On July 6, 1993, Molly Barker hit rock bottom.
Divorced and stuck at a dead-end job waitressing, her alcoholism had taken over. In her mind, she had two options: move to California and start a new life, or end her life altogether.
Barker woke up the next day and called off work. That afternoon, despite the yellow hue of the storm in the distance cautioning her not to, she decided she needed to run.
As she was running, a feeling of empowerment overcame Barker, just as it had when she went running with her mother years before.
“I just realized that I am no thing...I’m not a woman, I wasn’t somebody who was divorced, I wasn’t struggling with alcoholism, I wasn’t poor, I wasn’t rich, I wasn’t white,” Barker said. “I realized that for 32 years of my life, I’d been letting somebody else define the ‘thing’ of me.”
So began Barker’s journey of starting nationwide motivational programs, she told a crowd Tuesday at the Bridgestone Invitational’s Executive Women’s Day at Firestone Country Club.
More than 100 women executives from across the region participated in the day of corporate dialogue, networking and professional development.
Barker, the keynote speaker, is no stranger to being a leading woman. Three years after her life-changing run, she started Girls on the Run, a program that helps girls ages 8 through 11 ease into adolescence by training for a 5K race and talking about their problems along the way. Since starting in Charlotte, N.C., the program has worked its way across the country, including into Akron, and has served more than 1 million girls.
“My whole life has been about providing spaces for — not just girls anymore — but for people to recognize that all the airbrushing, all the layers, all these needs to be perfect or to fit in, all of that is just one big illusion,” Barker said. “What really matters, truly, is that insight.”
After spending 13 years building her program, Barker decided to retire. She served on a commission in Washington for two years, but afterward, she felt lost just as she had back in 1993.
She left again to go find herself — this time, though, across the country in a red Mustang convertible. Barker talked to hundreds of people along the way, inspiring her to establish a new program called Red Boot Coalition.
The program, named in honor of the red boots Barker wore on her trek, challenges people to disregard their biases and learn to engage with others in a civilized way. Since its establishment in 2014, the Red Boot Coalition now has meeting places in nearly a dozen U.S. cities as people meet to follow its 11-step program.
Since starting Girls on the Run, Barker has been featured in Runner’s World, Glamour and Shape magazines. Presidents Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush awarded her a Daily Point of Light award in 2013, and Runner’s World declared her one of the “Top 50 Most Influential People in Running” in 2015.
“The one advice, if I were to give it at all, would be take some time to know what your story is,” Barker said.
Earlier in the day, women business leaders converged for a panel discussion led by Dorothy Musho, the executive vice president of HSBC Bank USA; Cara Adams, the senior project engineer for Firestone Racing; and Deborah Spake, the dean of the College of Business Administration at Kent State University. WEWS News Channel 5’s Lee Jordan served as a moderator.
“It was really neat for me to be on a panel with ladies with unique perspectives,” Adams said.
“We all have different paths, but it comes down to core things that resonate with everyone,” Musho said, as she explained that business leaders need a balance of work and home life to stay happy.
Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.