5 Incredibly Inspirational People Who Prove Hard Work Pays Off

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Jennifer Bewley
Jennifer Bewley
May 18, 2024 at 6:17AM UTC
Feeling discontent or uninspired by your professional life? There’s nothing like the words of inspirational people to serve as a tonic for our apathy and help kick us back into motion. 
In situations like these, we’re used to being funneled quotes from tried-and-true inspiring people like Steve Jobs and Sheryl Sandberg. But not every inspirational story comes from A-list successful people; the stories and quotes of those who haven’t achieved celebrity status in the business world can be just as motivating, too. Here are five stories that show what any one of us can achieve with a winning combination of hard work, a great attitude, and the willingness to just keep going — no matter what. Read on, and take a page from these incredible women to become your own inspirational leader.

1. Dance with your fear.

There was a time when Senada Adzem, a successful, self-made real estate executive with Douglas Elliman, didn’t have much by way of career goals or dreams. That’s because, at age 14, she was simply struggling to live another day. Adzem and her family were struggling to survive the war in Bosnia. “You don’t really believe what is going on,” Adzem recalled of the situation. “I was a scared little girl. I was petrified.”
After almost being killed and realizing she didn’t care, that’s when her paradigm shifted. No longer afraid to go outside, Azdem started to work and provide for her family. “My way to contribute was to translate. First for journalists and then for the U.N.,” she said. Through the work, she found her purpose — and a way to channel her anger and frustration — to give voice to everyone who was suffering. Simply stated, Azdem faced adversity with ingenuity, productivity, and — like most truly great people — with courage.

At the end of the war, when she was 18, her first dream came true — a chance for a proper education in Lamoni, Iowa. When her second dream, to be a diplomat, didn’t materialize, Azdem worked in venture capital and strategic consulting before finding her real passion in real estate. 
Today, her small team generates annual transaction volume between $70 and $100 million. Azdem said she understands you can lose your money, you can lose your possessions, but as long as you are alive and healthy — everyone internally has what it takes to make his or her life worthwhile. 
“Don’t avoid your fears,” she advised. “We adapt. We do things we never thought were possible. I’ve seen it happen.”

2. Go on a crusade of courage.

The year was 1985, and Joyce Bender went to get a soda during the movie “Amadeus.” She woke up in a hospital with a fractured skull, 60 percent hearing loss, and an IV of anti-epilepsy medicine. 
Two months later, Bender was back at her full-time job, helping companies source and hire technical talent. Prompted by her personal experience and her executive search expertise, she was asked to serve as a career counselor to a group of students with disabilities who were training to become software engineers.
“The attitudinal barrier was so horrific,” Bender recalled. One candidate, with an advanced university degree, had put on his resume that he would accept a salary of $10,000 a year because of his disability. After 10 years of volunteering to secure employment for disabled professionals, Bender’s mounting frustration prompted her to close her successful recruiting business and open another. 
Bender Consulting Services was founded in 1995 as a for-profit company focused on the competitive employment of people with disabilities. To date, Bender has placed professionals with disabilities in major organizations such as Highmark, UTC, PNC, Comcast, and many federal agencies, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Beyond career placement, Bender has a division staffed with digital accessibility experts and a new e-learning product, iDisabilityTM.
Her motto: “Paychecks, not Pity.” The company requires that employees meet or exceed performance expectations, regardless of whatever disability they may have; this isn’t a space for indiscriminate kindness and needless sympathy, but rather a place to help people realize their full, powerful potential. Bender readily admits she’s on a crusade, and that there’s still a long way to go. What happened to the candidate that would have been happy with $10,000 a year, you ask? He’s been working as a software developer at a competitive salary for a major healthcare insurance company for 15 years. 
“A professional with a disability will work harder. They are trying to show the employer how valuable they are,” she said. 
It’s clear that Bender and her growing team of consultees have no problem whatsoever keeping up. The real question is — how many companies are dynamic and vibrant enough to keep up with them?

3. Take every single opportunity.

When Deborah Quaglietta says she’s going to help you, you believe her. That authenticity makes it easy to understand how she went from a neophyte to the top sales agent in the country for Combined Insurance in one year. But it wasn’t easy.
When faced with a divorce in her late forties, Quaglietta suddenly needed to support her two teenage daughters. Her work journey started with a casino gig, which had to be supplemented by working as a late night waitress. She worked from six in the evening until noon the following day, with an hour and a half of sleep in her car in between the two jobs. “It was grueling,” she said. “My whole body was breaking down.”
Quaglietta’s friend understood her struggles and suggested she look into a role as an insurance sales agent. She decided to give it a try and met with Combined’s recruiters. They loved her, and she loved the idea — but she still had to get licensed. After a couple of tries, Quaglietta passed her exams and went in for training. During her orientation week, she started to believe that she could do it, and then she decided she was going to do it.  
During her first weekend home, Quaglietta texted, phoned and emailed everyone she knew that could benefit from a policy. On Monday, she had a line at her door and wound up selling $10,000 worth of insurance in a day and a half.
 “I just don’t miss any opportunity,” she said. “I call every lead that has potential. I work every hour of every day.” 
There are a few exceptions. She no longer has to work holidays, through dinner, or through any school activities when her daughters need or want her there. With her life now transformed and a sense of balance achieved, Quaglietta says, “Never give up. You never know what the next day may bring.”

4. Don’t lose your focus.

When Joanne Sylvestre ended up in a homeless shelter as a single mom at 20, the only thing she knew to do was just remain focused.
Two years prior to that, she’d had life by the tail as a co-ed at Hunter College studying for her bachelor’s in nursing. Her world shifted, however, when she unexpectedly became a parent. Without child care resources, she dropped out of school and temporarily sidelined her career goals.
Sylvestre was fortunate to have a tangible skill set, though. Thanks to her high school studies, she was already a licensed practical nurse. Once she had found reliable child care, Sylvestre started to pick up as many shifts as possible during the day and go to school at night. 
“I didn’t look at the much larger picture,” Sylvestre remembered. “I just started chipping away. Sometimes I could only focus on the next few minutes, or hours, or days.”
Her patience and perseverance paid off when she finally attained her degree in 2009. A pivotal moment came two years later: Sylvestre interviewed for a charge nurse position at Fresenius Medical Care, but the company’s recruiters saw something else in her — management potential. Sylvestre ultimately agreed, and she became a clinical manager overseeing one clinic to start. She climbed the corporate ladder, and today, she is the Regional Director of Operations at Fresenius Medical Care, overseeing nine in-patient facilities in the Greater New York region. She is also a recent MBA graduate.  (Talk about transformational leadership!)
Sylvestre’s next chapter includes her own nonprofit, the Nutressence Network, which mentors minority nurses in healthcare leadership. She said: “At any point, anything can change. I want to instill more empathy, real empathy. Everyone can offer comfort. It’s a communal effort.”

5. Own your results.

Ash Norton was in grade school when she realized her parents’ addictions were having an impact on her family’s life.
“I vividly remember thinking, I wish they would just give me their paycheck,” she said. “My parents were in and out of jail or rehab, leaving my sisters and I to live with family members. We moved more times than I can count, usually being forced out of our home due to eviction.”
Still, Norton picked her lane — school. 
“School was a way out of my environment and I happened to be good at it,” she said. At 17, Norton graduated from an accelerated high school and entered the chemical engineering program at the University of Cincinnati. Even with varsity rowing added to her plate, she still graduated with a 3.6 GPA. Beyond hard work, she attributes some of her collegiate success to the high-achieving, high-impact community she found.
“There was a camaraderie — a core group of classmates that would study together after class,” she said. “We faced difficult challenges together.” 
After graduating with a job in hand, Norton quickly moved into progressively higher positions at Duke Energy. Through her work, she found her passion: leadership development. And when the opportunity presented itself, Norton decided to open her own business focused on helping the next generation of engineers to become inspirational leaders. 
She’s raising a few inspiring young people herself, in fact. Norton is teaching her 3 year old about consequences. “Everyone has the freewill to choose, but there are consequences to those choices. Ultimately, you have to own those results.”

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Jennifer Bewley is the founder of Uncuffed which provides detailed research into prospective employers. Jennifer has an unhealthy love of financial data and speaking her mind and she uses each to help candidates choose the company they work for wisely.

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