In many countries, success is like royalty: you must be born to
it. In sharp contrast, here your dreams are within your grasp. Why?
This country has traditionally invited every citizen to exploit five
basic American attributes that distinguish the U.S. from virtually
every other country in the world: our willingness to give women the
same educational opportunities as men; our unrivaled history of
openness to immigrants, who remain an endless source of economic
vitality; our easy access to higher education, as opposed to such
nations as Japan and Germany, where teenage students must pass
vigorous exams to qualify for college; our tradition of upward
mobility, which -- more so than in the class-conscious societies of
Europe and Asia -- allows children to escape the circumstances of
their birth; and our uncommon acceptance of career change, which lets
people reinvent themselves again and again until they unleash their
Each of the persons profiled on this and the following nine pages
embodies one of these all-American characteristics. In their stories,
you will discover the traits that empower U.S. citizens to improve
their own standards of living for the foreseeable future.
This is an article from the Oct. 1, 1991 issue
WALK THROUGH THE OPEN DOORS
In the global race for technological supremacy, America has a
weapon that our major economic competitors lack: female brainpower.
Today, American women earn 31% of all science doctorates awarded by
U.S. universities. In Germany and Japan, the comparable figures are
21% and 9%. One of these Americans is microbiologist Michael
Murphey-Corb, 44, who is credited by many of the world's leading
medical researchers with laying the foundation for the eventual
development of an AIDS vaccine.
Fifteen years ago, Murphey-Corb, a married mother of two young
boys, was working as a medical technician at Louisiana State
University. Now she pulls down $70,000 a year and oversees $14
million in federal grants as senior scientist at Tulane University's
Regional Primate Research Center near New Orleans. It was there, in
1989, that Murphey-Corb (pictured in her lab under a sculpture of the
AIDS virus) developed a vaccine that has protected 18 of 19 rhesus
monkeys from an animal form of the disease.
Murphey-Corb enrolled in LSU's graduate program in 1976. ''As the
only 29- year-old wife and mother in my class, people never took me
seriously,'' she says. ''But I just stuck my jaw out and kept on
going.'' She received her Ph.D. four years later and in 1982 joined
Tulane's faculty, where she currently supervises nine researchers --
all of them women.
CROSS THE BORDER TO SUCCESS
America has welcomed immigrants more than any nation in history.
Even now, the U.S. Government grants upwards of 650,000 foreigners a
year permanent-resident status. The majority of these pilgrims,
including French-born chef Vincent Guerithault, 39, come here for one
reason: to prosper in a way they could not in their native lands.
Guerithault is living a classic immigrant success story. He
arrived in suburban Chicago from Paris in 1976 with one suitcase,
$400 and no English. Now, as the owner of the acclaimed Phoenix
restaurant Vincent Guerithault on Camelback -- where he is pictured
at right with his one-year-old son Daniel -- he grosses more than $2
million a year, pays himself $300,000 and lives in a $315,000,
three-bedroom ranch house with his American-born wife Leevon, 34.
Guerithault came up as most chefs do -- the hard way. He left
school at 16 and logged 18-hour days as a chef's apprentice at a
three-star restaurant in southern France. The pay was $6 a month plus
room and board. The duties included mopping floors and feeding the
pets that their masters customarily drag along to dinner in France.
He continued his apprenticeship at Maxim's in Paris before rising to
chef's assistant at a restaurant on the Champs-Elysees.
His break came in 1975 when a friend introduced him to chef
Jean Banchet, who was in Paris hiring sous-chefs for his highly
regarded Le Francais outside Chicago. ''Banchet offered me $25,000 --
more than double what I could earn in France -- plus room and
board,'' recalls Guerithault.
In 1980, he relocated to Phoenix to become a chef at Oaxaca, a
restaurant that combined French and Mexican cuisines. Since his new
employer paid him as much as $50,000 a year plus room and board, he
managed to squirrel away $130,000 by the time he quit in 1985. A year
later, he used most of his savings and a $125,000 bank loan to open
his own place, where he serves French and southwestern dishes such as
Guerithault, who became a U.S. citizen in 1983, still works
18-hour days, but the pay is better and so is the boss. ''If I'd
stayed in France,'' he muses, ''I'd still be working for someone else
and earning $25,000.''
OVERCOME YOUR UPBRINGING
Americans and foreigners alike are justly horrified by the
deprivation and violence in our nation's ghettos. What is often
overlooked, though, is that most Americans who are born in the ghetto
aren't destined to die there. According to researchers at the
University of Michigan, 56% of teenagers whose family income put them
in the nation's lowest fifth of all families in the 1970s had climbed
out of the basement a decade later. Indeed, 12% were among the
country's top 40% of earners. Seattle attorney Jose Gaitan, 39, was
one of them.
Gaitan grew up in the city's rough central neighborhood, the son
of an illegal Salvadoran immigrant father who was deported when Jose
was five and an American-born, heroin-addicted mother. Today Gaitan
is co-owner of the law firm Gaitan & Cusack and an adjunct professor
at the University of Washington's law school. He earns more than
$100,000 a year and lives in a $225,000 house with his wife Olive,
40, and her two children from a previous marriage. (The couple are
pictured at left in Seattle's exclusive Columbia Tower Club, of which
Gaitan is a member.)
Growing up on welfare, Gaitan remembers that food was so scarce
that he shared two turkey TV dinners with his mother and younger
brother one Thanksgiving. He found the path to a better life at
Seattle First Baptist Church, where a minister, a Boy Scout leader
and a Boeing engineer encouraged him to work hard in school. ''They
took the time to nurture me and show me that I could change my
life,'' Gaitan says.
His grades won him scholarships at private Linfield College in
McMinnville, Ore. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in
political science and history in 1973, he returned to Seattle and
worked his way through the University of Washington's School of Law,
in part by scraping barnacles off ships. He stayed in Seattle and
worked as a county and federal prosecutor until 1982, when he and a
partner opened a private practice.
Today his firm counts Nabisco and the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation among its clients, grosses more than $2 million a year
and employs 13 lawyers. Says Gaitan: ''Social and economic mobility
is a function of hard work, a 'can do' attitude and being good to
TAKE ANOTHER SHOT AT SCHOOL
In most countries, relatively few students are permitted to pursue
higher education. College admission usually depends on standardized
tests taken in high school. Fail and you can forget about college --
usually forever. The U.S. system isn't at all rigid: fully 20% of our
12 million college undergraduates are over age 30. Hannah Reeves, 32,
the twice-divorced mother of son Brent, 13, and daughter Kate, 11, is
one of these late achievers. Last May, the onetime high school
dropout earned an anthropology degree from Scripps College, a
selective, private women's school in Claremont, Calif. But that's not
all. She also won an $18,000 Watson Fellowship, one of 75 granted
annually to postgraduate students for independent research abroad.
Reeves, who grew up in McComb, Miss., earned outstanding grades in
high school but dropped out three weeks before graduation in 1977 to
marry a carpenter. She divorced him after six years and two children
because, she says, he abused her.
After the divorce, she worked as a receptionist and a seamstress
to support herself and her children when they were not living with
their father. ''More than anything else,'' she remembers, ''I hated
not using my mind.'' In 1988, armed with a high school equivalency
diploma, she enrolled in a community college in Joshua Tree, Calif.,
where she had moved with her second husband, a park ranger whom she
divorced a year later. After earning an associate of arts degree, she
won scholarships to Scripps, where she shouldered a full course load
and toiled 20 hours a week at the college's anthropology journal.
Since she couldn't afford Claremont rents, she and her children
moved into a two- bedroom, $425-a-month house in Twentynine Palms, a
two-hour drive to Scripps. Her hectic schedule left little time for
sleep. ''I just made up my mind,'' she says, ''that I wasn't going to
miss another graduation.''
Last September, Reeves and her children -- shown at right at the
California Academy of Sciences -- left the U.S. to spend a year
trekking with Pygmies in Africa and aborigines in Australia. Her next
goal: to write a book about her travels. ''Without a degree,'' she
says, ''I couldn't make a difference in America. Now I can.''
RISK REINVENTING YOURSELF
In Europe and Japan, the career you choose in your teens or
twenties -- and often the employer -- is usually what you'r stuck
with for life. But not here. Every year, one in 10 U.S. workers
changes occupations. This license to be restless allows Americans to
keep switching careers until they maximize their productivity and
happiness. One such striver is San Diego's Mike Hernacki, 46, who
shed his professional skin five times in 14 years before finally
finding his calling as a freelance business writer. Now he brings in
$100,000 a year working out of a comfortable home office (at left)
that he impishly describes as a ''Victorian bordello.''
As the son of Polish immigrants growing up in Detroit, Hernacki
dreamed of becoming a writer, but his parents, who ran a small
grocery store, pressured him to pursue a more practical career
choice. So after earning a bachelor's degree from Michigan State in
1965, he bounced from teaching elementary school in suburban Detroit
for $5,000 a year to copywriting at a small advertising agency for
$10,000 before going on to earn a law degree at Detroit College of
Law. Though he was making $30,000 a year as an attorney in a Detroit
suburb, he abandoned that profession too after only 18 months. ''I
dreaded going to court,'' he says. ''All that conflict really got me
down.'' In 1977, seeking a sunnier climate, he left Michigan for San
Diego. Over the next 18 months, he earned $25,000 as a stockbroker.
''But I didn't want to be a stockbroker for 30 years,'' he says. ''It
didn't excite me.''
In 1979, Hernacki's wife Wanda, now 45, encouraged him to quit the
brokerage business and pursue his long-deferred dream of writing. For
the first eight months he earned a mere $5,000. ''But for the first
time in my life,'' he recalls, ''I loved what I was doing.'' The
next year he began writing annual reports for brokerage houses and
other corporations. His take: $31,000.
Inspired by his own successful career change, Hernacki expanded
his repertoire to include self-help books such as The Ultimate Secret
to Getting Absolutely Everything You Want (Berkley, $3.50), which has
sold 100,000 copies. Repeating the advice in his book, Hernacki says:
''Changing careers is a leap into the unknown, but if you love your
work, the money will follow.''