Val Strappa headshot

By Janis Bowdler
President of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation President of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation

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A Key to Success: Embrace What Makes You Different

Your biggest challenge could be your most valuable asset.

I have never really seemed to fit in. Growing up biracial and without much money in Northeast Ohio, I looked different than my peers and was painfully self-conscious of that difference. The idea that I’d move to Washington, D.C. and one day work at a Fortune 100 company, was not an obvious future career. At the time, I didn’t realize that the very things that made me stand out would also be pivotal to my future success.

I’ve always had a passion for helping others and knew early on that I wanted to make a career out of it. The question was simply, how?

Step one was attending college, which was a big deal because my mom – who was a single parent during my early childhood – didn’t have the chance to pursue higher education herself and worked hard to make it a reality for me. I knew I wanted to help families that society had seemed to give up on. I thought social services could be my path, but after interning at a homeless shelter I found myself emotionally tied to the success and failures of people we served.

So, I decided to try out a new way of helping others and moved into public policy to address issues of racial and economic inequality. Fortunately, in public policy work, I found the job that matched my skills with my passion.

I spent the next 10 years working to help my community at UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza) before joining JPMorgan Chase & Co. After five years, I was named President of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. Today, I oversee a $250 million annual philanthropic portfolio that enables more people to contribute to and share in the rewards of our growing economy.

I am not going to lie and tell you my success has been easy. Early on in my career I often felt exposed, like everyone knew something I had yet to learn. I had to swim upstream and fight for every achievement.

What I did not understand at the time was the incredible gift my upbringing gave me. Yes, I had to work double time to keep up with, and advance past, my peers. But I was used to hard work. I’d grown up having to work hard every day to fit in with other kids, to do well in high-school while waitressing at Pizza Hut, to attend college, where I worked two, sometimes even three jobs, while carrying a full course load.

That work ethic, that hustle, is what impressed my peers and caught the eyes of my supervisors. I have the ability to balance a lot of things at once and shift gears quickly. I can get along with a lot of different types of people, and feel comfortable in a wide range of situations. These are real and important skills. They are critical to professional success, and I honed all of them as I grew up.

Today, one of my favorite parts of my job is speaking with students who have similar backgrounds to me. Young adults who know what I mean when I say that I spent a lot of my youth feeling unsure about being poor and Latina in a town void of diversity.

I tell them what I wish I’d known when I was in their shoes, and what I believe to my core: their ability to hustle will take them wherever they want to go.

All the hard work is, well, hard. But in the long run, it will be to their advantage. My experiences have taught me that what made me different also made me strong, resilient and ultimately a better leader.

I encourage the young adults I meet to pursue their passions, to create a world bigger than what they see in their neighborhood and to look beyond what others may want for them. Because there are no limits to what they can do and there is a whole world waiting to see what they can accomplish.