Why one leader's big leap of faith led to a successful life and career

Image of Natasha Pekelis.

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to effective leadership, and there's no single roadmap to career success. Every leader carves their own path, building on their unique experiences and influences to develop and grow. In this four-part series, I'm proud to share the inspiring stories of four of my female colleagues who are featured in the recently published book, The Collective Wisdom of High-Performing Women: Leadership Lessons from The Judy Project.

Below is the third story in the series on leadership by Natasha Pekelis, Vice President and Managing Director, TD Securities Technology Solutions.

– Ellen Patterson, Group Head, General Counsel and Chair of Women In Leadership, TD Bank Group


I hadn’t dropped onto Earth from another planet, but I might as well have. It was 1989, and I’d just landed in New York on an American Airlines flight from what was then Leningrad in the Soviet Union, now St. Petersburg in Russia. Perestroika, or the reformation of the Communist Party, had started by then and the Iron Curtain was slowly lifting.

But in the country I’d just left forever, refugees were made to give up their Russian passport and citizen­ship and couldn’t return. America was truly a shock to the senses. I watched as a little girl put a coin into the slot at the top of a clear glass box filled with colourful candies, and one of the candies popped out into a small bowl at the bottom. I was 21, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never seen a candy machine before. Nor had I ever seen so much colour, including the advertisements for fashion and cigarettes I walked past in JFK airport’s wide hallways—everything was so bright!

Yet there were many conflicting emotions in my heart, the freshest being the sadness I’d felt only hours before when I’d gone through Immigration at Leningrad’s Pulkovo airport. It was the point of no return, literally; I knew that the last time I’d likely ever see my family—my parents, brothers, cousins—was that glimpse of them, waving and in tears, behind the wall of glass that sepa­rated us as I walked toward my departure gate. That was tough. But I knew I had to do this if I wanted to create a new life for myself.

READ: How one leader used the advice given to her to connect with her colleagues in a deeper way

Why?

Because of one day during my third year of studying applied mathematics at university. I was sitting near the back of a large lecture hall, listening to a philosophy professor, when he began to make false, disparaging remarks against Jewish people. I stood up and loudly told him that what he was saying wasn’t true. “How do you know?” he replied. “Because I’m Jewish.” I was one of the only Jewish persons to have ever been accepted to that university, so my statement surprised everyone. Hundreds of heads swiveled to stare at me. There was only silence. Finally, I fled the lecture hall in tears.

At home, I told my father about it and asked him what I should do. “That’s terrible, Natasha,” he said. “But that’s just the way it is in this country. There’s nothing you can do. You’ll have to accept it.”

No, I didn’t have to accept it. I knew it was wrong. So, I made up my mind that there had to be a better place than this.

At JFK, friends of my parents picked me up in a big dark-blue Buick to take me to their home, where I was to live until I got a job and a bit of money. I had $132 to my name, tucked away in my wallet. I grew excited as I realized that the stories I’d heard back in Russia about the U.S.A. seemed to be untrue. Very little outside information filtered into my home country back then. We were even told that many Americans had to live in cardboard boxes on the street. But looking around, it seemed to me that most people had a place to live.

Where you start doesn't matter as much as how you face challenges

Fast-forward to today, where I have a senior role at a multi­national bank. I worked hard to reach this position: first cleaning houses, then selling sandwiches in a shop. When I got some money together, I studied at Columbia University and got a degree in computer science. That was yet another challenge, as my English was not that great. I remember studying English by listening to lessons on a Sony Walkman. I ended up graduating at the top of my class.

READ: A letter to my daughter on what makes a great leader

Thanks to everything I went through to invent a new life for myself, I gained a very good perspective on never giving up. That you always need to take the struggle to the next level, because something good will come out of it. Even when you start at a lower baseline than everyone else, you can still persevere. It helps to have a positive outlook.

Try something you've never tried before

I always encourage my team to take risks, especially the younger team members. To not let being at a disadvantage deter them. To try something they’ve never tried before. For me, that something was stepping into the complete unknown…getting onto a plane with the full understanding I’d never again go home or see my family.

My story of creating a new life has certainly had an impact on my two daughters. One is in university, and the other is still in high school. I’m so proud that they’ve both chosen to study science and technology and want to have careers as professionals.

Everyone has a different story and background, but the bottom line is that younger women need to have role models who inspire them to join the workforce and who nurture their careers. Young women need to know they can make for themselves a life that offers fulfillment in their work in addition to being a wife, a mother, and a member of their community.

Learn more about The Judy Project, and its work supporting women who are ascending into executive leadership and C-suite positions.