The advice that helped this year’s 40 under 40 find their own path

September 3, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

From CEOs to journalists to politicians, this year’s class of Fortune’s 40 Under 40 is an incredible group of innovators who refuse to rest on their laurels. To get a little bit of that magic combination of determination and foresight, we asked them to tell us the best career advice they ever got. They shared tips on everything from pushing through obstacles to being a better leader that came from mentors, bosses, public figures, and—perhaps most useful of all—mom and dad.

On thriving under pressure…

Catherine Coley, 31, CEO at Binance.US

In my first year on the FX trading floor in Hong Kong, my boss slapped a Post-it on my computer monitor: “Pressure is a privilege,” a quote from the No. 1 in the world tennis player, Billie Jean King. 

It’s a reminder that when the pressure is on, it is an honor to compete for such high stakes. Pressure is the greatest indicator that what you’re about to do next is worth the fight, worth giving your all, worth going for it big.

On letting go…

Michael Kapps, 31, founder & CEO at Vitalk Health

The best advice I received was from Ricardo Ikeda, a successful Brazilian entrepreneur who was a mentor of mine in 2017. At the time, our company had about a dozen people or so, and I was just learning how to play the part of CEO. Ricardo, upon noticing my incessant micromanagement and stress, said, “As a CEO, you need to be the most incompetent person in the room.” At first this made no sense to me. “Incompetent? A CEO must know everything about his/her company!” I thought. 

However, over time, I grew to really appreciate Ricardo’s advice. My goal as a CEO must be to surround myself with great people and help them achieve their utmost potential. If I do end up being the most incompetent person in the room, then that means that I’ve done my job properly! It means that I’ve succeeded in building a killer team that is better than me. Since then, I took a completely different attitude to management. I let go of a lot of my ego, helped our employees succeed even at my expense, listened more, and talked less.

On listening to your parents…

Mona Chalabi, 33, data editor at Guardian US

Advice from my mom: “Don’t look up to anyone and don’t look down on anyone.”

Carolina Garcia, 35, director of original series at Netflix

My parents always say, “Toma el toro por las astas,” which means, “Grab the bull by the horns.” It helps cut through analysis paralysis!

God-is Rivera, 35, global director, culture & community at Twitter 

Hands down the best career advice I ever received was from my mother. My mother was a teenage mom who started as a receptionist in a marketing firm and fought her way to becoming a successful proven leader in the marketing industry who has now worked with some of the world’s biggest brands. 

She did all of this while balancing being an incredible mother to me who never missed a recital or school play and while existing and excelling as a Black woman in a field that was hardly welcoming. When I first started my career and started to hit a few roadblocks myself, I asked her how she found the confidence to stand up in meetings and fight for her ideas. She told me the answer was simple: She knew that her ideas mattered as much as anyone else’s because “not everyone at the top has it all figured out.” It’s a simple sentiment but one that stuck with me forever.

On breaking through obstacles…

Jalisa Washington-Price, 31, VP, political & advocacy at iHeartMedia

“You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.” —Kamala Harris

She repeats this to young women and especially women of color who work for her as a reminder that we break barriers not for the sake of breaking them, but to continue to forge a path for all the people who will follow behind us.

Shivani Siroya, 38, CEO & founder at Tala

The best career advice I ever received came from my boss, Eva Weissman, when I was working at the United Nations Population Fund. I’d just arrived in Ghana for a four-month research project and learned quickly that the data I’d intended to study didn’t actually exist—at least in the digestible form that analysts need! She told me, “Figure it out!” And that has been my ethos ever since.

I knew she believed in me and in my ability to find a solution to what seemed like an insurmountable challenge. My solution was to build the data by becoming a walking QuickBooks. Through interviews and observational studies in these communities, I documented the daily income flows for micro-entrepreneurs. That time spent in Ghana and across West and sub-Saharan Africa became my catalyst for starting Tala, and I regularly encourage my team members to take on a “figure it out!” mindset.

Margaret Anadu, 38, head of the urban investment group at Goldman Sachs

The Angela Davis quote, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time,” has been crucial given so much of the challenges facing the neighborhoods we invest in are incredibly complex and rooted in decades of injustice.

On working with others…

Lily Peng, 37, group product manager at Google

“Credit is not a zero-sum game” is a saying that Phil Nelson, one of my mentors at Google, often uses. This mindset has been particularly useful tackling problems in health care, where solutions require folks from a range of backgrounds all working together as one team.

David Rogier, 37, cofounder and CEO, MasterClass

Surround yourself with people who think differently than you. Often times, people hire the person who is the most complimentary or a “natural fit” within the organization. But with that thinking, you often miss out on diversity of thought—people who challenge you for the good and come to the table with different perspectives and expertise. Go for the non-consensus hires.

And, “get a good therapist”—my father (and former divorce lawyer).

Will Ahmed, 30, founder and CEO of WHOOP

“You should hear what everyone says. You don’t have to listen to them.” I don’t remember specifically who said this to me, but it helped me evolve from a young entrepreneur to a better leader. When I started WHOOP a lot of people told me I was going to fail or that I should try to build the business differently, and, as a result, I put up a wall toward negative feedback.

This insight of hearing but not always listening allowed me to acknowledge different points of view and try to better understand them without feeling the burden of just doing what people told me.

On remembering your personal life…

Manu Kumar Jain, 39, global vice president, Xiaomi, and managing director, Xiaomi India

The best advice I ever received was from my first boss at McKinsey & Company, Ireena Vittal, who also recruited me into the firm. She taught me the importance of having harmony in [your] personal and professional lives. 

She told me that choosing the right spouse/life partner is the most important professional decision that one can make. One spends the most amount of time with the spouse and shares all ups and downs with him/her. If you choose the right life partner, who understands and supports your aspirations, you can achieve almost anything in life. 

And finally, just keep moving …

Kate Johansen, 38, director of state policy and government engagement at the Mayo Clinic

“Make yourself useful.” —Everybody I ever met growing up in the Midwest

Matthew A. Cherry, 38, writer, director, and producer at Cherry Lane Productions

“Keep creating. Focus on the work and good things will happen.” —My manager Monica A. Young