CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When telling the Grace Vandecruze-Heyliger story, the words "prestigious" and "humble" often come to mind.
Born in Guyana, South America, she was 14 when her family immigrated to Brooklyn, where both parents worked as nurses. She's the second of seven children, and her parents were married 49 years until her father's death two years ago.
Vandecruze-Heyliger attended Samuel J. Tilden High School, where Al Sharpton and Larry King were educated. Her guidance counselor, after seeing her proficiency test scores, suggested she go to college to study Spanish and accounting.
"I understood the idea of studying Spanish, but accounting? I didn't really even know what that entailed," she said.
Tragedy soon hit.
"I was attending Pace University, across from City Hall in New York. I was between my third and fourth year, in the summer, and a fire destroyed our apartment. We moved into a homeless shelter because we didn't have anywhere to go where all nine of us could stay together. We stayed there for eight months," Vandecruze-Heyliger said.
She recalled walking home to the shelter one night after a late class, and spotting a gang coming toward her. She said she truly believed her life might end right then because there was nowhere to hide or to run.
"But, all at once, they crossed the street and left me alone." She said she felt the hand of God protecting her, but she also knew she must find a safe solution. "I knew right then that I needed to find another place to live while I was in school."
Vandecruze-Heyliger went to the administrators at Pace, and they arranged for a dormitory room for the young student.
"I increased my course load to 18 credits. I wanted to finish on time and start working," she said.
An opportunity arose when she and several other students were invited to visit Ernst & Whinney, a big-eight accounting firm.
"All of my worldly possessions fit in a garbage bag. I didn't have anything to wear to visit an office. I went to a discount store on Nassau Street and bought a navy blue suit for $15.
"It was the right color," she said, laughing. "But I worried so much about my suit that I didn't hear a thing they said on the tour. I went back to the dormitory and cried."
It was a young woman who lived down the hall from Vandecruze-Heyliger whom she will never forget.
"Her name was Tracy, and her mother worked for Ernst & Whinney. She called her mother and asked her if she noticed my suit.
"Her mother said, 'Tell that girl to hold her head up high,'" Vandecruze-Heyliger recalls. Tracy's mother would become an ally for the young woman when, after college, she landed a job at the prestigious firm. She passed the rigorous New York Accounting Regents exam with a perfect score.
Vandecruze-Heyliger spent four years at Ernst, and then went to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Grant Thornton auditing firm for seven years. It was off to the prestigious Wharton School of Business in 1992, where she worked two jobs while completing her degree. An internship at Merrill Lynch followed in 1994, working in capital raisings, mergers and acquisitions.
"My work has been very intense," she said.
Midnight oil and beyond
The young businesswoman purchased an apartment on Riverside Drive on New York's Upper West Side, but she didn't see much of the place.
"I would come home from work at 3 a.m., and ask the cab driver to wait outside while I took a shower. I worked at least three all-nighters per seven days of work. I was traveling to Latin America, Asia, Russia. I spent 3 1/2 years with Merrill and then went to a private equity firm with a partner who left Merrill Lynch."
There, she worked primarily with the insurance industry. Her boss, whom she called a "tiger of Wall Street," nurtured her talents for three years. "He liked having someone working with him who was out of the norm," referring to her own race and gender. She worked as his vice president for three years, and then she got what she thought was a crank phone call.
It was a boutique investment and financial firm that was later acquired by the prestigious Swiss Reinsurance Co. Ltd., generally known as Swiss Re. With company headquarters in Zurich, Swiss Re operates in more than 25 countries and is the world's second-largest reinsurer. Vandecruze-Heyliger worked there for seven years, and in 2005 became the first black woman to be a managing director.
Then came 9/11. Sitting in her 40th-floor Swiss Re office, she saw a plane fly down Park Avenue. She was in a meeting.
"When the alarms went off, I said to my clients, 'Please ignore the alarms, they go off all the time.' Unbeknownst to me, our building, like many others, was believed to be under a bomb threat. It was 9/11.