Education — I was able to get to where I am because of my education, which includes a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and a multitude of certifications through various careers in my life. I’m a lifelong learner. You are taken more seriously, and you are also showing your commitment to bringing something to the table.
Perseverance — I’ve changed careers several times; Hotel Operations, Sales, and HR. At one point, I was put on a leave of absence because we were waiting on a visa renewal to come through. I had to stop and wait for six months. The process of waiting and not knowing whether immigration would approve my visa was very difficult. I wanted to give up several times, but I pushed through.
Hard Work — Put in the effort. One of Hyatt’s reasons to sponsor my visa was because they saw how serious I was and how much effort I put into all my endeavors.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gwladys Kabore, Chief Operations Officer for Shaker Painting located in Denver, Colorado, where she manages operations and marketing. Shaker Painting is her family-owned and operated business serving commercial, industrial and HOA properties, along with the continuing education of property managers. With Shaker Painting, Gwladys is currently working to establish the Guesbeogo Foundation to provide free education to girls in Burkina Faso.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa. I was the fourth of eight children and raised by her father.
Burkina Faso’s growing political troubles eventually escalated to a full coup d’etat. This caused our family to go into exile in Italy. While in Rome, my father was approached to be the Country Director of the World Food Program (WFP). It was at this point that traveling became a regular part of my life. We moved every 18 months to 2 years. People often glamourize traveling, but due to the nature of my father’s work, we were always in troubled countries where the WFP presence was required. At a young age, I witnessed many beautiful acts of humanity but also was exposed to horrific experiences that forever instilled in me the need to do more.
My education was also a little different than most. I attended international schools with other diplomats’ children. While we were living in Maseru, Lesotho, my father enrolled us in a British boarding school to learn English more quickly.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
After completing the International Baccalaureate program at Machabeng College, the next step was to move to Europe or the U.S. I was always intrigued with the U.S., and because my sister was attending the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, I made the choice to join her.
I had never been to the U.S. Everything I knew about this country, I learned from Western-themed movies and the country’s right to freedom of speech — both of which I found fascinating.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I was very anxious. I flew to the U.S. with my brother on a student visa. I had heard that Americans could be very judgmental toward African Nationals, which made me nervous. Sure enough, the man that checked my visa upon arrival made a comment that made me sad. He referred to the fact that I had shoes on, specifically telling me he didn’t think Africans wore shoes. I suspected he watched “Coming to America” too many times.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
There were a few people and groups that helped me along the way. Looking back on it, my guidance counselor made several attempts to connect with me, and she was my biggest cheerleader. I remember high school being very difficult for me. My brother and I were two of the only Black students in the school. There were also unexpected language barriers due to my British English educational background.
In the first week of school, I raised my hand to ask for a “rubber,” which is the British way of saying an “eraser” during a math class. The whole class burst out laughing. It was a very embarrassing moment that made me self-conscious about how I spoke, and I retreated into my shell. My guidance counselor was there for me in those moments and really tried to help me overcome those insecurities.
Eventually, I ended up befriending some students from the Florida Institute of Technology in the Caribbean Student Association (CSA). Everything during my two years enrolled in American high school was very foreign to me. School functions like prom and senior night made me feel very awkward. The friends I made in CSA helped me adjust a little more.
Moving on from school and into my career, a man named Robert Stanfield was another person who really supported me. He was Hyatt’s department head at the time, and he believed in me and fought to gain support from management in sponsoring my work visa. I would say Robert, Sheri and Pat were key factors in my ability to stay and work in the U.S. This was huge for me because it came after switching my major from computer science to business hospitality management. This was a risky decision, and my father let his concerns be known, saying, “No corporation will sponsor a work visa with that degree.”
But the Hyatt corporation hired me and sponsored my COOP Visa application. After 18 months of COOP, they agreed to apply for an H1B Visa for me. I believe this outcome to be largely in part of Robert, Sheri and Pat rallying for me during this time.
Most importantly, my husband Brent was a huge catalyst in my late career. His love, guidance and unconditional support was and still is my inspiration. He recognized my power long before I did. He opened my eyes to the vast possibilities in entrepreneurship and the importance of taking care of myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Along with my father, he is the most significant influence in shaping the person I am today and in fearlessly pursuing my dreams.
So how are things going today?
I’m doing really well today. I’m happily married to my husband Brent with two boys; Gavin is six, and Ethan is seven. After enduring years of extremely stressful work in Corporate America, I fell sick in 2019 and decided to take a year off to take care of myself.
This time off allowed me to reconsider my priorities in life. My husband had been encouraging me for years to join our family-owned business, Shaker Painting, and now I am proud to say I serve as the Chief Operations Officer, managing operations and marketing. Supporting my desires to give back to my community, Shaker Painting is much more than a painting company — we also support the growth and ongoing success of property managers by offering continuing education to help effectively maintain budgets and properties. We’re often invited to speak to HOA boards and management teams about the most strategic ways to protect their investments.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My husband and I currently support the education of five children from the same family in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Their mother was widowed eight years ago with five children and no source of income.
In partnership with Shaker Painting, I’m also working on establishing the Guesbeogo Foundation. This organization’s main goal is to build a girl’s school in the village where my grandfather was born. My father was able to get a free education by joining a missionary school to study to be a priest. Girls don’t get that opportunity. My mission is to provide free education to girls who would otherwise not be able to.
In addition to education, I also aim to bring and embrace mindfulness practices to the Foundation, as I currently am on a yoga teacher training program. The school we build would greatly benefit from these healing practices.
You have first-hand experience with the U.S. immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
The first is making the application for an H1B Visa less gruesome. The legal and application fees combined with the excessive paperwork make it a long, expensive process for both employers and applicants.
The second would be re-evaluating the green card lottery system and prioritizing immigrants in status in the U.S. Through the green card lottery, anyone who does not live in the U.S. can enter to get permanent residency. When I got my permanent residency, I went through Student Visas, COOP Visa, and H1B Visa. It took me 15 years in the U.S. to obtain permanent resident status. Two of my siblings, who did not live in the U.S., won the lottery and were able to get their permanent residency within two years. I’m very happy for them; however, this does not seem right. Despite being a great program to welcome immigrants from various parts of the world, it is discouraging to someone like me who entered the U.S. legally, worked, paid taxes, and established a home here.
Lastly, the citizenship questionnaire is very tedious. I have a Master’s degree, and yet studying and memorizing the information was challenging. I studied a 25-page booklet only to be asked five questions. If I struggled with it, I can only imagine how hard it would be for someone with no education.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Education — I was able to get to where I am because of my education, which includes a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and a multitude of certifications through various careers in my life. I’m a lifelong learner. You are taken more seriously, and you are also showing your commitment to bringing something to the table.
- Perseverance — I’ve changed careers several times; Hotel Operations, Sales, and HR. At one point, I was put on a leave of absence because we were waiting on a visa renewal to come through. I had to stop and wait for six months. The process of waiting and not knowing whether immigration would approve my visa was very difficult. I wanted to give up several times, but I pushed through.
- Hard Work — Put in the effort. One of Hyatt’s reasons to sponsor my visa was because they saw how serious I was and how much effort I put into all my endeavors.
- Faith and Believing in Yourself — Through my high school and college experience, I felt unworthy and a lack of belonging. I did not have the same opportunities most Americans have, and I struggled with this throughout my adult years. The “Imposter Syndrome” is something that still lingers within my personality, but at the end of the day, I believe in myself. I know I have something to contribute as an immigrant, a mother, and a wife.
- Trust — I have been passed on for promotions many times. I was in an interim job for a position I really wanted at one point in my career. I had the education, background, and had been within the role for three months. When it was time to interview for the position, my director told me they had decided to put someone else within the role without an interview. The reason I was given is that our GM promised her the job. The person they put into the role had no experience in the field. She also came from a completely different area of the hospitality industry. The person that took the role was American, Caucasian. I was told by several of my colleagues to file an EEOC complaint. It was clear that I had a case against the company, but it was a nasty situation. In the end, I decided not to move forward with legal action. Now looking back, I’m glad I did not get the position; along with my husband, we own our company and are very successful. Trust that things do happen for a reason.
We know that the U.S. needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the U.S.’s future?
The United States is truly a land of opportunity. I was born in one of Africa’s poorest countries; somehow, I now live here and have a beautiful family and an awesome business.
I truly believe that people are good by nature and want to do the right thing. I’m experiencing a movement with mindfulness, being present, and a recognition that our planet can be saved, and it gives me hope.
Being African, I have no history of slavery in my family. It has been a transformational experience seeing what’s been happening in the U.S. surrounding race, discrimination, and inequality. It’s out in the open, and the conversations that have been happening around racial injustice and gender equality feel like this is a huge step toward changes that will make this country more inclusive.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
First, Nelson Mandela. His nonviolent approach, grace and fight for justice will remain an inspiration for me forever. The world is a land of possibilities. Be part of the solution and take action today.
Two of his quotes resonate immensely with me:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
“It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.“
Second, my father! He is the best person I know. His sacrifices, strength, dedication and love for his children paved the path to our lives and success. I am who I am because of him. He is my hero.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Anyone interested in more from myself or Shaker Painting can visit www.shakerpainting.com, or follow @shakerpainting on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.