haviva came from humble beginnings. Living in the suburbs, she had to travel with her mother for more than two hours just to reach high school where she had received a full scholarship to study at a private institute. Due to health concerns, as a 12-year-old, she made the difficult decision to leave her family behind and invest in her future by choosing education over living in her family home.

Over the next years, she shared roofs with numerous families, doing chores and helping them out with their children or senior citizens in exchange for room and board. Throughout this experience, she gained priceless lessons, and even picked up sign language in order to communicate with one of the deaf-mute family members she lived with.

Throughout this period, people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up; she wanted something bigger, and she constantly asked herself which problem she wished to solve in the world. This search eventually led her to embark on her key mission – paying it forward through education. Haviva understood the value of education and wanted other children to be gifted with opportunities to experience the same.

 

From failure… to progress in her mission of educating others

After rejections from Ivy League colleges, she went on to study at University of Southern California, in Ghana, and then took a job at American Express. This journey did not last long as she was not able to pass the examinations that were required for her to be a financial advisor.

“Failure is a better teacher than any university degree,” said Haviva during her talk. And as the inspiring Kamala Harris recently said, “I eat rejections for breakfast.”

Eventually, she landed in one of the most challenging jobs with the NYC Teaching Fellows as a middle school teacher in the South Bronx, in a school which was the fourth most dangerous school in the whole state of New York. She swore to show up and give her best every day, because, in her words, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

During her time as a teacher in the Bronx, she sparred through the challenges, including being stalked by a parent and testifying against a student who attempted to murder another student in her classroom.

She moved on internationally, to work in education in Tanzania, continuing to explore and pursue her mission of making an impact through education, she was inspired to create large-scale change that would have a lasting impact and applied to the Harvard Kennedy School. The fact that she was the first in her family to get a college education was no deterrent.

“You must create space for yourself if there isn’t any,” Haviva shared. “There won’t be a door waiting for you to walk through. You have to create opportunities for yourself by asking.”

Haviva’s efforts paid off. She got accepted into Harvard Kennedy School, and, after graduating, went back to her educational roots, leading the the first teachers’ conference in the sub-Saharan African region since 1994. Then, she joined Michael Bloomberg’s New York City education efforts, scaling up Educational Leaders as part of a multi-million-dollar initiative.

 

Bringing diverse career experiences together as a launch pad for the next leap

After a colorful career spanning the globe, Haviva finally came to a place where she had a bounty of experience, and plenty of options for her next career move.

“Work and career is not a straight line but a wiggly journey that doesn’t end,” emphasized Haviva. “Your career is not just your first or your last job but the process in between those. It should be looked at as small milestones and not a final destination.”

Once again, instead of picking the most attractive option on paper, she zoomed into her mission and tried to figure out which option would help her get there. As Haviva put it, “You are you, not your job.”

She picked Google because of their 10X thinking which aims to make everything better by 10 times, also called “moonshots”. This thinking aligned with her passion to solve problems and her can-do attitude.

“Values really matter,” said Haviva. “Your values are pivotal to the decisions that you make. This is why it is crucial to understand the values of the organization that you are applying to and see if they fit with your personal ones.”

Fast forward to today: Haviva currently leads multiple talent development programs for Google and she still holds her dream to build schools for children globally close to her heart.

In terms of finding meaning, passion, and fulfilment in one’s career, Haviva believes it is her philosophy that allowed her to find her path: “Ask not what they can do for you, ask what you can do for them.”

 

Learning from a Tale of Resilience and Grit

From Haviva’s talk, I took away a few valuable lessons that I believe will serve me and my fellow classmates well in our own career journeys:

1. Resilience is a form of self-respect: Every time you fall, get back up as it is on you to bet on your future and keep trying.

2. Don’t sabotage your options before you know the outcome: It is not a no, till it is a no. If you are confident about what you can contribute, then have a conversation about it. For example, if you are changing industries or job functions, do not be scared to apply to a job that you know you will bring value to, even if you might not have the right requirements on paper.

3. Values should drive everything: Discover your values and write them down, and this will make your career search much more focused and meaningful.

4. Have a message and a story to tell that reflects your purpose and allow it to guide your course. With ‘paying it forward’ being her mission, Haviva recognized opportunities that enabled her to draw closer to her goal.

To end this on an even more inspiring note, I highly recommend watching the video below by Dr. Seuss, who has also greatly inspired Haviva in her incredible journey: