Renee Sewell '12, presidential management associate at Estée Lauder, gave keynote address at the National Honor Society Induction Ceremony

Thank you Sr. Pat for such a warm introduction!! Let me begin by welcoming all of you to this monumental moment and testament of the academic rigor and excellence that these phenomenal young women have displayed. 

Each one of you stands at the starting point of an expedition which we call life. Your rights to blame your teachers, parents, and neighbors have just expired. You are now fully responsible for the quality of your life. This quality does not depend on what you have but how you live. How you leave spaces better than how you found it - how you leave your mark.

Twelve years later, I am pleased to be back at St. Catharine Academy, which not only set the foundation for the woman I am today but gave me the courage to soar to new heights. 

[Theme:  Courage]

I vividly remember the daunting process of starting high school. Like many of you, I’m a first generation college student of an immigrant family. At that time in the early 2010s, violence was permeating through the Bronx communities, and my Jamaican parents never let me forget the financial sacrifice they’ve made to ensure I was not only protected, but also receiving one of the finest quality of education in the Bronx. And of course, having top grades was inexcusable - they needed to see that ROI! - I remember when I brought home my first A- and my parents were under the impression that the minus (-) meant I didn’t try hard enough -, “Renee why you couldn’t get an A+” - like I remember thinking to myself, ‘have you even been in my shoes?’  St. Catharine's was my first time experiencing pressure.

And for many of you, you’re experiencing the pressure across all fronts. Becoming the beacon for your family and changing the entire trajectory of your generational legacy also comes with learning how to navigate these spaces alone, assuming no one in your family can imagine what it takes to walk in your path.

It was teachers like Mrs. Cassaneto, Mrs. Riolo, Mrs. Petrigani, and Mrs. Angelis who reminded my peers and best friends and I of our power. Reminding us that whatever that’s coming our way, we can handle it. You won’t be going through anything that you are not prepared for. But I ask you this question, do you have the courage to seek more than what you’re provided?

[Theme: Visualization]

Visualization is only a thought until you have the courage to believe it is possible to have the life you want to live.Then it becomes a declaration. And trust me, my lifelong friends from St Catharine's  and I spent more time visualizing our dream life at the sushi spot on Williamsbridge Road until we recognized that everything we desire, exists within us.

We were just young Bronx girls with unfortunate circumstances whether in our home environments, family dynamics, cultural limitations - what did we know about wanting more? 

That’s the beauty of life, you constantly get new opportunities to redefine yourself - and college is one of those instances. When I was at my dream school, Boston University, I remember struggling my first semester in adapting to new theoretical teaching approaches, those large 200 student lecture halls, and vibrant student culture. At an institution of less than 3% Black students, I was grappling with imposter syndrome and whether I even belonged in these new spaces. I was surrounded by students from far more privileged backgrounds, with elite boarding school educations, international luxurious family vacations,  - I often thought to myself, I’m much further behind than everyone else. Where do I even begin?

And that was one of my most pivotal lessons in college, you can only fail if you stop trying. Success is guaranteed if you keep trying over and over again until you achieve your desired results. The same tenacity you displayed in even achieving National Honor Society will serve as your driving force to visualize, declare, and create your dream life.

There will be times when you will question, God, why me? But I encourage you to remind yourself, why not you? God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers - but truth be told, the reason you will be going through all these trials and tribulations is because others can see you for who God created you to be while you can only see yourself for who the world has told you that you are. I’m eternally grateful for my sorority sisters in the Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated for unlocking this audacious, fierce version of me out of my shy, timid cocoon and provided me with the pivotal tools to serve the communities I am in. To provide me with the space to feel seen, heard and valued in such a radicalized environment in Boston and to let my strength in vulnerability, authenticity, and empathy to unleash the fullest potential in others. It was the first time I recognized after being accepted into my dream school and then my sorority, that whatever I desire can come to fruition as long as I truly believe I am deserving of it and willing to put in the work to achieve it.

[Theme: Desires]

Your desires have been uniquely designed for you. There’s no coincidences. As you all are transitioning into a new season, be introspective of visualizing your desires and the woman you want to become. What does she look like? How does she act? What does adventure look like for her? 

It’s not your job however, to figure out the ‘when’ and live in the past or future. Your role is to simply be - be that expansive version of yourself that you visualized and created every day. If you prioritize that, everything falls in place. 

If you can see it in your mind, then you can have it in your reality. Your mindset is what sets the tone for everything in your life. I remember the inherent shame I felt when I received my first promotion at my post-collegiate role as a Tech Consultant. Everyone around me was cheering me on at this rare opportunity and the first thought that came to mind was there has to be more to life than this. When I had shared my desires to follow my passions and pivot into the BeautyTech industry instead, my peers were dismayed by my courageous act and often would project their own preconceived limitations of what I can and cannot handle. Now, as a graduate of Columbia Business School and in my dream role in the beauty industry at Estee Lauder, I can attest to say – the limit does not exist. The impossible is only what you believe to be impossible.  

That was my first lesson in the workforce, no one but you and God need to see and know where you’re going. You have to do everything in your power to protect that belief of who you are and the inherent awesome strength that dwells on the inside of you. If you count on someone else to provide you with an evaluation of your character, potential and abilities, you will always be enslaved to their ideologies and untruths. Who you are being and becoming is far more important than WHAT you are doing. As long as you recreate yourself, endlessly, shamelessly, even recklessly your path is the road that others will eventually use to arrive at the destinations that once only existed in your mind but are now available for the world to see. 

[Theme: Leadership]

You’re entering a pivotal moment in our history where your voice, your courage, your audacity is needed. Never lose sight of that. I hope the desires you plant come to fruition and give wings to everything that is meant for you. I hope the love that you have for yourself, guides you back to the core of who you are whenever you may forget where home is. You all are an embodiment of the future global leaders from the Bronx and New York City - never forget that your past is a place of reference, not residence. 

There’s just something about a true native New Yorker - we’re scrappy, we have this inner confidence of who we are because we’ve seen the best and worst of humanity on a daily basis. We’re incessantly reminded of the socioeconomic disparities that plague our communities and the institutional barriers, even from an educational level, that are not designed for young women and minority students to succeed. Let your background guide you in identifying opportunities to be a leader and leave your mark in the communities you’re in. Never be afraid to break down these barriers and blaze a new path forward. I remember when I told our Career Management Center while getting my MBA that I was aiming to only recruit for Estee Lauder - they thought I was nuts. But remember, it is only delusional until it works. Then it becomes inspirational.  I was competing for a rare 1% chance of getting a corporate beauty internship - and once I received it, I immediately co-founded a professional Columbia Beauty Club, to ensure future students have access to pivotal career resources to ameliorate beauty recruiting process. Now, the club is one of the top student organizations on campus with over 300+ members, bi-coastal treks across companies in the US, and the recent successful 2nd annual Future of Beauty Summit with Jane Lauder, Chief Data Officer at Estee Lauder as one of the keynote speakers. 

Your vision is what helps others re-imagine what’s possible. I expanded the number of MBA students entering the beauty industry and prospective students interested in Columbia simply from identifying opportunities to create a better space for others and having trust in my leadership to bridge the vision of where we currently are and the trajectory of what I want it to be. You can only go so far alone - always bring others along in your journey and let your upbringing in NYC, centered on fostering community and being the voice for others, guide you in leaving a mark.

There are four things you need to know before you go out into this world. Remember these things and you’ll be the best person you can be.

Painful experiences and challenges come to us all but it’s through these opportunities that we build character and we grow. Whenever you’re going through challenging situations, remind yourself to inquire from within: what is this teaching me? How does this help me become a better version of myself? Anything that God allows you to go through is only for your success and for you to fulfill what is destined for you. 

When you make plans, make sure you make room for God’s edits. You are able to correct many of the mistakes you made along the way. When you learn from your mistakes, these are lessons you can use as a point of reference in the future.

God will put you back together in front of those who broke you. You’re writing your own story and designing your dream life. Always think of the stumbling stops as stepping stones in coming into alignment with who you already are – to get to what you truly desire to become.

Lastly, remember our lives are made of chapters. And after one is written, it cannot be revised. But we can write a new chapter each day.

I hope hearing what’s possible for others is a reminder of the infinite possibilities that exists within you. Congratulations inductees. This is only the beginning.