Education: Information systems and economics degrees, University of South Africa; JD, John Marshall Law School, Chicago
First Job: Computer operator for South African Druggists, a pharmaceutical distributor
What I'm Reading: Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond, by Gene Kranz; Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, by Richard P. Feynman, edited by Michelle Feynman
My Philosophy: Life is an invitation. I pass on to others what I have received.
Interests: Reading, nature and anything that flies (birds of prey, aircraft, etc.)
Favorite Charities: Apna Ghar, a women’s shelter in Chicago, and World Vision
Shamla Naidoo • WellPoint
Vice President and Chief Information Security Officer2007 award winner
My childhood circumstances drove my ambitions and led me to where I am today. I grew up in one of the poorest parts of South Africa, which was, at the time, under the rule of apartheid. I wanted to break out of that cycle of poverty. One of my first guides and mentors was my mother, who raised three children by herself while working 14-hour days to provide the bare necessities for us.
With my mother’s determination as a guide, I applied for a full-time job that required no experience after graduating from high school. Of the 500 job applicants, I was chosen for the position purely on the results of an aptitude test. That was my lucky break. For the next several years, I attended college while working full time. I learned the subject matter of my positions every chance I got, while I sought out and accepted help. I learned technology skills from anyone who would teach me. I tried to be the best employee I could be, executing both my job and education with passion and energy.
But career-related interests should have only been part of my life at that time, not my entire life; but my circumstances were extreme. I do not advocate this kind of singular-focused lifestyle. Balance in life is essential for the body, the mind and the soul.
My advice to anyone wanting to move forward in her company or any endeavor is to determine what your ambitions are. Be creative and stretch your imagination, but balance the ambition with reality. Take a holistic approach. Include work, relationships, activities and well-being. Don’t be afraid to aim high and bring to bear all of your resources—your intellect, experience, energy, intuition and courage.
There will be times, however, when your ambition (what you want to become) does not coincide with your reality (your current state and circumstances), and you may be disappointed. The key is to adjust. Adjust either your reality or your ambition, always knowing that you will be surprised at what is possible when you are willing to do what’s needed.
In my story, my ambition was to get out of the slum, and my reality was that poverty meant I was not going anywhere. I needed to change my reality by working harder and studying more. In adjusting my reality, I realized the power of ambition and the magnitude of the result.