By Elizabeth Korda
Oftentimes, we find ourselves in the least imaginable places. Our hopes and dreams of becoming one thing transforms into potential we never thought we would reach. However, when we reach our peak, sometimes we still don’t feel that we have gained anything at all, especially, when we begin to lose ourselves. But the most important reaction after we fall is to pick ourselves back up and find ourselves. In the midst of uncertainty and injustice, Charlene Wheeless has never lost hope and has always soared beyond her expectations. She is the epitome of a hard working, faithful, resilient, unapologetically authentic, and determined trailblazer of the 21st century.
Since 1987, her first year of work, she has not failed to put on her suit of armor. The suit was heavy to wear, but much needed. There was a delicate balance to achieve and maintain after being plunged into the world and obligated to deal with racial injustice and prejudice. But she persevered until she recycled the suit and knew these two things would keep her steadfast: her faith in God and that she is enough.
From a purposeful approach, Wheeless thought she was going to be a teacher. But once she enrolled in a journalism class, her entire perspective changed. She found that she loved writing and public relations; simultaneously, realizing that “words, word choice, and word selection really matters.” Once she realized her potential, she recognized that a well-informed and transparent communicator would have a significant impact on businesses. “Most people who are running businesses don’t think like communicators do…CCO’s are in a position where it’s their job to tell people what they need to hear, other than what they want to hear.” With a bachelor of arts, two master degrees, and various C-Suite positions in communications at PRC/Northrop Gruman, DynCorp, American Management Systems, Raytheon IIS, Bechtel Corporation, and the Page Society, Wheeless has conquered all stereotypes and injustices directed toward her. She has never shied away from telling the truth or initiating an uncomfortable conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I): “You only need seven seconds of courage” to start a conversation about a sensitive and difficult topic. The key is to be straightforward and offer a perspective that the other person doesn’t have or has not considered.
Although DE&I have surrounded Wheeless’ career and personal life, she dislikes linking those terms together. However, she has recognized that diversity and inclusion is represented through unapologetic authenticity: “Be who you are without apology.” Moreover, her investment in racial justice is priority and she believes that if the previous exists, then diversity, equity, and inclusion will follow. Alongside racial justice, the sense of belonging and authenticity are invaluable to defeating systemic racism: “Don’t let anybody tell you who you are and what you’re capable of…that can impact your entire life.” She believes that racism does not arise solely from a color perspective, but also from deeply rooted stereotypes concerning the culture, behavior, and history of black people in America. This is why her preferred term, in the DE&I bracket, is equity: “People come from different situations and opportunities…companies still struggle with transparency on their internal system…achieving equity and justice is important but not yet understood.” Treating people fairly and equally is really important, but many are still not sure what needs to be fulfilled in order to achieve equity.
Based on a combination of lecture series that Wheeless has been giving for years, “Lessons from Being Invisible”, her book, You Are Enough! Reclaiming your Career and Your Life with Purpose, Passion, and Unapologetic Authenticity, features lessons and strategies which she has reaped from experiencing and overcoming adversity in her personal and professional life. Along this overarching theme, she transparently shares her struggles with being a black woman in a mostly white dominant field, the legacy she has built by the people she touched along the way, and her battle with and victory over breast cancer. While there are three distinct parts to the book, her experiences seamlessly intertwine and correlate all throughout. For instance, when she describes her diagnoses and post-treatment, she aligns her healing process with the hurdles she overcame throughout her career. The fear of losing the life she had and the inability to relate with her former self led her to mourn her past life and emboldened her to build the life she wanted. “You can lose yourself to cancer and lose yourself to success,” but Wheeless found herself after both and decided to openly share her story in order for others to learn from and shortcut their way to success. Everyone has a story to tell and a purpose to fulfill.
Alongside her career history and personal experiences, Charlene Wheeless has shared invaluable advice and insights geared toward young professionals:
- Be a lifelong learner: We have to maintain an interest in learning more about current events and why they are taking place.
- Be insatiably curious: Dive into fields outside your own to gain as much experience and knowledge as possible. A variety of skills will serve you well.
- Do not compromise your ethics: Professionals in the PR industry should not act as mouthpieces. We need to be there for the leaders and tell them what they need to hear. We are not in the “spin business,” as Wheeless likes to call it.
- Do not practice compliance through silence: Silence is no longer an option. There are many social ills that currently exist because companies are not taking a stance on them.
- Quit whining: Change your own circumstances. Recognize that not everybody is invested in your success and many people are invested in your failure. In addition, accept that there are people who you will never win over. Even after you spend decades getting a career, it’s still not all about you. It’s about who comes after you.
If you would like to know more or connect with Charlene Wheeless, I encourage you to check out her newly launched website: https://www.charlenewheeless.biz/. I also recommend following her on Twitter @charwheeless and LinkedIn. Hashtags I’d use for her: #diversity #inclusion #equity #cancer #identity #story #career #history #passion #writing #communications #truth #authentic #faithful #successful #beautiful #racialjustice #systemicracism #book #advice #insights #determination #hardworking #straightforward #truthful #personal #professional #publicrelations #business #purpose
Elizabeth Korda is an Integrative Communications Specialist, who is passionate about writing and transparent media. If you’d like to know more, she invites you to connect with her on LinkedIn. This post is the first in a periodic series of interviews conducted by DePaul University graduate students studying diversity, equity and inclusion.