Powerful Woman- Chris Burkhardt
It is only fitting I start my first Powerful Woman Interview with one whom I remember my dad telling me, “If I could wish you to grow up like one woman, it would be Chris Burkhardt”. Christine Anne Burkhardt is the mother of one of my best childhood friends. She started a medical billing company, became an on-set nurse, and is still grinding at the age of 68.
SS: You didn’t grow up super wealthy or highly educated. Tell us about the adversities you faced growing up?
C: well, I lived on an Air Force Base. My dad was in the Air Force & my mom was an alcoholic when I was growing up. My dad was a very strict disciplinarian that believed if you do something wrong, you're going to pay for it, you know, and probably something he would be in jail for today. My mom actually drank pretty much my whole formative years. She would binge drink, so she would be the best mother in the world part of the time and the worst person the rest of the time.
I like to think that I remember more of the good times than the bad, but I do remember sobering her up and helping her get through; driving the car when I was 13 to try to get the kids to school and stuff.
How did the underprivileged small town girl evolve into this powerhouse business owner?
I think as I grew older, I noticed two things about myself. One was that I have an older brother who got involved in drugs, and ended up going to jail and spending quite a lot of time in jail for alcohol, drugs, and things like that, and I knew that was not the way I was going to go.My whole thought process when I first graduated from high school at 16 was “Well, I'm going to get out of here. I'm going to go and live on my own and I'm going to do whatever. I had to get a job, but at that time in the 60s, it was very hard for a 16 year-old girl to get a job. I literally persevered and said you know what I'm going to go down to the unemployment office, and I'm going to sit there, and I'm going to tell them, “You're going to find me a job. Send me out on whatever you want to.” I had been working in my Mom's restaurant so I could do that, but no one was going to hire me in a restaurant other than my mom at 16.
So, they sent me to a general hospital to work in medical records. I didn't know how to type, I didn't know medical terminology, I didn't know anything. If you think you can do something, it might take you a little longer than other people, but I sat there with the medical dictionary on my lap, and I was typing on an old-fashioned typewriter, not fast but I was learning. Then comes my next adversity. I'd been there 6 months & I walked in on my boss, who was a woman, and the doctor, who were having relations with each other rather than their spouses, and the next day I was fired.
I said “All right, well I could feel sorry for myself or I could go do something”, and so, it just so happened that the doctor said he had a friend who was the radiologist and he would see if I could give me a job.
So I went to work for him, and at the same time, the doctor said, “There's a small Private Hospital here in Grants Pass; maybe they could get you a job.” I went over there, and of course again, I really didn't know medical terminology very well and I've never worked in an office before other than just the six months, that's it. The woman that owned the hospital also owned an insurance company and an ambulance company, and they kind of took me under their wing and said, “Hey, if you're willing to learn we're willing to teach you.” They would literally put tape over the typewriter keys so that I would learn by touch, and they did the same thing with the Adam machine, and I went through the hospital, every single department.
But then, she wanted to computerize the insurance company and she said “You know what? How about if you come work with me. Work in the hospital during the daytime, but come work with me at night time and I'll teach you a little bit about insurance.
And your 16 at this point?
By this time, I was 17.
So I go over there and she starts teaching me how to collect payments, you know dues for health insurance, and at the time that we had little index cards, and that's how we kept it was on index cards, and we did all different things. Long story short, in the meantime, I got married at 19 for five years. He was an abusive guy, drank.
Repeating history almost?
Repeating history exactly, except for this time I said, “You know what, I've already proved that I can do anything I set my mind to so now what I'm going to have to do is cut my losses here.” I left him the house, I left the car and all the furniture, and I just took whatever was on my back. And I said, “In five year, I will be further than where I am right now and I'll be happy.” and that's what I did.
I came down here to Los Angeles, and at UCLA I started as a secretary, went up to be the administrative assistant, and ended up managing an entire clinic. In the meantime, I started the business of billing and showing doctors how to set up their offices and how to do insurance. Again, still no formal education, it was all just learning, listening and growing that way.
I guess if you ever stop to think about it, it's an unfortunate thing that now kids don't feel like they can do that today. They're constantly pushed into “You must have a college degree, you must have a master's, you must have a Ph.D, you must have all these things,” and we've lost sight of learning a trade and learning things by watching and doing. I don't know that me as a 19-year-old would have done as well if I had gone to college.
I was at UCLA still in Radiology, just the secretary at the time that my youngest brother was killed, and I went to my boss and I said, “You know what, I have to take some time off,” and I literally called up AAA and I got a flight to Paris. I put a backpack on my back and I took off. I went all around Europe for 3 weeks all by myself. I just said, “You know what, I have to.” This was my way of dealing with all this grief. It was at that time that I realized it's really important for me to work and to grow, but it's also really important for me to take time for myself, and it just so happens that when you travel and when you're by yourself, or when you take the time to go do something that isn't regimente, “ have to do this, I have to go there, I'm going to have somebody pick me up in the morning and take me someplace,” that was something… that all I had was a Euro Rail Pass and an airline ticket.
I do that now where a lot of my Europe trips are solo and people are like “Aren't you scared or isn't it boring?” The answer is no because there is something about being in a foreign place that you're not used to at all and only having yourself. The character that you build in those moments knowing that you only have yourself, it's priceless.
Any books you have read that inspired you?
The Struggle For Significance. It's by Amick and Brennecke.
Haven't read it for years but I remember how it starts; that life begins with death. The whole premise of the book is that people finally start to live when they realize they don't have a whole lot of time left to live and that's why they said life begins with death.
What is your favorite quote?
I don't know that I have a favorite quote other than I always say you can do whatever you set your mind to.
What is your advice to young women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I think that my advice to young women would be to set a plan and set it in motion but realize that sometimes that plan might take you in a place that you say, “This isn't what I really want”, and be willing to step back and take another direction. You might reach the same goal just a different way. I think the other thing that young women need to realize is that in order for them to be successful, they have to be successful with themselves and to realize,"Hey I can do this, it might be hard, I might have to work hard, might have to do more than the next person and I might fail,” but in failing you might actually succeed in something else.
And I believe every little detour is kind of a growth and repositioning you to where you're really supposed to be because what you might think is where you're supposed to be isn't .
If you could leave us with one final message, what would it be?
I think that family and friends are probably one of the most important things that you can have as a support system, but you have to be able to support yourself too.
because sometimes family and friends aren't the most positive...
That's right, and in order to succeed you have to be positive. You have to be able to say I can do that.There is no such thing as can't, I can do something- it's just are you willing to work for it.
There's a lot of people that say most businesses fail within the first 5 years, well you know a lot of times people aren't willing to say hey listen I'm not going to have instant gratification today it's going to come down the line, but I'll get there.
it's that that interim period that people get discouraged or they don't have the willpower to keep going and that's why there's only so many successful people out there, it’s the ones that have continued to work through that tough space
Maybe it’s just me but I think that the adversity that I went through in my younger years made me realize that I can do anything, because I did do anything; could easily have said poor me.
We touched on this briefly but you could have turned to drugs or had followed after your mom and drank and it would have all gone away for that moment but instead you said no I'm going to be different.
Actually I said I'm going to be different in that part of her life. When she was sober she was always part of the school, she was involved with PTA, she was involved with the kid’s sports. She was involved with all different things but that was when she was sober.
So you adopted those great characteristics and left the ones that you could care less for...
I still have bad characteristic that hopefully my own daughter will say I'm going to take the good ones that my mom had and I'm going to leave the bad ones behind.
That’s life. Exactly.
At the conclusion of this interview, I was overcome with inspiration and the certainty, that I a do anything. Throughout the conversation, I realized there were many similarities in the struggles we both faced, our determination to not allow past failures define us or dictate our future, and also essential points that I have incorporateD in my daily life like solo traveling and the importance of taking care of yourself before anything else. So perhaps, my dad’s wish of the type of woman I’d grow up to be has come true to some extent.