Angelica Berrie: When You Touch Your Soul, You Become Fearless

Angelica Berrie

Angelica Berrie (Global FWN100™ '14) delivered her leadership keynote at the launch of FWN's second book on Filipina women leadership, DISRUPT 2.0: Filipina Women: Daring to Lead at the University of Cebu in Banilad during the #FWNSummit2016 on Monday, August 22, 2016. Below is a the full transcript of keynote speech:

My name is Angelica Urra Berrie and my story begins right here in Cebu, where I was born. My mother was born in Amoy, now the Fujian Province of China and my father’s father came to the Philippines from a small town called Estella, in the province of Navarre in Spain.

Studying in an all-girl convent schools here in Cebu, Bicol, Bacolod and Manila, I had no clue what philanthropy was until I met my husband, Russ Berrie, a New Jersey sales entrepreneur who made his fortune selling teddy bears and trolls.

Moving from the Philippines to New Jersey was a culture shock as I went from passing the collection basket at Sunday mass to having our names on buildings and pledging huge amounts publicly at fundraisers.

The most valuable lesson I learned was that making a difference did not mean writing a million dollar check but giving the gift of who you are, your passion, experience, creativity, energy and connections.

It is a message I love to share as it has enriched my life and given me a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

As President of the Russell Berrie Foundation, I have the pleasure and privilege of giving away my husband’s money.

Russ was a salesman who wanted his gravestone to say: “He was a good salesman.”
So he established the first and so far, the only professional sales degree program in William Paterson University in NJ. He was a Type 2 Diabetic, so we named the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University in NY after his mom, who was also a diabetic. It was created around a vision for humanistic career, with research and all related specialists handling the different aspects of diabetes under one roof so patients don’t have to run around different buildings.

Our foundation believes in making a difference. One of the ways we think of our impact and legacy is in developing leadership because leadership is the gift we leave behind. At the end of the day, when our foundation sunsets, we want to know that there is a next generation of leaders who will ensure the continuity of our values.

In our Jewish community of northern New Jersey, we have over 60 Berrie Fellows who now Chair most of the boards of our Jewish organizations, synagogues and nonprofits.

In Rome, we created the Pope John Paul II Fellows for Inter-Religious Studies at a Vatican university that has produced Popes and Cardinals. We now have about 70 Inter-Religious Fellows from 21 different countries, including the Philippines, many of whom are already in leadership positions throughout the Catholic world. If just one of them becomes a Pope sometime in the future, it will be like hitting the jackpot.

In Sales, graduates of the Russ Berrie Institute of Professional Sales are being recruited before they even graduate as they undergo sales simulation training in a special audiovisual lab.

In Israel, the foundation has identified civic leaders within government offices and trains Mayors (including Arab mayors) of municipalities to collaborate to increase their collective impact. One of the program’s trains Arab women to empower them to run for office at all levels of government. They started with 15 women who produced two winners and now have 200 applicants whom we hope will produce 15 political leaders.

One of the biggest handicaps women face is not the glass ceiling imposed on us by others but the ceiling of self-limiting fears that hold us back from achieving our fullest potential.

To be a woman who leads and who wants to be a leader today in a world filled with complexities requires fearlessness. Fearlessness is a state of mind to be cultivated by enlightened leaders so they can bridge differences within communities and around the world.

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Filipina Summit two years ago about the power of women to make a difference. When we all went onstage to share a few lines of wisdom, I chose the words of the Persian poet, Rumi:

Forget safety.
Live where you fear.
Destroy your reputation.
Be notorious.

In a world where women constantly have to make fearless choices, Rumi’s words speak to women who lead. Angela Merkel in Germany made a fearless choice by taking in refugees. An 11-year-old Pakistani girl named Malala was shot in the head for daring to pursue an education. In the U.S., a woman is seeking the highest position in government for the first time. It is OUR time to lead fearlessly – so we should unpack this word to unleash its power in our own journey!

Fear holds us back from leading our best life. Erica Jong, in her book, Fear of Flying, said, “I have accepted fear as a part of life… specifically the fear of change… I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says, “turn back.”

I first encountered fear during the last days of the Marcos era.

I happened to be with a group who found ourselves standing in front of the first tank that rolled into EDSA. Each year, during the anniversary of the People Power Revolution, TV stations air a rerun of those fateful moments when those nuns started praying. There was a numb sense of fear that gripped the crowd, knowing tear gas was released on the other side of EDSA and we were staring up from a very vulnerable position below a tank at a hardened marine with a belt of very large bullets strung across his chest. There I was, with a yellow headband, clutching a rosary and holding up a Bible. What you don’t see in that footage are tears of fear flowing down the faces of many of us in that crowd. We were all frightened! We didn’t have time to think,we just held hands and prayed.

It was that first moment when people refused to turn back that shifted the tipping point. This collective passage from fear into fearlessness changed history by overturning 14 years of absolute power.

There are other moments when we don’t have a choice. A bolt of lightning strikes and shakes up our ordered lives – a life-threatening disease, an accident, a change of fortunes, a painful loss- a radical disruption. One morning, you wake up and realize that nothing in your life is ever going to be the same again.

Fourteen years ago, my husband Russ died of a stroke at the age of 69. Within 24 hours, I became CEO and Vice-Chair of a public company on the New York Stock Exchange, and President of the Russell Berrie Foundation. It was a growth experience that set me off on a transformational journey that I never wanted to be on.

At my first board meeting, I went to the bathroom during the lunch break and cried, washed my face and marched back out. When the Board asked me to move into Russ’ office, I cried. I didn’t want that big desk in the corner office! My first trip alone to negotiate with our vendors in China, I cried. The first time I had to fly to Israel without him, I cried. I wasn’t really fearless! I simply had no choice but to surrender and go wherever the universe was taking me. Life doesn’t prepare us for these moments. When it happens, there is no time to be afraid to say, “stop the train, I want to get off!”

After Russ died, someone sent me a card that said, “Life begins where your comfort zone ends.” I learned that fearlessness is not about being brave-hearted but about letting go—letting go of fear, getting out of your comfort zone, daring to be yourself in a world that is trying its best to make you just like everyone else. Fearlessness is the art of surrender, not giving up but opening yourself to faith, faith in yourself and faith in a higher power.

We are only as small as our fears. Fear holds us back from achieving greatness. Women tend to make ourselves small, to quiet our voices, to continue perpetuating the myth that we are better seen and not heard, to keep ourselves small by not making waves or sticking out.

Right sizing our smaller self is an exercise in fearlessness: asking if, where I am now is really where I want to be? If my friends today are who I want to surround myself with at this stage of my growth? If my relationships nurture me? If What I do is aligned with my passion, whether I am making a difference by leading a purpose-filled life? Who has time to sit and ponder these scary thoughts? Yet the very act of going into our fear allows fearlessness and authenticity to emerge.

Anne Sexton tells us to “put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard”… to know who you are. When we are so busy we fail to hear our inner voice, our lives become a “constant evasion of ourselves.”

Fearlessness comes through authenticity, being true to ourselves and living our values. Fear of change limits us, makes us vulnerable so we are quick to compromise, to settle for less, because giving up what we know is more difficult than pursuing our dreams.  Going to places that scare us could awaken possibilities of an alternative life as holding onto fear keeps us in sad marriages, destructive relationships, unfulfilling jobs. When we are courageous enough to own our truth, speak it directly, and express it everyday in our life, we transcend fear by connecting to our deepest and most authentic self. When we are in touch with our soul, we become brave enough to venture into the unknown.

What are YOU afraid of? Shortly after I was widowed, I attended a dinner where our host asked his guests this question. As we went around the table, people said things like, “I’m afraid my son is gay,” “I’m afraid my children won’t respect me,” “I’m afraid my husband will leave me for a younger woman,” and I said, “What I feared the most has already happened to me, I lost my husband at 47, what else could possibly frighten me?”

Well, here’s the Top 10 things people are most afraid of, according to Google’s fear-related search data:

1. Fear of flying
2. Fear of public speaking
3. Fear of heights
4. Fear of the dark
5. Fear of intimacy
6. Fear of death
7. Fear of failure
8. Fear of rejection
9. Fear of spiders
10. Fear of commitment

My greatest fear is speaking in public. I would rather jump off a plane than give a speech but after my husband’s death, I had no choice. Taking on a visible role while trying to fill his shoes was challenging but along the way, I discovered my own voice and the importance of telling my own story. I had to be willing to expose myself, not as Russ’ widow, but as my own person with a message that matters because it comes from deep within. Sharing who I am and what I stand for, speaking in my own voice and taking charge of my personal narrative means exposing my vulnerability, and my willingness to get naked emotionally to connect with the audience.

I overcame my fear after an encounter with a professor of Kabbalah who won the Israel Prize, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in Jewish philosophy. I was studying for my conversion in Jerusalem and was given an hour with him over lunch to discuss Kabbalah while standing on one foot. He addressed the challenge by reducing the concept to a simple thought of how one person can influence many with just one message. His example to me was, “what if Madonna used her influence to send a message to her fans everyday, saying, Don’t drink while you’re driving?” This could save millions of lives.

As he walked off, he turned around to ask if I know what my name, Angelica, means. He said, “Angel” in Hebrew means “messenger”. Think about this, “Messenger, what is your message?” Since then, whenever I am called upon to speak, I imagine I am simply an instrument, a vessel, an inspired messenger.

So, my message for you today was inspired by words from a t-shirt I saw in my yoga studio, from an Indian sage who started the Kundalini Yoga movement: “When you touch your soul, you become fearless!”

The journey of fearlessness is meaningful in the context of how fragile life is. We are fully alive when we can appreciate our own mortality. It takes a brush with mortality to remove any vestiges of our own importance, to see how little everything we struggled like busy ants to achieve reduced to a small anthill. We go about our lives merrily oblivious of the final moment that could punctuate our existence.

Life is too short to stay in our comfort zone. I received a powerful reminder of my own mortality when the cab I was in got hit by a garbage truck. One moment I was on top of the world, the next movement I am lying in a broken heap. In the three months I spent confined in a neck brace, I had the opportunity to examine my life at leisure: what have I left unfinished, unspoken, undone? I acknowledged the fears that held me back, noticed how much energy I expend on things that really don’t matter at the end of the day, and emerged with the unexpected gift of awareness that inspires me to “live like today is all I have!”

I thought a lot about Steve Jobs’ timeless advice: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon,” he said, “is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important! Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

What Jobs expressed is the heart of Buddhist mindfulness practice. Fearlessness equates to deathlessness, letting go of the ground you stand on, letting go of fear, of control, surrendering all that is no longer going to be relevant where you are going BUT doing it while you are fully alive and well! “Not knowing” is part of our fearless adventure, “being willing to sit in the dark, to be terrified.” Awake and alive, grounded in being, we can act from our deepest and most authentic self. Our best leadership quality arises from this authentic self and bringing this inner self out in the open requires courage.

Fearless leaders embrace the fullness of life with all its uncertainty, face toward the direction of fear, walk toward it, learn to befriend it, smile at it and leap into it!

So leap into it because at the end of the day, what matters most, according to the Dalai Lama is:

How well did you love?
How well did you live?
How well did you learn to let go?

Thank you for inviting me to be part of your journey! May you live passionately, love unconditionally and lead fearlessly!

About Angelica Berrie
Angelica Berrie, Chair of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, is President of the Russell Berrie Foundation, which makes transformational gifts to seed innovative philanthropic ventures that express Russ Berrie's entrepreneurial spirit. The Russell Berrie Foundation's mission is focused on the areas of: diabetes care and research; Jewish innovation and the strengthening of Israel; inter-religious understanding; professional salesmanship; humanism in medicine; community arts and culture in New Jersey and fighting terrorism.