Define Yourself

BK CHRISTOPHER, 39

THEN: Associate at a major Midwestern law firm

THE MOMENT: When I was pregnant, I didn't get a bonus for the first time. The message was: "We aren't going to punish you for having a child, but we're not going to reward you, either." I thought about chucking it all. But then I realized that the bonus was a distraction, and it was in my best interest to just get over it and not let an executive committee of men define me and my success. I made partner the next year, at age 30 - one of the youngest women to do so.

NOW: Partner at Horn Aylward & Bandy in Kansas City, MO.

THE RULES: I never shied away from an opportunity, even when I knew I might be getting it because I was the token woman. I took the opportunity and then kicked the door down.

I also decided that if I was going to make it in a male-dominated profession, I'd need others to help me do traditionally female things - I can't clean toilets and try a big case the same week.

Think Big

CLAIRE CHEW, 39

THEN: Director of creative services for a Fortune 500 company

THE MOMENT: About four years ago, I was seated on a plane next to a fashion exec. I surprised myself by saying, "I design jewelry for pets." In fact, I'd only doodled some things on a cocktail napkin. Six hours later, he invested $10K in my idea for charms for pets and their owners. I had the savings to take the leap and create Luxepets. It hasn't always been easy: As a first-generation American, I was raised to be a doctor or lawyer. My dad used to ask if I'd thought about going back to my corporate job. But before my mom died a few months ago, she said, without prompting, "It's like those guys at Yahoo!; it takes time to start a business. Hang in there."

NOW: Luxepets grew more than 300 percent in 2006; its products are in over 400 boutiques.

THE RULES: I set a vision every six months - whether it's about a certain number of orders or hiring an assistant - and keep it in view. It stops me from making decisions based on fear.

THE PAYOFF: Since my business brings me fulfillment, I don't have to take weekends away to decompress, and I don't have to buy those $300 boots because I had a bad day at work. Now the rewards are more than monetary.

Succeed While You Fail

DANI DAVIS, 41

THEN: Tony Award-nominated Broadway producer

THE MOMENT: I had to stand on the stage of Little Women The Musical and announce the premature closing of the show to the company. As I poured out my apologies, the cast yelled, "Stop! You did all you could! This has been great for us." They were applauding. I had trouble taking in the fact that they believed in me, even as I was failing them. The fact that life went on and people still believed in me was a huge lesson. People look at you not as the little achievements and failures, but at your integrity and resilience.

NOW: Recently directed Joyful Noise: Handel's Rock Messiah for PBS.

THE RULES: I became aware of how your appearance affects people's perceptions. A few times in my life, I have received hefty payments for my work, and I took a few thousand dollars and bought beautiful, classic designer pieces: Carolina Herrera, Calvin Klein, Narciso Rodriguez. Periodically, you need to allow yourself the item that makes you feel like, if you put it on, you can go out and make it happen.

Face Your Fear

FAITH ADIELE, 44

THEN: Scholarship student at Harvard

THE MOMENT: I flunked out sophomore year - I had never failed before. I later realized it had been a cultural meltdown - I was a black, rural girl from the Northwest.

I went to Thailand, thinking I'd write a brilliant treatise on female Buddhist nuns that would make everyone sorry for how they had treated me. When I got to one monastery, I suddenly knew I had to become ordained, live in the forest, shave my head, and take a vow of silence. I was often terrified and bored, but something in my upbringing wouldn't allow me to leave. Every day, you had to figure out what terrified you the most, and do it. Until then, my life had been about how to position myself to get positive feedback and awards. There, I learned to define identity and success on my own terms. (I later wrote the thesis and graduated from Harvard.)

NOW: Professor at University of Pittsburgh; won PEN award for her memoir, Meeting Faith; completed a PBS film, My Journey Home.

Bounce Back

DEBORAH KENNY, 42

THEN: President of Sesame Street Publishing; seven years ago, her husband died of leukemia

THE MOMENT: Losing my husband was so devastating that there was no way I could get up in the morning and do anything other than help people. A lightbulb went off when I discovered the charter-school model, where you run schools as an entrepreneur, not as part of a bureaucracy.

I had enough money for my family to live on for six months. At the end of that time, I was standing at the counter at the Gap with my daughter, and they wouldn't take my credit card or check. But I had faith that if I was meant to do this, I was going to put every ounce of my energy and money into it. Right after that, our first seed money came through - a $2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

NOW: Founder & CEO of Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools for underserved children in NYC; it's so successful that schools chancellor Joel Klein carries around its data as proof that low-income children can learn at high levels.

Check out The Marie Claire Guide to Getting Ahead

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