Shonali Burke receiving the 2015 Matrix Award from AWC-DCThis past Wednesday I received what is possibly the greatest honor of my career to date: the Association of Women in Communication, D.C. Chapter, presented me with the 2015 Matrix Award. I learned of this a few months ago, and I was absolutely blown away.

I feel as if I won the Oscar for PR, and here’s why: of all the many awards you can receive, this is one of the few, if not the only one, that you cannot apply for, or be nominated for. So it is literally peer recognition of the highest degree. To me, this is the most meaningful, humbling recognition of all: that my colleagues and peers in the D.C. area thought I deserved to be so honored.

And who’s been so honored in the past? Women like Karen JurgensenDeborah TannenJudy Woodruff. Kate Perrin. Michelle Singletary. Diane Rehm. Dorothy Gilliam. Donna Vincent Roa, my dear friend and colleague (and who delivered this incredible introduction).

And then there’s me. I mean… someone, pinch me!

I wish my husband and I had gotten our act together enough to actually hit “record” on my iPhone (I know… seriously), so that I could share part of the day with you. But while it would have been lovely to have that video handy, there’s also something rather refreshing about having to remember it the old-fashioned way: through physical memory.

So I share below the gist of what I said yesterday – in the company of many amazing area professionals, each a superstar in their own right – because you are a large part of my success. And of course, there are photos; some really nice ones on AWC-DC’s Facebook Page, if you’d like to go have a look. Btw: the sari you see me wearing? My grandmom’s. I loved her very much.

A 15-year journey

I arrived in this country 15 years ago with, as my husband likes to say, the clothes on my back and a song in my heart. That’s not entirely accurate, as I also had two suitcases (and two trunks that followed). But it is true that I was stepping off the airplane into a whole new life, and had absolutely no idea what lay ahead.

And if you’d told me, 15 years ago, that I’d be the beneficiary of this coveted award, I would have laughed.

You don’t get to have a successful career without the help of very many people along the way. Whoever I am, and whatever I have been able to do, is because of everyone who has touched my life. And there are… oh! So many! But in particular, there are three women whose impact on my life is indelible:

  • My mom, Shopna Ghosh. I told her story in my TEDx talk, so I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to say that I’m absolutely blessed to be the progeny of this remarkable woman.
  • Katie Delahaye Paine, the Queen of Metrics. I first encountered Katie back in 2003, when she graciously taught a half-day workshop on PR measurement for a San Francisco-area PR club I was involved with. It was Katie who opened my eyes to the possibilities of smart PR measurement; that we can indeed dream of more than just AVEs when it comes to our metrics; that we should be curious, and keep asking questions until we find the answers that make sense.
  • Nancy Glick, who you will probably never find on social media, but who I adopted as my boss and mentor when I worked at Ruder Finn (which agency I basically wore down until they hired me). Nancy is one of the hardest workers I know, and doesn’t ever make you think something is beneath her. And she’s always willing to give people a chance, as long as they don’t waste her time… which is really important for us all to remember.

These women, and so many more, have taught me so much. And one of the things I’ve learned is that life basically comes down to making a choice: saying “yes,” or “no.” That’s all that it’s about: making a very simple choice whenever you are presented with a fork in the road.

But if you bring honesty to the table every time the universe presents you with this choice, more often than not you will make the right one… that is right, at that moment, for you. And that’s how life happens.

That’s how I got involved with measurement, that’s how I got into social media (I’ve told you how much I detested Twitter when it first came out, haven’t I?), and that is how I come to be living this extremely blessed life that I have – for which I am so very, very grateful.

Life is all about chances: both giving them, and getting them. And so very many people have given me a chance. The D.C. community embraced me when I was new here; as did San Francisco back in the day. And through social media, I’ve encountered so many wonderful people who have done exactly that.

I’m so very grateful to every single one of them; colleagues, friends, clients… everyone who took a chance on this unknown quantity, or on my little business, and trusted me (and SBC) with their work, their reputation, their confidence.

So while it’s impossible for me to name everyone who’s helped me, I do want to thank some who gave me really critical chances:

  • Charly Zukow, my first boss in the U.S., because of whom I got to have some incredible experiences like meeting Bjorn (hello! Major ABBA fan here!) and pulling Russell Simmons out of a sauna (yes, that Russell Simmons);
  • Jan Hausrath, who I have not met IRL to this day, but who took the time to give me pointers on my resume when I moved from San Francisco to D.C., and which format I still use, and share;
  • Erika Falk, formerly the program chair of The Johns Hopkins M.A. Communication degree, and who gave me a chance to teach at one of the world’s best universities and programs;
  • Deirdre Breakenridge, now one of my dearest friends and someone who I respect as much for her professional brilliance as her personal strength of character, who has opened countless doors for me;
  • Ann Wylie, who dazzles me so much that I really want to be her when I grow up, who regularly asks me how she can help me… and then follows through!;
  • Donna Vincent Roa, who isn’t just accredited, but a bona fide social scientist! And who has shared so generously and openly of her time, advice, mind, and heart;
  • Patrice Tanaka, herself a Matrix Award winner (NYC), and a living legend for our field, who told me to do “just one thing” when I asked for her advice on building business – I cannot believe we are good friends!;
  • Heidi Sullivan, also now a dear friend, and who was instrumental in getting one of the largest companies in our field, Cision, to take a chance on my fledgling business (no current client relationship, just so you know);
  • Richard Bagnall, who is just one of the smartest, dearest, most delightful people I know, and who believed in me when I didn’t; and
  • my husband John (note the absence of a link, clearly he doesn’t work in Communication, ha!), who has picked me up, held me up, and given me a kick in the butt every time I needed one.

I could make a metaphor out of just about anything, but I will end with these words of wisdom from two of the finest poets of our time, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards:

You can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.