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By Genie Gratto

Danielle Oceguera didn’t have plans to enter Mika Brzezinski’s Grow Your Value contest. She thought there was no way she’d even be considered. But after one of her mentors insisted, the 25-year-old talent development coordinator decided to give it a shot. And it’s a good thing she did, because on Saturday night, the Oakland resident won the grand prize: a $25,000 raise, which she said she’ll put toward her education.

“I am just so amazed and grateful,” an emotional Oceguera said on stage at San Francisco’s Fairmont hotel. “I never would have thought something like this could happen to me.”

It was an exciting day for Oceguera and her fellow finalists, Jenny Nixon, 32, of Berkeley, Calif. and Jodee Brown,40, of Tracy, Calif. The trio spent the day alongside the more than 600 attendees at the Know Your Value conference, learning how women can recognize and be recognized for their personal and professional value. And at the end of the day, they took center stage in front of that audience to pitch their story to a panel of judges.

Earlier in the day, Nixon stood in the nearly-empty ballroom at the hotel watching a video roll across the big screens documenting highlights of her experience as one of three finalists in the Grow Your Value bonus competition.

“I’m so excited, I don’t even have words,” said Nixon. The MBA student at the University of California-Berkeley, who also teaches ROTC classes at the University of San Francisco, could barely contain her tremendous smile.

The three finalists were among dozens of women from around the U.S. who submitted short videos defining their value and pitching why they should be among the three to compete for the Grow Your Value bonus. Dia Simms of Combs Enterprises, Maria Black of competition sponsor ADP and NBC’s Natalie Morales served on the panel of judges that selected the winner.

“We received so many great submissions from women from all walks of life with one theme in common – why they have value,” said Brzezinski. “This competition was meant to drive home the message: If you don’t put yourself out there, you don’t know what will happen.”

“All my life, I’ve felt small … small in stature, small in voice,” Oceguera, who is also pursuing a master’s degree at the University of San Francisco, said during her final pitch on stage. “There was this voice inside of me that said I was destined for great things. This voice compels me to be the voice for the voiceless in the world, the underserved, and the overlooked.”

“We need a voice like yours in the world right now – someone with compassion and confidence,” Morales said during her feedback on Oceguera’s pitch. “You’re not small in stature, you’re huge. And I can’t wait to see who you become in life.”

Oceguera’s fellow finalists also delivered powerful messages. Brown, a social worker, told her story of her harrowing experience as a young alcoholic mother fleeing an abusive relationship. Brown said her teenage daughter, Jordyn, was her primary inspiration for positive change. Jordyn attended the event alongside her mother.

“I am no longer ashamed, and I pray my story grows wings today and touches everybody right when they need it most,” said Brown.

When it was Nixon’s turn, she took charge of the stage, even asking “Morning Joe” co-host Joe Scarborough to step back and give her more space, before addressing Brzezinski directly.

“I became a Blackhawk pilot not to become a badass, but because I already was one,” Nixon said. “I am the leader that you need, Mika. I’m the leader the world needs.”

“I’ve never seen three more remarkable people get up on stage,” Scarborough said. “You all have been amazing, and all three of you reduced Mika to tears. That’s not easy to do.”

The women spent weeks preparing for their appearance at Know Your Value’s San Francisco event. As part of the experience, the three spent time in New York City working with a group of coaches and advisors, including body language expert Janine Driver, communications expert Chris Ulrich and Gravitas founder and CEO, Lisa Sun. The experts helped them improve their physical presence, hone their personal style and explore their values.

Each of the women said they put the lessons from their New York City sessions into action almost immediately. “I was able to apply what I learned the next day,” Oceguera said.

Oceguera described how, before the training, she often squeezed her hands together and hunched forward in meetings. “I put my hands on the table, and I just stopped apologizing,” she said. “That was really powerful for me, and people received it, too.”

Brown said the training pushed her out of her comfort zone, in a good way. “I was not saying no to anything or anyone,” Brown said. “I might be apprehensive, but I’ve been saying no for the last 39 years.”

The time together bonded the three women as friends, not competitors.

“I’m there to show them my best self, and I’m there to help them show their best selves,” Nixon said. “I will feel better if they do exceptionally well.”

“I think we all appreciate where we’re at, and what it took to get here, and the preparation every day before New York,” Brown said. “I’m just so grateful. I didn’t expect it.”

Brown, Oceguera, and Nixon each said they hoped the attendees walked away with a strong sense of their own value, the courage to pursue their dreams, and pride in their accomplishments.

“Here I stand before you,” said Brown. “I’m not the exception; I can be the rule. We can all be the rule.”