A Source of Light and Humility: Pemberton Embodies ‘The Lighthouse Effect’

At 3 years old, Steve Pemberton was taken from his alcoholic mother and placed into the foster care system. He never saw her again. Instead, Pemberton went through many foster homes and eventually lived with a family who abused him mentally and physically for 13 years. Pemberton said he learned many lessons from his experience in the foster care system, which he describes in his novel A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, A Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home.

“You never want to have your fate and/or your destiny resting in somebody else’s hands like that,” Pemberton, BC ’89, said.

Today, he is the chief human resources officer for the Dublin-based software company Workhuman, a bestselling author, sought-after speaker, youth advocate, husband, and the father of three.

Pemberton, who grew up in New Bedford, Mass., discovered Boston College in the seventh grade when his guidance counselor handed him a brochure and suggested he look into it. Pemberton said his response was simply, “What’s college?”

After constantly adapting to different home environments, he had no idea what life could look like after high school. After a recommendation from a friend, Pemberton discovered the Upward Bound program, which he said greatly helped him in his journey to Chestnut Hill. Upward Bound is a national program run by the U.S. Department of Education to help prepare high school students from low-income families for college.

When Pemberton first arrived at BC, it was a difficult transition, he said. While fellow classmates were excited to be on their own and away from home, Pemberton struggled to relate to this newfound freedom, as he lacked a sense of home.

“I really struggled with fitting in,” he said. “I was still trying to find home in a way because I had been in the foster care system.”

Pemberton said he was ultimately able to find home in unlikely places. He said the education he received and the opportunities he took advantage of while at BC helped him find his way. One of the places where he found a home was the housekeeping crew that he worked with during the summer after his freshman year.

“I just learned so much from them: the importance of doing the job well and with detail, being on time, and doing what you say you’re going to do,” Pemberton said. “You know they really taught me how to be a professional unknowingly.”

Pemberton found other places and groups of people that contributed to his understanding of home and community as well. He ran track, was involved in the Black Student Forum, and helped found the Talented Tenth at BC—a supportive learning environment created by male African American students during the 1980s.

Now his son, Quinn Pemberton, CSOM ’23, is also an athlete at BC playing for the men’s basketball team. After attending Morehouse College for a year, a small HBCU in Atlanta, Quinn  transferred to BC in 2020 and walked onto the team. Pemberton visits almost every other week and attends his son’s games to support him, something he has done since Quinn’s childhood. 

“It’s so much fun to see Quinn enjoy Boston College in the same way that I did,” Pemberton said. “He is having the time of his life.”

Growing up, Quinn said his father always cared for those around him, even those he does not know. He remembers mornings when his father would stop at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way to practice, look at the worker’s name tag, and thank them—making sure to use their name in his words of gratitude. Quinn says this is just one example of how his father treats everyone equally and with dignity.

Lessons on equity and fairness are ones that Pemberton credits to the education he received at BC. Although he was not familiar with the Jesuit tradition prior to his arrival on the Heights, Pemberton said he grasped onto its ideals quickly and found them already present in his own life.

As a young African American man not raised in the Catholic tradition and who grew up in the foster care system, Pemberton said that the Jesuits allowed him to find common ground with those around him.

“I saw those connections, and I still do see those connections, that you can find these common threads of humanity that are anchored around faith and service,”’ Pemberton said. 

Pemberton said the importance of taking action was a lesson from the Jesuits that he has applied to his own life. Thinking back to his childhood, he said this principle showed him he should support future generations, rather than dwelling on what he lost during his childhood.

“I never could feel sorry for myself as a result, because it was not really about what I had lost as much as it was about what I had the responsibility to give,” he said.   

Prior to serving in his role at Workhuman, Pemberton also worked in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at BC for 10 years.

During his time working for admissions, Pemberton worked with now-Associate Vice President for University Communications Jack Dunn who, like Quinn, said he admired Pemberton’s commitment to making connections with people. 

In 2017, Pemberton started working at Workhuman as chief human experience officer. In this role, he works alongside other human resources executives to facilitate a comfortable work environment, according to Workhuman’s website. 

“He is a successful businessman and author and such a wonderfully dedicated husband and father,” Dunn said. “And yet he finds time every day to connect with people who want to share their own story and let him know how much his example has given them hope in times of darkness.”

A feeling of responsibility to share his story in hopes that it would help others led Pemberton to  write his first book, A Chance in the World, which he published in 2012. More recently, Pemberton published The Lighthouse Effect: How Ordinary People Can Have an Extraordinary Impact in the World in September 2021.

While writing both books and working a full-time job, Pemberton still prioritized attending his three children’s sporting events, arranging time to write the books around his children’s schedules.

A Chance In the World is a memoir chronicling the many hardships Pemberton endured throughout his adolescence. The inspiration for this book arose from a conversation he had with his son, Quinn, when he was 6 years old. Quinn asked his father, “Did you have a daddy?”

This question took Pemberton by surprise, he said, as it didn’t occur to him that question was on his children’s minds.

This revelation led Pemberton to write the story of his time in the foster care system. It was a chance for Pemberton to share that side of himself with his children, he said.

“It’s not just my story it’s theirs as well,” Pemberton said. “That story is part of them.” 

Pemberton said he not only received a positive reaction from his family but from readers who were inspired by his story as well.

“I was writing a family history, and then all of the sudden I started hearing from people quite literally from all over the country and then all over the world,” Pemberton said. “I think that’s when I realized … [is] when you share your story or elements of your story, what it does is it really does invite others to share their stories with you. And you realize these common threads, these common connections that we all have, or universal stories.”

The realization of these common threads that exist throughout society, that Pemberton said he initially came to after his introduction to Jesuit ideals, led him to write his second book, The Lighthouse Effect. In this book Pemberton shares inspiring stories of people in his life who have served as a lighthouse— or guiding light—and urges the reader to become lighthouses themselves.

“The lighthouse effect is the idea that any of us on any given day in any given moment can find a lighthouse for ourselves and be one to somebody else,” Pemberton said. “And that could be a mentor or a guide, holding a door open for someone, and finding those opportunities to be a beacon. It’s a way to live. It’s a way to lead.” 

Pemberton served as the convocation and commencement speaker for the BC class of 2020. At the graduation, he discussed his most recent book, The Lighthouse Effect. He connected the message of his book to the class of 2020, explaining how one can be a beacon of light for others.

“The close connection he made with our class of 2020 as their First Year Convocation and then Commencement speaker was profound,” said Dunn. “They love and admire him, and he feels the same way about them.” 

Pemberton’s character exhibits the ideal BC student, Dunn said.

“To me, he serves as an ideal model of the person we hope our students will become,” Dunn said. “Steve is humble, caring, loyal, dedicated, and selfless. He is a leader and a source of inspiration. I am honored to call him my friend.”

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

Photos Courtesy of Steve Pemberton and

February 20, 2022