Two weeks ago I arrived at San Francisco airport. The young, attractive, personable black woman at the rental car desk wore a badge that said "Trainee." I smiled and said, "That's an odd name." She laughed. I asked whether she was from San Francisco. She replied, "No, I'm not from here. I'm from Atlanta."
"Why are you here?" I asked.
"Well, I moved back with my parents here in town."
"I thought you said you were not from here."
"Well," she said, "I'm from here, but I went to school in Atlanta, and I prefer it there. So I consider it my home."
"What were you doing in Atlanta?" I asked.
"I attended Clark University, but after a couple of years I got pregnant, so I came home."
"Are you in school now?"
"No, because the money's too good."
"Too good to remain in school?"
"For now," she answered.
"What is it you don't like about San Francisco?"
"It's just so racist," she said.
"Racist? Isn't this one of the most liberal cities in the country?" I asked. She rolled her eyes.
"Sign here," she said. "You know, I should have finished my training program some time ago, but because I'm black, they're making me stay longer."
"How do you know it's because you're black?" Another roll of the eyes.
As I was leaving, I said, "You know, given your people skills and your drive, whatever obstacles others place in your way, you'll be able to overcome them."
"Wait, what do you mean?"
I turned around. "I mean that given your charm and your apparent drive, I'm sure you'll be able to deal with -- and maybe even turn around -- anybody who gets in your way."
"You think so?" she asked.
"I know so."
Which brings us to Stanley O'Neal, the recently ousted black CEO of Merrill Lynch.
Who is Stanley O'Neal? Born in segregated Alabama in 1951, O'Neal spent his early childhood delivering newspapers, picking corn and cotton on the family farm, and being educated in a one-room school built by his grandfather. He landed a job on General Motors' assembly line, and won a place studying engineering and industrial administration at the General Motors Institute. O'Neal later secured a Harvard scholarship, where he earned an MBA. "I really didn't have an understanding of the world or any role models, but I had a strong desire to learn, and I think that is what pulled me through," said O'Neal.