Why do I do the things I do? The answer always comes back: because I can. While my personal journey has been an ever-changing one—from teaching at a university, to starting and running a successful small business, to serving as the GSA’s first woman administrator—I never forget that individual, personal initiative is the key to success, regardless of race or gender.

Today’s African American business women have more social and financial freedoms and more personal ability to lead organizations than ever before. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have pursued my professional dreams and lead my own company, while also playing a role in making the country a better place to live.

I find myself constantly falling back on lessons passed down from three generations of women in my family. We have been a family of entrepreneurs from the time of my greatgrandmother, a free black, who sold pralines in New Orleans in the 1860s. These women raised me to understand that hard work is critical, but that hard work alone isn’t sufficient.

My grandmother ran a business school and owned several rental properties at the turn of the century, around 1908. She taught me about the importance of participating in society, understanding politics and the importance of insisting on equal rights. She operated a successful business at a time when women did not yet have the right to vote.

My grandmother, my mentor from an early age, inspired me to mentor others at work and within the community. Mentoring is my opportunity to help others benefit from my hard-won experiences. At a minimum, mentoring allows me to help others avoid making the same mistakes that I made and to share in those personal victories that come from moving a little further up the ladder of success—and it feels really good.

I’m a believer in the power of individuals, and especially women, to make a difference, whether they’re selling pralines or more efficient federal contracting.