* IF YOU'RE a coffee fan, you may already know of Bonnie St. John. In 2006 she was quoted on a Starbucks cup during its "The Way I See It" campaign: "I was ahead in the slalom. But in the second run, everyone fell on a dangerous spot. I was beaten by a woman who got up faster than I did. I learned that people fall down, winners get up, and gold medal winners just get up faster."
That anecdote refers to St. John's Paralympics run in 1984, when she became the second-fastest female amputee skier in the world and the first African-American Olympic ski medalist. "That's a powerful metaphor for today's business world: There's change, there's competition, there's technological shifts, and we will get knocked down," says the upstate New York resident. "The prize often goes to the team that can get up the fastest and get back in the game."
The way St. John's train of thought leads her from skiing to a business lesson reflects the trajectory of her life.
With the Paralympics behind her, St. John graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, earned a Rhodes Scholarship for economics (and a graduate degree from Oxford), worked in the White House and wrote six books. As a leadership consultant and keynote speaker for 20 years, she has worked with 500-plus organizations, such as FedEx, Shell, Disney, AT&T, Merck and Target. "I'm here to inspire other people and to help them reach their potential," says St. John, 49. "Whether that's to inspire a group in a speech or to work with a team on a consulting basis to help them achieve their potential, that's what gets me going."
She began to understand the importance of potential at age 5, when her right leg was amputated because its growth was stunted. "I had to push on a heavy bathroom scale with my stump to toughen up the nerve endings so I could bear weight on it. It was horrible, but I learned that you have to push through the pain to get to a better place."
St. John's father left the family before she was born, and her mother married a man who physically abused Bonnie and her sister. But her mother worked to remain positive and set a powerful example for her three kids. "She took us to hear positive speakers and made positive affirmations. She put effort into changing her life," and she treated Bonnie the same as her siblings. "She expected me to do my chores. She bought me a bicycle, and she set the expectation that I should be able to do anything I wanted to do."
Which included skiing. When Bonnie was 15, a...