If ever anyone has had the deck stacked against him from the start, Steve Pemberton would be the one.
Taken from his mother at three years old and placed into foster care with a Polish surname, Pemberton moved from one family to another and endured physical and psychological abuse and quickly learned he had no one to trust but himself for survival.
“Though I had no memory of my mother or father, I was consciously aware that I had been left behind,” Pemberton said in an interview with his publisher. “And unfortunately, I wound up with foster families who always reminded me of that hard fact. Still, I held out hope that my family was going to come for me. They were to be my savior. But after a decade in the foster home, I realized that they were not going to come for me; that no one, in fact, was going to come for me.”
He hoarded food and figured out how to navigate the cruelty of being treated as an outsider as a fair-skinned boy with blue eyes, a curly afro and a Polish last name. He found refuge in a box of books given to him by a stranger and it was among those worm-eatened pages that Pemberton discovered it was possible to live a different kind of life and that he could follow his dream to find his true identity and his birth family.
“In many ways, although I appeared to most to be quiet and withdrawn, within my own mind, I was constantly fighting back. I would steal food, complete with escape routes and explanations if I were ever to get caught,” Pemberton said. “Another very important way of coping was to immerse myself in books. There was no signature moment, at least early on, but I imagine I discovered books as part of going to school. Books for me were what the ocean is to the fearless explorer—deep and mysterious, boundless and soothing. They made me an outstanding student in school. My teachers marveled at my curiosity and I marveled in return at their encouragement. Their smiles meant more to me than they could have ever imagined.”
He overcame those great difficulties to become chief diversity officer and vice president of diversity and inclusion at Monster.com, where under his leadership revenues in his division grew by 60 percent.
He is now chief diversity officer and divisional vice president for Walgreens, the first person to hold such a position in the company’s 110-year history, and is recognized as one of the country’s leaders on diversity issues.
Pemberton serves on several boards including The Home for Little Wanderers and UCAN to provide guidance and inspiration to children in need. The Pemberton Fund For The Future has been established in his name to assist children aging out of the foster care system in Boston.
His memoir, "A Chance in the World. A Chance In The World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home" (Thomas Nelson), chronicles the difficult path through foster care and determined search for his family, how he handled disappointment and was buoyed by education and faith.
“Tragedy is regrettably commonplace,” Pemberton said, “but we aren’t measured by what we inherit but by what we build. And I wanted that responsibility of breaking a cycle. I also felt there came a time when I simply had to be done with it all and had made a conscious decision to do exactly that. I decided I would move forward, resolute that healing would come from building a life better than the one I inherited. That became my guiding principle as I went off to college, graduate school and built a professional career and started a family.”
The Boston College graduate is married and the father of three children.