Leadership

Olympian and Harvard grad says you should stop doing this if you want to be successful

Getty Images | Nicholas Hunt

At age five, Bonnie St. John had her right leg amputated. At age 19, she became the first African-American to win medals at the Winter Paralympics, taking home a silver and two bronze medals.

St. John went on to attend Harvard where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in economics. She was then awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world's most prestigious scholarships, to attend Oxford University where she also studied economics.

So how did this self-described "one-legged black girl from San Diego" go on to achieve so much? St. John says it's because she "just went for it."

"No adult made me stop and I didn't stop myself," she says at the Women's Sports Foundation's third annual Athlete Leadership Connection Conference.

St. John, who has worked at IBM and in the White House as the director for human capital issues under the Clinton administration, tells CNBC Make It that the biggest hindrance to success is "asking for permission."

The Paralympian says that she sees this most often with females in her current role as a leadership consultant for Fortune 500 companies, in which she supports leaders who are at the "forefront of business transformations."

862908010

The Olympic medalist works with women in senior positions on how to "find their voice and max their contribution" within the company — a task which many women find hard to do.

"Women are conditioned to be asked," she says. "Men raise their hands and just do it."

St. John says that at every point in her life, no matter what obstacles arose, she simply did whatever it took to accomplish her set goal. However, she says, many women live and work in a "permission space" where they feel arrogant if they don't ask for approval.

"Men don't have this issue," says St. John, "And you see it even more so for multicultural women. You're not supposed to stand out. You're supposed to be submissive."

Women need to stop seeking permission and validation, she says, and must go after things "with drive and a positive outlook."

St. John points to her own experience growing up. Her father left before she was born and her mother was forced to raise three children on her own. In school, she was excused from physical education due to her missing leg and she was unable to play games like hopscotch with the other students during recess.

"I was not an athlete. I was the crippled kid," she says. But even then she knew that she wanted a better life for herself.

St. John was first introduced to skiing when a high school friend invited her on a ski trip.

"I decided to try it because it was my chance to be an athlete and to feel the wind in my hair," she says. " I was awful."

Still, that didn't deter her from practicing and she quickly improved. But being a good skier wasn't good enough for her, she says. She wanted to be a champion.

St. John decided to apply to the Burke Mountain Academy, a high school in Vermont for ski racers where tuition was $10,000. She says that there was no way her mother could afford the pricey tuition.

In order to raise the money, she typed up signs on carbon paper requesting donations. In the end, she made a grand total of $100, she says. However, she was admitted to the school after receiving financial assistance from the National Brotherhood of Skiers, an organization of African-American skiers.

During that first week of school, she says, her prosthetic leg broke. She quickly ordered a new one, which then got lost in the mail. But once her leg arrived, says St. John, it was go-time.

The amputee endured long painful training sessions, she says, and went on to qualify for the 1984 U.S. Paralympic Ski Team. She made history as the first ever African-American to win Olympic medals in ski racing.

After winning three medals, she focused on academics and interned at the investment banking firm Morgan Stanley.

"Keeping your head in the game is the same in sports as it is in work and life," says St. John.

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook.

See also:

Condoleezza Rice attributes her success to this vital life lesson she learned from playing sports

Why Bill Gates says you need confidence at a young age to achieve success

5 things this professor can teach you about success after studying 30,000 business pitches