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From Rural 'Merica to a C-Suite Leader

By Brooke McKean, President and Co-CEO of REACH Pathways

As an introvert, I don’t like being the center of attention. It makes me so uncomfortable that I got married in Las Vegas with just my husband. It was just the two of us in a little old chapel on the old part of the strip with the officiator and the receptionist serving as our witness. I had on my brand-new cherry red cowboy boots. And it was perfect.

I’ve always preferred to lead from behind. But as I embark on this next chapter of my leadership journey, I need to be seen and heard. Storytelling by and for people from under-resourced backgrounds is a core part of REACH. It’s about time I modeled the way and hopefully it will provide a bit of inspiration that our zip codes don’t have to determine our outcomes.  

I have had an amazing life filled with incredible opportunities and it’s shaped who I am and how I lead. The “tomboy” girl who grew up on a mountain in the woods whose only notable skill was being good at math became a COO managing a global organization with over 300 employees in some of the most dangerous countries in the world by age 25. Statistically speaking, based on where I come from, that never should have happened.

I didn’t know what a COO was or what a C-Suite role was when I was offered the job.

Content warning: My story includes discussion of domestic violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, and curse words.

Where I’m From

My story really starts two generations back. Because both of my parents worked full time, my grandparents helped raise me. They both settled down with their families in a small town in southwest Washington. A paper mill is at the center of town, which smells like rotten eggs. The town’s only claim to fame was the high school mascot, the papermakers, was on the Letterman Show for top 10 high school mascots.

On my father’s side, my grandmother was the 11th child of an absentee father. She was the sweetest and spiciest 4’11” woman you’d ever meet. My grandfather, warmly known as “grandpa Bud,” was a second generation construction worker who taught me to play poker and blackjack when I turned 9-years-old. They moved their family up and down the West Coast following construction jobs. As a result of travel and low-quality public education, my uncle could barely read, and my father couldn’t read anything more advanced than the daily newspaper.

On my mother’s side, she and my aunt were adopted by older parents who grew up in the Great Depression and came of age during World War II. My grandfather met my grandmother working at a hospital in Eastern Washington during World War II. My grandmother’s family came across the Oregon Trail and settled on farmland in Eastern Washington. They married and moved into the idealistic post-war home and I’m pretty sure my grandmother wanted her reality to be like “Leave it to Beaver.” To this day, I have a bed, furniture, and other items carried across the Oregon Trail in my home and office.

My grandparents lived hard lives and they did their best for their families. They were raised with and shared with me a few key sayings:

  • Take what you’re given and be grateful for it. Every opportunity is a privilege.

  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fit it. And don’t you dare throw it away if it works. If it does break, use duct tape or WD 40.

  • Children speak only when spoken to.

  • Be sure to wear clean underwear because you never know when you’ll get in a car accident.  To this day, I really don’t understand why it matters. If you do get into a car accident, your underwear should be the least of your worries.

There were a lot of good memories and hard ones. To this day, scones will always make me think of my grandfather who made me breakfast every morning. My grandmother always enforced very rigid gender norms and routinely made snarky comments about my clothes. In their world, girls did this, and boys did that, and that’s how it all worked.


My parents were high school sweethearts of the hippy generation. They decided to marry and build their dream home outside of town in unincorporated America. And while there’s lots of media depictions of small-town America, few people in my life really understand what I mean when I say rural America. I’m talking ‘Merica (pronounce it by saying “grr” with gusto, replace the “g” with an “m” and add “cuh”) or Mrrcuh.

Rural ‘Merica means growing up on a road that ends in gravel where people go muddin’/ ATVing/ moto-crossing down by the crick (also known as “creek”). There are no sidewalks, no public bus routes, and walking somewhere (other than the forest) is not an option. A weekend pastime is tubin’ down the river. ‘Merica is where the closest store with groceries is a gas station, the majority of vehicles in the parking lot are trucks, and there are no parking spot lines. Every time you go, chit chat is a requirement. Every gas station sells worms (for all you city folk, they are for fishing). I was quite surprised to learn that gas stations in the rest of the country do not stock worms. Working class culture was so infused into my understanding of the world that I scoffed and dismissed the person who told me that different types of drinks are supposed to be put in different types of glasses. My entire childhood, my mom drank her wine out of a pink plastic cup while she worked in the garden. And I will never understand why someone would put 5 fancy pillows on their bed that they never, ever use. Why, just why?

They built their custom 3-bedroom home with a big garden in the middle of three acres of thick Douglas fir forest. I grew up at the edge of the massive Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which is nearly 10x larger in square miles than the city of Chicago. 

I grew up in one of the most beautiful places in the country – within two hours of mountains, beaches, old growth forests, and waterfalls.

I also came of age during the opioid epidemic in rural America, oxycontin was $5 a pill and easily accessible in both middle school and high school. That evolved into meth addictions and my county was the meth capital of the country while I was in high school.

Although it was rural, it was still only a 30-minute drive to Portland and 15 minutes to town.

I have very much been shaped by the culture of Portland (#KeepPortlandWeird) and the Pacific Northwest, which is where the last vestige of counterculture goes and never dies. It’s why I LOVE tattoos, have 7 of them, and plan to get more for every key moment in my life.

Like their parents before them, my parents wanted a better life for their family. Having seen so many loveless marriages, I’m so grateful I had a model for that in my life.

My mom became a nurse and worked her way up in hospital administration and management. She always pushed me to challenge norms and think differently. My father was a third-generation construction worker and third-generation alcoholic. Overall, my childhood was filled with dirt, outdoor gardening projects, wandering through the forest with my loyal German shepherd following at my heals, and swimming by the river. My parents were solidly middle class and by far, the wealthiest in my whole family, often taking financial responsibilities for the family. Compared to the rest of my family and many of my friends, I thought our modest 1600 square foot house with central air and a hot tub was luxury as most people I knew lived in manufactured homes, trailers, or houses not all that much different from ours. Having seen real wealth, most people who came from true money would scoff at the linoleum countertops, old carpet, white appliances, and tacky décor, but it was a beautiful home to me.

“The Smart Weird Girl”

I was always “the smart weird girl” and, in that sense, not much has changed. I was called a tomboy most of my childhood because I mostly refused to wear dresses between the ages of 2 and 21. I also hated cooking (except baking cookies), playing with dolls, and generally all things that girls were “supposed to do.” The few times I did wear dresses were on special occasions and I mostly used that as an opportunity to be contrary. For homecoming, I had a dark blue dress with dark blue lipstick and dark blue streaks through my bleach blond spiky hair.

Overall, I had a happy childhood. It is amazing how small moments of reframing can completely change how we see the world. I’ve had the opportunity - and occasionally the trauma - of experiencing these reframes over and over again.

One key reframe was in 8th grade. I remember every visual detail of the middle school classroom and the moment that I learned about the archetypes of children of alcoholics. Our health teacher presented 5 or 6 typical archetypes of children of alcoholics. One of them was the perfectionist.

The perfectionist always has the best grades, is engaged in extracurriculars, and never gets in trouble. The perfectionist blames themselves for every alcoholic outburst because they just weren’t good enough. “If only I hadn’t said that, if only I hadn’t done that, then everything would be better.” To this day, my top Gallup Strength is Achiever and this is why. For everything in life to be OK, I had to be the very best I could be in everything. It was never about competition compared to anyone else. Looking back, I was in a situation I couldn’t control and it was easier to tell myself that my behavior could make it better than sit with the reality that there was nothing I could do. I’ve never wanted to accept being a “victim” of domestic violence.

Growing up, domestic violence was the norm. Most of the people I knew had dysfunctional families. My father was a mean drunk. To this day, I’ve never met or seen anyone display such extreme emotional outbursts.

I used to joke that I had all the models for what I didn’t want in my life. Every single person in my family was an alcoholic, an addict, or had mental health issues, or they were married to one. I have a meth addict cousin and another cousin who was a two-time teenage mom. The list goes on. I dreaded holidays because that’s when the drinking was the worst.

When I learned in school that alcoholism and domestic violence wasn’t OK or normal, it changed everything about how I saw myself and my world.

For everything in life to be OK, I had to be the very best I could be in everything. 

My Ambitions

I wanted out and I wanted to get as far away as humanly possible. I knew I wanted 2 things. 1. A job where I could travel and 2. Do good in the world. I was told that wasn’t a real job over and over again. I was also told more times than I can count, “why would you ever want to leave?” As a smart kid, I knew good grades and college were my ticket out.

I did well on the ACT and was accepted into the Early Start program where I could take community college classes in high school. My parents told me they would buy me a car if I took community college classes. Living away from public transportation, a car was independence. I signed up right away.  And I finished high school with an associate’s degree.

Doing good in the world was important to me because I saw the unfairness of how different life can be based on who your family is. In small towns, everyone is thrown into the same school. I had a friend who lived in a million-dollar mansion, and she was bought a shiny, brand-new car when she turned 16. I had another friend who got a job at the local Dairy Queen because there wasn’t any food in her house the day before her mom’s pay day and she’d run out of shampoo and conditioner. Her house without food on the regular was my escape when things got too bad at home.

I saw poverty firsthand and I came of age during the genocides in Rwanda and Kosovo. I didn’t have a nuanced understanding of racial or social justice, but I knew in my soul that it is wrong that where we live and the family we’re born into determines what opportunities we can access. 

The Youngest Person in the Room

I’ve also been the youngest person in the room my entire life. My cousins were either 10 years younger or older than me, so I was usually the only child at family events. I was three years ahead in math in middle school and high school and regularly around older students, even though I was regularly told “girls aren’t good at math.” Then I was the youngest student at community college. I graduated from undergrad in 3 years with a double degree, so I was mostly in college classes with older students. And then I did my master’s degree at age 21 when most people are still seniors in college. As a result of all this, I started my career early and was placed in leadership positions younger than most people. Still now, I’m often the youngest person in the room and look much younger than I actually am. So, I regularly receive comments about my age, how young I look, that I could be a student, etc., etc. I have more examples than I care to remember of people commenting about my age or just dismissing me. It took a lot of self-work and coaching for me to dismiss them.

One of my many reframes in life was shifting my perspective of myself as “the youngest person in the room,” to “I’m a badass for how much I’ve accomplished so early in life, and it makes me even more qualified to be in the room.”

College was freedom and responsibility. It was a relief to have control over my life and to pay my own bills – it’s no wonder that one of my top strengths is “Responsibility.” College was a chance to be around students who actually wanted to learn. In ‘Merica, especially at that time, nerds were not popular. While I was never bullied like many people I know, acing tests is not how you win friends. Being at community college and university where people wanted to learn was life changing.

College was my chance to put a name to a career for “doing good in the world” – nonprofits, international development, NGOs, human rights, economic development. I studied economics and international studies. Mentors told me I should get a skill so I chose economics because I was good at math, and it would be helpful for doing economic development work. I was hellbent on getting a job at an international nonprofit, every step I took was focused on that goal.

And I did just that. I did my master’s program in London when the pound was 2 to 1 to the dollar and right before the economy crashed in 2008. 2008 was one of those moments that changed everything. My father passed away March 18, 2008 as a result of alcoholism. I remember getting the call, physically shaking, and booking a next-day flight home. The flight attendant took so much pity on me that I got upgraded to first class.

Navigating Grief

Forgiveness can be a selfish act.

My father passing away forced me to face things that I had tried to run away from – I had literally run to the other side of the planet. By the time I was 25 years old, all four of my grandparents had passed, as well as my father and uncle. I faced more grief in my 20s than any person should have experienced. While it was difficult, it was also a gift in many ways because it forced me to face and work through my traumas.

Grief is like getting really sick with a cold – a brain fog sets in. You don’t really understand just how bad you felt and how much you were impacted until the fog starts to lift. I lost myself for a time. I had to face all the emotional baggage I didn’t want to deal with.

Books have been my greatest coping mechanism. When all else fails, books will always have a story to tell. I love fantasy and exploring new worlds.

I spent a month with my mom and realized just how many things around the house she had no idea how to do, because my dad had done them. I started to realize the many life skills my dad had taught me. And never once did he give me trouble for being “boyish.” He taught me how to wire electronics, use tools, set up fences, and chop firewood. He made sure I locked every door, and that I learned spatial awareness in crowds. He would give me the most random tips out of nowhere. Most lifesaving, “If you’re ever caught driving in a flood or snowstorm, maintain momentum. Maintain momentum.” Little did I know that many years later, I would be caught in a flash flood while driving in Haiti and the water was so high it went over the car headlights. Inside my head, I just heard my father’s voice say “maintain momentum, maintain momentum” over and over again and I somehow made it home safely.

I had to face the fact that I learned so much from my father. That he loved me and was so proud of me, and he never meant to hurt me. And, looking back now, I realize that he was also an empath raised at a time when men weren’t allowed to have any emotion except anger. I know now as an empath as well that alcohol is one of the few things that dulls those senses. He was raised by an angry alcoholic who was raised by an angry alcoholic. He had no way of dealing with the intense emotions he regularly felt. He couldn’t handle his emotions and so he drank. Unfortunately, he would drink so much that all the emotions came out in the form of anger.

Understanding why he did what he did doesn’t make any of it ok. It’s not an excuse. His behavior was unacceptable and I never should have had to experience it. No child should be abused. Forgiving someone for their actions does not forgive their behaviors. And forgiving someone is the most freeing thing you can do. Hurt people hurt people. The day I decided that I forgive my father, a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I loved my father, I understand why he did what he did, I forgive him, and I recognize that I never would have been who I am today without the life I’ve lived. And his behavior was still unacceptable. Forgiveness can be a selfish act. I believe that learning to forgive him and understand how he came to be an alcoholic is why I was able to stop the cycle. I was able to learn how to love deeply without drugs, addiction, and violence in a marriage. My mom, who was always a master of denial, apologized to me 20 years later, because she had enabled so much of it, but there was nothing to apologize for. I had already forgiven them both.

I know how much she loved my dad, and in a loving marriage myself, I see how hard it was for her. I’m grateful that she was able to move on when he passed.

The last thing I’ll say about grief is that the pain never really goes away. It doesn’t fade with time, but our capacity for love is infinite. Unfortunately, so is our capacity for hate. But if we fill ourselves with more love, the pain of loss is still sharp, but it becomes proportionately smaller. It’s risky because the more we fill ourselves with love, the greater our chances for eventual grief. But it’s worth it. I will always choose love and choose a life that has truly lived, despite the risks of loss and pain.

Embracing my identities

From London, I moved to Dakar, Senegal at the very western point in Africa in 2009 on the day of Obama’s inauguration. Senegal was where I learned to teach, make budgets, and build community. Personally, I will always be grateful for my time in Senegal because it’s where I learned to embrace femininity. It’s where I learned that you can be a badass powerful woman and wear pretty dresses.

A vivid memory - On a trip to a small village in northern Senegal, the male chief of the village was giving a very long speech in a very hot room with hundreds of people and no air conditioning in a language I didn’t understand. I was trying to stay awake when the big woman of the village walked in. She was literally the largest person in the village, and she was wearing a gorgeous dress in colorful patterns with matching shoes, jewelry, and headwrap. She strolled in 30 minutes late and the chief stopped talking mid-sentence, got off the only chair in the center of the room and sat on the floor to let her speak. My jaw dropped. While there’s a lot of complexity and challenges to women’s rights in West Africa and around the world, it was the first time I had experienced women who were both powerful and feminine.

I’d see women walking down the street staring at their own reflection smiling as their big butts jiggled. I had so many body issues growing up and I was so uncomfortable with female gender roles, I coped by rejecting femininity. And I learned in Senegal that it’s OK to be powerful and feminine and that’s when I started to bring dresses, pink, and jewelry into my daily wardrobe.

Then in January 2010, the Haiti Earthquake hit, and I wanted to be a part of the response. I flew to Haiti on March 18, 2010, two years to the day after my father had passed away. It was strangely symbolic. When I started, there were 20 staff, and I was just helping write grants. I helped design a play-based community development program for UNICEF that has been duplicated in humanitarian crises across the globe.

Six months later, I found myself creating financial policies and managing finances and payroll for 100+ staff at 7 offices in 3 currencies. My career took off because the finance person was fired for looking at porn and I volunteered because I’m good at math. Haiti is really where I had a chance to learn what I was good at – numbers, finances, systems creation. My whole career has literally been jumping into the deep end of the pool and learning to swim. I’ve been given multiple opportunities to build, create, and try and I worked hard enough to step up and succeed at every one of them. I think one of the reasons I succeeded is because I leveraged my Gallup Learner strength and talked to people who’d done it before and learned from their failures. Like a toddler who keeps falling and getting back up, I’d learn from every failure, iterate and do it again until I got it right without fear of falling yet again.  

I learned in Haiti that good intentions are often more dangerous than bad ones. I saw well-intentioned individuals fund orphanages in the country. There were so many orphanages and visitors to them that children would be traumatized by the constant churn of caretakers. The orphanages also mistreated the children to get more donations. Many parents believed their children would be better off at orphanages that could afford to feed them regularly and educate them, but they often just experienced abuse. Our “good deeds” can fundamentally change people’s lives for the worst. Doing social justice work means understanding the unintended consequences. It requires leading with communities not for them. We need to support youth with the information and agency to make informed decisions for their own lives.

I turned 25-years-old in Haiti and I realized that I shouldn’t feel this stressed, exhausted, or overwhelmed at that point in my life. So, I resigned and left to figure out what’s next. Two weeks later, I was offered a job to lead global operations at the very same organization.

I learned in Haiti that good intentions are often more dangerous than bad ones.

Becoming a C-level leader

I had the opportunity to lead operations from Chicago. I had the chance to support systems and travel to country programs across the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. I had my dream job. Four months later, I was promoted to COO. Although I’m an overachiever, I had never aspired to lead people.  I do not like being the center of attention and leading people means looked at all day long. I dropped my college speech class because it caused me so much anxiety.

I didn’t know what a COO was or what a C-Suite role was when I was offered the job. It was truly another dive into the deep end of the pool. I loved every moment of it. When I started, the organization had $8M in annual revenue in a handful of countries and seven years later, I had built the systems to sustain $25M in annual revenue in a dozen countries.

I’ve touched, created, or tweaked every area of operations across HR, Finance, grants management, IT systems and more. I learned about change management and how to lead teams. I went from no direct reports to 6 and managing a team of 350+ employees. I am so grateful for the President of Heartland Alliance who saw my potential and provided me with the opportunity to become a COO. It was my dream job, and I didn’t even know the name of it. From this role, I had the opportunity to travel the world.

Between work and personal travel, I’ve been to over 35 countries in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. I have seen gorillas, countless monkeys, sea turtles, grizzly bears, manta rays, aquatic lizards, pink dolphins, whales, and so much more, all in their natural habitats.

I have explored a tin mine and traveled to caves that aren’t even on Google maps. I have had the incredible opportunity to travel to five different rain forests across the globe.

I have seen incomprehensible wealth and poverty from slums and small huts to multi-million-dollar mansions. I have worked with people whose very lives were illegal.

Culture shock and travel literally turn life and how you see the world upside down and inside out. Travel changes you, stretches you, and forces you to look deep inside yourself. Travel is like the Esther stairs painting – your reality shifts completely, over and over again.  

All the hardships of my life led me to be the overachiever that wanted to run away from home, and I regret nothing because of the incredible opportunities I have had to see the world. Despite the fact that I have gotten every kind of sick from travel (I have literally ejected every color of the rainbow from my body and had countless fevers). Travel is still a part of my soul. I love everything about it – different foods, music, fashion, accents, languages, and all the culture. I love embracing differences.

I learned from my travels that I am one of the few strange individuals who likes to change and accepts it quickly. I picked up my life and moved to 3 countries I’d never been to before with just two suitcases. Once I decide to do something, I dive right in. Like when my father taught me to jump off 20’ bridges into the river, I step off cliff in life and move forward. It’s the same way I decided to get married and have a daughter.

It’s OK to be Quiet

From my time as COO, I also learned what means to be an introverted leader. I read the book “Quiet- the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” and I learned the term “empath.” It helped me realize that I’m not crazy, there’s nothing wrong with me, and it’s OK to be quiet. I reject the many times I’ve been called “shy,” growing up. Please, remove the word “shy” from your vocabulary when describing children. There’s nothing wrong with being quiet. It says a lot about how much I ran from the world and how little I was exposed to that it took me nearly 30 years to realize I was a highly sensitive introvert and empath.

Learning that I was an introvert and empath was another reframe that made it OK to be me. It is OK that I do not like parties. It’s OK that all I want to do on the weekends is get dirty in my garden, curl up with a book or movie, and spend time with the family I built and chose for myself.

I can’t lead the same way as an extrovert, but I can lead with care and compassion for each person’s unique experience. I can understand each person and what they bring to an organization, which is why my second top strength is individualization. I can create policies that embrace each person’s unique experiences. I can see a person for who they are and all their complex identities and beautiful contradictions, not their stereotypes.

 I’m not crazy, there’s nothing wrong with me, and it’s OK to be quiet.

Chosen Family makes you stronger

Two weeks after moving to Chicago, I met the person who is now my husband and acquired 50 Polish in-laws. We adopted a dog and tortoise and started our family.

I received the gift of marrying a saint who loves me even though I’m a total slob and my entire existence is a tornado. He somehow keeps our house together, the laundry and dishes done, all living things in our house get fed on time, and our child gets to all the places she’s supposed to go- none of which would happen if I oversaw that part of our lives. To my defense, I do make sure the bills are paid. I’m grateful to live at a time where gender roles are more and more fluid, and every family can find the roles that work for them. Shout out to all the moms who love being stay-at-home moms. So much respect because if I did that, I’m pretty sure it would destroy both our marriage and my sanity.

I was blessed with a beautiful kind-spirted daughter who loves princesses, bugs, dirt, and Minecraft and refuses to accept that there are “girl toys” and “boy toys.” I’ve struggled throughout my life on what it means to be a “girl” “wife” “woman” “leader” or a “mom.” I never felt like I’ve fit into any of the definitions of those words and still I identify with them.

Looking back, based on where I was raised, I was never supposed to accomplish any of what I accomplished. I never should have been a COO or President. I never should have traveled the world. My very existence in rooms with executives and world leaders is statistically improbable. And I’ve had quite a lot of privilege in my life – I’m white, able bodied, good at tests, financially middle class, and many doors were open to me that have not been opened for others because of my privileged identities.

Who I am

What I’ve learned about myself from my journey is that I love building, creating, and growing. I love making order out of chaos. I love taking ideas and turning them into reality. I love working with diverse teams and authentic people who will tell me what they think. I want people to disagree with me with kindness and passion and debate. I love people who refuse to fit in the boxes that society puts us in.

I believe in transparency, compassion, authenticity, diversity, and justice. I believe that we all share unique stories. I believe leading with values first. I believe that no one should be put in a box.

I believe that we all deserve the chance, the agency, and information to make informed choices for our lives to chart our own paths and ignore what you’re “supposed to do.”

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