What do an award-winning playwright, a nationally recognized mindfulness leader, and the CEO of North America’s largest woman-owned book publishing company all have in common? Not only the tenacity to carve out their own unique path to success, but also the mettle to overcome every imaginable obstacle along the way.
I recently had the good fortune to chat with three incredible women about their very personal journeys to professional success. Marked by fantastic candor, each conversation revealed winding professional roads peppered with substantial challenges and uncertainty that took serious dexterity and gumption to overcome. Their stories are what inspiration is made of.
Lisa Langford is a powerful, creative talent. A 2018/2019 Nord Family Foundation Playwright Fellow, 2019 Joyce Award Winner, voted Scene Magazine’s 2020 Best Playwright in Cleveland, and the recipient of NewCity’s Stage Top 5 in October 2020 for her original production of Rastus and Hattie – her rise as a playwriter over the past four years has been both swift and impressive. Accolades aside, she’ll be the first to tell you, however, that her entrée into playwriting was anything but intuitive.
A Julliard and Harvard trained actor with a robust stage and television career spanning thirty years, the 54-year-old explains, “Age was what catapulted me into a career writing plays. I was working in LA and New York, and just stopped getting roles. Things change. I understand that only a select group of people get to be athletes and movie stars and Kardashians. But does everyone else really have to work for Amazon and not take bathroom breaks,” she asks, laughing. Considering an alternative to that bleak prospect—she considers, “What about a world of happy people? Experience has shown me that when there’s a crack in the shell, you suddenly see there might be a different way to do what you want to do.”
As Langford’s acting prospects narrowed, that alternative came into focus, and she contemplated a move to writing as her outlet for creative expression. She reflects, “Life doesn’t turn down the drama as we age, so I seriously questioned why the only valid artistic representations on the stage are coming-of-age stories for the 20- and 30-something set. Why not for the 50- and 60-somethings?”
But the initial prospects she saw for herself as a playwright were rife with self-doubt. She shares, “I was convinced of this notion there is a right and wrong way to do it. I didn’t know how to write a play, and I certainly didn’t want to share my writing and be exposed to same arbitrary standards of an actress in the public eye. Not pretty enough, or the right body type, or the right age, or the right hair.”
Enrolling in a graduate writing program at the age of 47, she found exactly the support she needed to valiantly overcome that doubt. “I had a wonderful teacher who was interested in all the different ways to tell a story. He thought I could find my voice and be confident in the medium, and he was right. I long for maturity in theater, just as it exists in literature—from the very adult stories of Toni Morrison to Henry Miller. I realized during my graduate experience that no 20-year-old coming out of an MFA program could ever come up with The Crucible. There’s wisdom in age, and I clearly saw a place where I could write from experience.”
Dominique Raccah is a big deal in the publishing world. The founder and CEO of the largest woman-owned book publishing company in North America, the #11th largest among American publishers—and only one of two successfully operating outside the publishing epicenter of New York City, she has successfully led and substantially grown Sourcebooks in a fiercely competitive industry for the past 33 years. From fiction and children’s books to personal development and beyond, it counts scores of New York Times’ and regional bestsellers among the thousands of titles it has introduced to the world.
If it inspires even a single person, Raccah is happy to reveal that her success was anything but instant or easy. In fact, she’ll have you know that the company she originally led bears almost no resemblance to the successful Sourcebooks of today. Launched from her bedroom in 1987, it began as a publishing company for banking professionals. “Well,” she recalls with amusement, “That turned out to be just about as interesting as it sounds, really. Completely uninteresting.” That was the first major roadblock on Raccah’s professional path: The ill-fated pairing of a high-yield business prospect with a total lack of personal connection to what she was investing her time and effort in.
“About two or three years into that venture, I learned a vital lesson when a good friend of mine called me up to ask how I was doing. Already highly accomplished, moving millions of dollars in the same line of business, he was the model I was using,” she explains. As she answered her business mentor’s question, she recalls, “I had this long, laundry list of complaints to share with him, and he very plainly said to me – ‘It’s not that difficult. Find something that has heart for you.’ In that moment, he made me see that it was harder than it needed to be. I was fighting myself and the work at once.”
Beginning again, she took great care and time to identify what she was deeply drawn to, and wanted next. “After a couple of years, I figured it out,” she shares. “I believe that books change lives. Being able to articulate that point of view and connect to my own mission around it made an enormous difference. While I couldn’t publish banking books well, connected to that mission—I could publish others well.”
Fully committed to her new direction, she hired an editor and led an entirely reimagined, mission-based organization poised to change the world through books. And it has. Included in her substantial Sourcebooks portfolio is This Book is Gay—a mainstay resource for gay young adults struggling to come out to their parents, and one of the world’s most frequently stolen books from libraries.
But even as she built a silo-free, agile publishing house that a growing number of booksellers, agents and authors clamored to work with, funding remained a substantial roadblock for the first decade of Sourcebooks’ operation. A fully bootstrapped organization, Raccah didn’t take her first salary until the business was in its 10th year. “No one really does it all alone,” she offers. “Who your partner is really matters.” With due props to her husband for supporting her vision—both emotionally and financially, she says, “Whatever success I have, is as much Ray’s as mine.”
Mona Antwan is a bridge to humanity’s higher self. The Founder and Executive Director of the Mindfulness Leader nonprofit organization, she empowers youth to harness their emotions, enhance their perspectives in an ever-changing environment, and intuitively reach for a life that many would say is impossible. The only program of its kind anywhere, her 23-point Mindfulness Leader curriculum is tailored for both traditional, and special-needs students, has transformed the lives of nearly two thousand young adults to date, and been formally recognized by both the White House and the Mayor’s Office of Chicago. Now in its fourth year, the 10-week program’s value and popularity are clear: Demand far exceeds current capacity, with more than 7,000 high school students on the wait-list for available spots.
For Antwan, the obstacles in her early personal life are precisely what fueled her professional success. Arriving in Chicago in 1980 as a six-year-old refugee from Baghdad fleeing the Iran-Iraq war with her parents and four siblings, she reveals it was her early experience that shaped her desire and capacity to lift others.
“Sometimes you get the last thing you ever want, but the universe always knows it’s exactly what you need,” she reflects on her earliest years as a student in the Chicago Public Schools system. As a native Assyrian speaking first-grader, she recalls, “Because I was a brown child, they put me in a Spanish, bi-lingual room the moment I got here, and I learned Spanish my first year – not English. I was completely unseen and unheard.”
Antwan would ultimately leverage that early childhood experience in her life’s work, and the third grade was a pivotal year for her on that path. She recalls, “As I finally began to learn the language, I saw my foreign classmates being picked on and it hurt my heart. As a child that was completely unseen and unheard, I trusted my intuition because it was all I had, and I intuitively knew that things didn’t have to be that way. I refused to allow the bullying around me, and became an advocate for my classmates from Africa, India, the Middle East, and Europe. That became my role through grammar school, high school, and into my adult life.
Like many independent non-profit organizations, however, Antwan’s challenges to adequately fund programming at a scale equal to growing demand are real. Focused almost exclusively on curriculum development and program oversight the past four years, she admits the lack of outside funding has been a roadblock for short-term growth. But that doesn’t deter her one bit. “Life is just a series of figuring things out and moving forward,” she shares. “It’s the act of realizing that something not working out for you – is it definitely working out for you,”
And working out for her it is. Antwan is excited to report that—drawing on a technology partnership currently in its nascent stages—her Mindfulness Leader program holds the promise of a digital platform curriculum with licensing distribution on a national scale. “My immediate vision is to have this program in every high school in the country, with licensing revenue reinvested in curriculum development to perpetuate program growth, sustained funding, and our transformational impact on students everywhere.”
As beautifully generous as they are candid—may each of these amazing women’s shared experiences inspire you to carve out a unique path to success all your own.
Originally published on the KCI blog at https://kullcommunications.com/blog/conversations-with-thought-leaders-the-tenacity-to-carve-out-a-new-path