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The hero’s journey: Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis shares her story

MIT and Viola Davis at 2017 Massachusetts Conference for Women

“No big! Only 12,000 people here,” kidded Academy Award winner Viola Davis as she took the stage for the morning keynote of the 2017 Massachusetts Conference for Women. Now in its 13th year, the one-day event is the largest women's conference in the country and features inspirational keynote speakers, skill-building breakout sessions, and ample opportunities to network with other women leaders. In addition to Davis, this year’s speakers included renowned actress Meryl Streep, feminist author Gloria Steinem, clothing designer Diane von Furstenberg, reality star Bethenny Frankel, and chef and restauranteur Barbara Lynch.

“I am not here to give you a speech or advice,” Davis began. “I am only here to share my story. And I always begin my story by saying that I am a hero.” Davis is the first black actor to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting: winning the Oscar, Emmy, and Tony. She is the only black woman to be nominated three times for an Oscar and the first woman of color to win the Screen Actors Guild Award a staggering five times.

“But I’m not the type of hero with a cape, or a golden lasso, or a glittery boomerang,” Davis continued. “I’m a hero because I’m always looking to live a life bigger than myself, and I’m always looking to reconcile my past. And I’m always looking to the hero’s journey as my guide, spelled out so beautifully by writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell. He said that a hero is always someone who is born into an ordinary life. A life where they don’t quite fit in. Something’s a little different about them. And then they get the call to adventure. Someone enters their ordinary life and tells them–you need to go fix something. They resist at first, but eventually begin a journey. They encounter obstacles—slay dragons, fight with swords—and then journey back to their ordinary life. And when they finally make it back after so many life-threatening moments, they then share their story and lessons with others.”

Viola Davis at Conference for Women Boston

A call to adventure
In 1965, Davis was born into extreme poverty on a former plantation in St. Matthews, S.C. As a child, she and her family moved to the predominantly white neighborhood of Central Falls, Rhode Island, where they lived in a condemned house. Rats, no reliable water, no clean clothes, no heat, often no toilets, and little food were the norm. She was often bullied by other children at school for the color of her skin. Domestic violence, alcoholism, racism, and poverty shrouded her youth. Davis recalled her older, nine-year-old sister asking her one day, “How do you want to get out of here? Because if you don’t want to get stuck here, you better figure it out.”


Shortly thereafter, Davis saw Cicely Tyson in the heralded televised miniseries, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. “When I saw her, I saw a physical manifestation of my dream come true for the very first time. It became a reality. I felt my call to adventure: I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be somebody,” Davis said.

She threw herself into school plays and theater classes, eventually studying at the revered Juilliard School in New York City. “I chose acting because I thought it was a great profession—requiring the skill of empathy—of channeling an emotion and experience into an audience so they could feel less alone. I felt a great passion for it.” Davis eventually moved to Los Angeles and started landing a steady stream of roles in film and television.

Sword fights and slaying dragons
As with any journey, obstacles arise. “At 28, I crashed and burned,” Davis said. “I was running on empty. I was constantly anxious, ashamed, and tired. My passion for acting had died out. I was constantly pretending to be someone I wasn’t—what I thought everyone else wanted me to be. Trying to be the cute, happy girl all the time. Constantly proving myself. Constantly outrunning my past. Constantly verbally abusing myself. And wearing that mask all the time prevented me from really connecting with the people and work around me. I was my own tormenter.”

Coming home
So what changed for Davis? “I realized that I needed to step into my story and make peace with it,” she said. “That I couldn’t wear the mask that grins and lies anymore. That everything that had happened to me—everything in my life—had equipped me with what I needed to step into my role as a woman, a mother, an actress, a producer, and a mentor. I can’t suppress myself anymore. I will never be perfect and have it all figured out. Perfection is not a prerequisite to success. Worthiness is not a prerequisite to success. But showing up as your best self and being willing to learn is.”

Davis has remained a booster of her hometown of Central Falls. In 2016, she attended the groundbreaking of a community health center there, and has raised and donated money for the city's library and the Central Falls High School. “So that’s where I’m at now as I share my story and lessons with you today. I forgive my past and am stepping into my future. Because it’s on me. Everything in my life is generated from me. I can embrace it, or not. Learn from it, or not. Own it, or not. Grow, or not,” she said. “And the same is true for you.”

Women at MIT


Doing our part
Staff from MIT Sloan’s Executive Education, MBA, Executive MBA, Fellows, and Digital Learning programs, as well as the MIT Sloan Alumni Association and the MIT School of Engineering’s Professional Education program, proudly represented the Institute at the Massachusetts Conference for Women.

As cited frequently at the Conference, numerous studies of educational and corporate institutions across the globe show a leaking pipeline of women at every stage of development in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The percentage of women working in these roles and fields has remained at approximately 30% for decades. The reasons for this are numerous. MIT is actively seeking to understand and clear the obstacles women face within the educational system and the workforce.

Over the past 20 years, MIT’s female undergraduate population has risen to nearly 50 percent of total enrollment, and such growth has been sustained across almost every department and school. This is progress, but more work needs to be done. At MIT Sloan Executive Education, we see more and more women attend each year, and from countries around the globe. Our goal is always to attract a diverse pool of participants with varied interests, ethnicities, races, and backgrounds. Women are an important element of this diversity.

At events like these, MIT Sloan Executive Education staff are often approached by women executives— most of whom manage large staffs and budgets, hold degrees, and have decades of professional experience—who ask us, “Am I qualified to take your courses?”

The answer, ladies, is yes. Very much so. And we hope to see you in class very soon.

This entry was posted in Women in Business on Mon Dec 18, 2017 by MIT Sloan Executive Education

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