Only the Harvard Business School admission team knows for certain. But it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the incoming Class of 2021 has overcome more personal tragedy than Ida Valentine.
Ida, 25, suffered years of sexual abuse by her father, Clyde, who, after being confronted by her and others, killed her mother before turning the gun on himself.
That was nearly seven years ago. Since then, Ida has earned an undergraduate degree in business administration from the Kenan-Flagler School at the University of North Carolina, become an associate at a major investment bank, and become a motivational speaker, working through her grief by helping others deal with theirs.
And then there’s the little matter of gaining admission to Harvard Business School. “It was one of the most exciting days ever” when she got her acceptance letter from HBS, Valentine tells Poets&Quants. “I was jumping up and down. I still can’t believe it.”
‘I WAS NUMB’
Valentine’s admission to HBS is not just the result of years of hard work and preparation. It’s also a remarkable contrast to the unimaginable tragedy she suffered, beginning with years of abuse by her father and culminating in the overwhelming shock and grief of the murder-suicide that made headlines in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Ida grew up with her three older brothers.
She had been abused by her father from around the age of eight. She told her mother, Ida, but the abuse did not stop. By the time she reached UNC as a freshman, at 18, she was ready — with the support of her siblings — to finally report her father to the police.
A few months later, Ida’s father killed her mother and himself.
Her father was a well-liked high school teacher in the community, so the story was splashed across the pages of the local and state news. Even as they contended with emotional chaos, Ida and her brothers were thrown into an unfamiliar and glaring spotlight.
It was the middle of her first semester in undergrad. She had just joined the UNC dance team.
“I was numb,” Ida says. “I felt very lost and that all eyes were on me. I was getting calls from so many people I barely even know. I had no idea how to handle it along with school and dance–how to go on.”
GAINING CONFIDENCE AND A POSITIVE SELF-IMAGE
On the advice of her brother Hassaun, Ida went to a therapist in the second semester of her freshman year. “I wasn’t thinking that far ahead,” she says. “But if I didn’t go to a therapist, I could have imploded from the guilt associated with abuse.”
Ida loved her parents. She wishes they were still around for important life events like her Harvard acceptance and upcoming wedding. But she also felt, and continues to feel, that she has been freed of some personal demons, freedom from which her growth and accomplishments have stemmed. “Telling the truth freed me to be myself,” she says, “and I started to gain confidence and a positive self-image.”
As another brother, Malcolm, says: “To say I was shocked was an understatement. You have a certain image of someone who essentially raised you and this horrible story behind it. It was breathtaking. How could this man I loved do this to my sister?”
EYES ON HARVARD ALL THE WAY
Ida escaped into her studies and dance, relying on family and close friends for support. In her junior year she developed an interest in investment banking, encouraged by her brother Hassaun. “Hassaun was telling me I could do all these things,” Ida says. “I said, ‘If he sees these things in me, I could, too.’” Hassaun urged her to join Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a program that requires constant study to help underserved students break into the finance industry. SEO Career helped Ida land a job as an investment banker in the technology sector at Barclays.
It was a steep learning curve and endless hours of work, she says. “But if you learn it, it’s also very exciting. Here I was in the tech field having an impact on these companies, and I was only 21 years old.”
After two-and-a half years, Ida became an associate banker. She also became a member of the Leadership Council of SEO Scholars, a nonprofit that helps underserved students get to — and graduate from — college. But all along she had been thinking about getting an MBA — not necessarily a natural choice for someone in her position, who already had a good financial future plotted.
Usually, people get MBAs to become investment bankers. But Ida had different ambitions. “Talking to all these entrepreneurs made me think, ‘I want to try that, too,’” she says.
She was pouring her heart into other people’s projects. She wanted to work for herself. “I want that hard work to go into my passion,” she says. “I want to see if I can be as successful with my own business as with other people’s businesses.”
Ida applied to four top business schools, including The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Booth School at the University of Chicago. But she was hoping for Harvard, because Harvard had the names and networks she found most appealing. “Honestly, the academics at most top schools are relatively on a par,” she says. “I was asking myself, ‘How is my network going to be down the line?’ Harvard, the school and the name, mean a lot.” She was even willing to take out loans for Harvard, even though the other colleges were willing to pay for most of the tuition.