Michele Sullivan has a rare form of dwarfism called metatrophic dysplasia, but that hasn't stopped her from a successful 30-year career in business
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Michele L. Sullivan
Credit: courtesy Michele L. Sullivan

Michele Sullivan remembers the first time she knew she was different.

“It was the first day of kindergarten,” she recalls to PEOPLE. “A little boy stood up and said, ‘Why are you so little?'”

Sullivan didn’t think he was talking about her. And then a girl asked, “Why do you look funny?” Soon after, she says, “Every kid had stopped playing and was staring at me.”

When she met her mom in the car to go home, she asked her if there was something wrong with her.

“She said I wasn’t going to be as big as everybody else but I could still be whatever I wanted to be,” says Sullivan, 55, who was born with a rare form of dwarfism called metatrophic dysplasia — and stands four feet tall.

With an amazing amount of determination and optimism, she had a 30-year career in business and became the first female president of the Caterpillar Foundation, a story she tells in her new book Looking Up, which she describes as a guide to overcoming life’s obstacles.

“When I was born, my doctor in Peoria [Illinois] told my parents to treat me like everybody else and that’s exactly what they did,” she explains. “At first I had no idea I was a little person, because my parents treated me like everybody else in the family.”

Michele L. Sullivan
Credit: courtesy Michele L. Sullivan

Her journey, from a grade school math whiz, to chess champion, to MBA, to Caterpillar (one of the world’s leading manufacturers of heavy equipment), to philanthropist, landed her on the board of the ONE Campaign, founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver. And she and the U2 rocker hit it off.

“She’s one of those people who is totally present and in the moment,” says Bono. “She takes in every detail, listening like a hawk, before swooping in with her point, every time very astutely made. And she’s so much fun. The first to make a joke, the first to get a joke, always with a very loud laugh. What struck me when we met was how curious she is about people. She’s fascinated by the stories of others, as you can tell by her book. And despite the fact that she asks all these direct, probing questions, people just trust her. Instinctively. She always looks for the best in people, and she always finds it.”

“Being four feet tall, I’ve looked up to people my whole life,” Sullivan says of her book’s title. “I don’t look down on anyone figuratively or literally. I want all people to look up. In these divisive times, we have to come together more. We all have challenges — and most of them you can’t see.”

After Sullivan’s doctor told her in second grade that she would not grow anymore, she was devastated.

“But mom said, ‘That’s just our size, it’s not who you are,'” she recalls. “You can continue to grow as much as you want to.'”

“As I got older, the height difference got more and more obvious,” she explains. “There were times I didn’t want to go out in public. I hated walking down the hall and all the kids stared.”

But her talents in math and chess showed her a new path.

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“It had nothing to do with my size,” she says. “Those little things started to show me what my mom and dad had said. It’s not what you look like but what talent you have and how you use it.”

In 2011, she became head of the Caterpillar Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, which invests approximately $40-60 million a year around the world to alleviate poverty.

“The foundation works on human infrastructure: basic human needs, education, and the environment,” says Sullivan, who traveled the globe to see programs at work. “I went to every continent except Antarctica.”

Now concentrating on philanthropic work and public speaking, she hopes to use her experience as what she calls a “little person,” to give back.

“Growth is never just physical,” she says. “Maybe physical growth stops as adulthood starts, to remind that us that the growth that matters isn’t on the outside.”

“The biggest life we can live is not an independent one,” she says. “When eyes are all we use to see people, we aren’t looking with every resource we have. People have a lot of obstacles. Many that you don’t see.”