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Lisa Wardell walked into a meeting with 14 white, male bankers — and she ran the room

Lisa Wardell, president and chief executive of Adtalem Global Education, at her company's new headquarters in Chicago. It’s the largest public U.S. company with an African American female CEO.
Lisa Wardell, president and chief executive of Adtalem Global Education, at her company's new headquarters in Chicago. It’s the largest public U.S. company with an African American female CEO. (Youngrae Kim/For The Washington Post)
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This space most frequently is dedicated to entrepreneurs who build stuff — companies, causes, machines.

A spirit for business and entrepreneurism springs from many sources. Lisa Wardell dared to take risks, meet people from diverse backgrounds and put herself into uncomfortable situations. She learned from that discomfort.

“Your life, and the challenges you are overcoming, are assets in your life,” Wardell said in a recent speech to a group of young people.

At a time when executive women, especially women of color, are making strides but remain underrepresented in Corporate America, Wardell stands out. She is chief executive officer of Chicago-based Adtalem Global Education, a $3 billion for-profit education business.

Wardell is the only African American woman CEO in the Standard & Poor’s mid-cap 400 index. She is a capitalist who has been rewarded ($11.7 million in compensation — salary, cash and equity — in the past fiscal year, according to Equilar) for doubling Adtalem’s shares in her three years there. She sits on the board of directors at home improvement giant Lowes. She gave $1 million to the Chicago-based After School Matters charity. 

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How did this latchkey kid get to the top of Corporate America? (I interviewed Wardell several times for this column — including one phone call on her way from her children’s Ash Wednesday religious service. I also borrowed from a speech she recently delivered to a group called Summer Search, which mentors young people to get ahead.) 

Here’s an instructive anecdote from her freshman year at Vassar College, the elite liberal arts school to which she applied because a high school teacher offered extra credit.

“I didn’t know what Vassar was,” she said.

“I remember one of my English assignments after Christmas break freshman year was an in-class essay about ‘what you did over break’ We then had to read our responses to the class. We were sitting in a classroom with the chairs in a circle, and people were going around talking. I sat there anxiously, then in dread, waiting for my turn, as I heard about skiing in Europe and Colorado, warm-weather vacations in the Caribbean, holidays upstate at the weekend home. 

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“I was intimidated. I didn’t have a ski vacation. I hadn’t thought fast enough to embellish my essay. I had no choice but to read what I had written, which was about working at Macy’s for the holiday rush.

“When I read my essay to the class, nobody laughed at me or made me feel embarrassed or ashamed. They found the essay interesting. I belonged in that English class just as much as they did.”

Wardell’s Vassar class told her that difference and diversity matter. 

“Rather than dwell on the fact that I was uncomfortable, I dwelled on the response and the interest in who I am, and that I had a different experience,” Wardell said. “That notion is expected from our young people today. They are just open-minded. They have a broader perspective, whether it’s race relations or politics. They are just in tune with difference and diversity.”

I am a 63-year-old white guy who grew up among Caucasian Catholics with little exposure to other races and cultures. I wanted to know more.

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“You need diversity in business because you have two sets of stakeholders,” Wardell told me. “One is the customer. You need to be able to serve that market to do well. The second set of stakeholders is your employees. Folks want to be around people who think and look and act like them every day. As importantly, they also want to be around people who don’t think and look like them. You need that in your workforce, as well.”

Wardell said she was toughened by growing up a middle-class African American near Washington. Each challenge notched another building block in her character, making her more aware of herself and introducing her to the halls where she would walk: Stanford Law School, Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, RLJ Companies, the diversified investment group run by BET co-founder Bob Johnson.

She learned how to negotiate, how to treat people with respect, how to multitask and learn quickly, and pivot from one stage to the next.

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Wardell recalled another learning experience:

When she was 13, her father, a baggage handler at Dulles International Airport, was unable to work for some time. The family needed money for rent. Her mother was a night nurse, but that wasn’t enough.

Wardell got a job selling sneakers at Athlete’s Foot at age 13. She worked there for all of her high school years.

“A new drug epidemic, specifically crack cocaine, had just hit the D.C. area, and as a result, the manager of my store became a user and was unable to function or manage the store. I have vivid memories of him climbing up into the ceiling looking for cameras because he was convinced the store was bugged. The drug trade was booming, so lots of our transactions were for very large amounts of cash, with dealers buying 15 to 20 pairs of shoes at a time. 

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“One of those customers showed me how to count out thousands of dollars quickly, so as not to hold up the cashier line, and calculate sales tax in my head when the system was down.”

An overnight cleaning woman taught her how to store inventory and avoid shrinkage, which is a fancy word for theft.

“These experiences allowed me to realize, over time, that my background is an advantage, not a disadvantage,” Wardell said. The cleaning lady knew the retail sports shoe business because she was there every day.

Fast-forward to present day: “When I visit Adtalem Education locations now, I always get up early, go running, and get a download from the gardeners and janitors, the people who care for our facilities, about what’s really going on.”

She apparently knows what is going on. 

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She remembers one formative meeting between herself, Johnson and a host of bankers when she was chief operating officer for RLJ.

“I walk into the room, and there are 14 bankers there, including the managing partner, all white men, and Bob. And now me. No fancy pens. Bob says exactly one sentence the entire meeting: ‘It is absolutely amazing to me that you came to meet with the only black billionaire in American business, and you don’t have one diverse person on your team. You didn’t even bring that analyst you guys keep in the backroom.’ ”

The room fell into an awkward silence, and Bob turned to Wardell: “Lisa?”

After a 90-minute presentation by Wardell, she turned to Johnson and asked why he put her on the spot to do all the talking.

“Because I want you to understand,” Johnson said, “that until you believe that you belong in the room, you don’t belong in the room.”