By Apollo Emeka
I grew up believing the lie that success was dependent on conventional accolades, so I spent so much of my life trying to collect them. But when I learned to leverage my unique (and sometimes even shameful) experiences, my success and the quality of my life skyrocketed. Here’s how I did it, and here’s how you can do it, too.
Growing up, I was wrapped in a warm blanket of love and support inside my home. Thank goodness! Because outside of the house, I felt like an alien. I grew up broke and Black in a predominantly white town a ferry ride away from Seattle, Washington. As an adult, I came to find that even the “popular” kids who looked like everyone else had a hard time feeling comfortable in their own skin, but as a kid, it felt like everyone fit in but me.
Adolescence was no joke. I was all over the place.
My formative years were in the ‘90s. Every Sunday night, you could find me plastered to the couch with the harsh TV glow of The X-Files lighting up my face. I rode my bike all over the place, I swam competitively, I wrestled, I built treehouses, I rode horses, recorded rap songs on a 4-track, trained in capoeira and acted in plays. I basically followed my natural curiosity. I didn’t go to much school growing up, but that’s a story for another time!
I eventually dropped out of high school—a move that seemed to contradict my dreams of one day being in the FBI. But I just knew I’d make it. About seven years after dropping out of high school, I was walking across the graduation stage at the FBI Academy in Quantico. I had achieved a lifelong, X-Files-fueled dream.
For the longest time, I thought the key to accomplishing this feat had been overcoming my insanely scattered and diverse past. But I came to realize that my past had actually been the fuel that allowed me to reach my dream.
I went on to accomplish more and more. I earned a doctorate. I became an Army Special Forces Green Beret. I started and sold a business. Then I started a consulting firm, Apollo Strategy Group (ASG), that helps other leaders and businesses accomplish big goals.
For so long, I thought I had been able to achieve these things because I had overcome my past and hidden it from the gatekeepers to success. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I realized how my diverse background gave me a rich set of experiences to pull from. I came to realize that it was the differentiated experiences (like doing theater, building treehouses and later jumping out of helicopters and going to couples counseling) that would give me a leg up, not the experiences that made me more like everyone else (like getting a degree or driving a nice car).
Multiple leaders that we’ve worked with at ASG have launched new lines of business or new companies entirely. These leaders are mostly Black and Brown folks who’ve also been taught to blend in and hide what makes them unique, i.e., to seek accolades that are immediately recognizable like graduate degrees, job titles and assets under management. We’ve helped them see that their unique, personal experiences make their conventional accolades even more powerful.
The more I express the weirder parts of my past, those I had overlooked or even tried to hide, the more I am able to provide value to the leaders and teams we work with.
This realization has been powerful in three ways: First, it’s made life so much more enjoyable because I get to live as my authentic self. Second, it’s helped me achieve higher levels of success than I ever thought would be possible. And third, it’s helped me unlock the potential in other people with diverse backgrounds and create a culture of inclusion everywhere I invest my time and energy.
Here are the keys to leveraging your unique past to your benefit:
- Embrace your unique story
Growing up in a low-income household, I often felt like an outsider. My circumstances did not match my peers, and I had to learn to adapt and find my place in the world. I discovered that my unique story was not something to be ashamed of, but a source of strength. It taught me resilience, determination and the importance of hard work. By embracing my background, I was able to use these qualities to create a successful business and help others find their own success. What’s unique about your story? What have you experienced, endured or overcome?
- Foster an inclusive environment
One of the most significant lessons I learned from my experience as a Black entrepreneur was the importance of inclusivity. I recognized that everyone has a unique story to tell, and by fostering an environment where diverse perspectives are welcomed and valued, we can create more innovative and robust solutions. At ASG, we make a conscious effort to maintain a diverse team and support leaders and entrepreneurs who often get overlooked. This commitment to diversity has been instrumental in our success. The more you foster inclusivity, the more you create space for your own unique identity. What are you doing to create inclusivity wherever you go?
- Leverage your diverse skills
Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills, from serving as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces to working as an FBI Intelligence Analyst. I have learned that combining these diverse skills can lead to innovative solutions and a competitive edge in the business world. By leveraging your unique skill set, you can bring fresh perspectives and ideas to the table, fostering a more dynamic and successful company culture. How are you combining what you’ve learned from your diverse experiences to bring value to others?
- Empower others
As a leader, I believe it’s essential to empower those around you. By sharing your knowledge, providing mentorship and offering support, you can help others unlock their potential and create a more collaborative and successful work environment. I have made it my mission to use my experiences and knowledge to help others grow, and in doing so, both my clients AND I have achieved great things. How are you empowering others?
- Celebrate successes, big and small
In my journey from growing up broke to becoming the CEO of a successful consulting firm, I have learned the importance of celebrating successes, both big and small. This acknowledgment of achievement serves as motivation and reinforces the importance of inclusivity and diversity. By recognizing the unique contributions each individual brings to the table, we create a company culture where everyone feels valued and inspired to reach their full potential. How are you celebrating the small wins that might be overlooked by the mainstream?
Leveraging your unique experiences can be a powerful tool in creating more inclusive and successful company cultures. Embrace your story, foster an inclusive environment, leverage your diverse skills, empower others and celebrate all successes. By doing so, you can create a thriving business that supports the growth of all its team members, and finds value in the diversity of their backgrounds.
Dr. Apollo Emeka is the founder and CEO of Apollo Strategy Group (ASG) Inc., an innovative leadership and strategy consultancy for business leaders, companies and the next wave of ventures launched by diverse and impactful founders. Prior to founding ASG, Emeka launched a business while working as an FBI analyst. Shifting to full-time entrepreneurship, he scaled the business from one location to seven within four years. In 2022, he retired from a decorated 20-year military career as a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret and a U.S. Military Intelligence Analyst. Emeka has a doctorate of policy, planning and development from the University of Southern California and lives with his wife and two children in Pasadena, California.