Profile: Trendsetter

Finding Her Next

Donna James overcame the stereotypes of her teen pregnancy and battled discrimination in the workplace to become one of the highest ranking black executives in the country. Six years after leaving Nationwide, she’s proving retirement doesn’t mean an end—it means a whole new beginning

By
From the September/October 2012 issue of Capital Style

Something felt off as Donna James awoke in her Miranova apartment and stumbled oddly to the bathroom. The Nationwide executive figured she was overtired, worn out from a business trip that, in 72 hours, jetted her to meetings in Luxembourg, Atlanta and home again.

Nauseous and off balance, she fumbled with the door before getting inside. She reached for toilet paper, but failed to grasp anything. Her right hand, she realized, wasn’t working. Woozy, James’ 5-foot, 10-inch frame slid down the wall to the cool, marble floor where her husband would soon find her.

She wanted to tell him she was OK, even though she wasn’t. But she couldn’t speak.

Ten minutes later, the then 47-year-old was strapped to a gurney realizing, in that moment, she could die.  

“Lord, I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me,” she thought. “But I am listening.”

On that cold day in January 2005, she suffered a roughly hour-long mini stroke. Its cause wasn’t clear, but James suspected her demanding career, and all the accolades it brought, was actually—literally—crippling her.

The former CPA had been going full speed for more than two decades at Nationwide, where she started as an entry-level accountant and tirelessly worked to her post as president of Nationwide Strategic Investments, responsible for growing or creating exit strategies for five national and international subsidiary companies.  

The product of a hardworking Southern mother and stepfather, James was raised with a strong work ethic. As she rested in her hospital bed, the woman who was at the time one of the highest ranking black females in corporate America wondered whether she could walk away.

She eventually decided she had to.

The decision wasn’t easy, but James was adept at facing adversity. As a teen mom, she’d overcome you’ve-ruined-your-life-forever stereotypes to graduate from high school, win a college scholarship and earn an accounting degree. In the corporate world, she continuously proved her success was based on hard work and talent, not race or gender.

Each challenge was met with grace, not anger. Those who spoke hurtful words, intentional or not, were treated with empathy, not bitterness, because she knows that people grow.

She approached her nontraditional retirement with the same thoughtfulness. For decades she’d been consumed by the upward motion of her career. It was time to pause, to ask, What do the next 25 years look like?

The answer: They must have a purpose.

And they have. James, now 55, has shared her business acumen with large, small and startup companies through her firm Lardon & Associates LLC. She has advised giants such as Coca-Cola and more by sitting on company boards. She has earned the nomination of President Barack Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council. She has helped teen parents succeed by founding nonprofit The Center for Healthy Families. She has mentored the next generation of black executives. And, perhaps above all, she has made time for family.

 

Donna James sat in the back of a taxi, staring out the window as the Columbus skyline came into view. The fresh North Carolina A&T State grad liked what she saw: a clean-looking city that wasn’t too big. It seemed like a nice place for the single mother to raise a 5-year-old son.

She would interview the next day at Pricewaterhouse-

Coopers, wearing a classy blue dress borrowed from her mother, who had saved for months to buy it. She just couldn’t show up in one of the two suits she owned—one brown, one blue—as it was obvious she had sewn them herself.

She spent two years there as an accountant before being recruited by Nationwide and quickly earning a reputation for tackling tough assignments. Her fearless work ethic soon caught the attention of higher ups at the Fortune 500 company.

“She’s a role model—someone you aspire to be like,” said Holly Snyder, president at Nationwide Better Health.

The two years she spent working with James, she said, were the most rewarding of her career. James saw people as people—not titles—and she held the bar high for everyone, Snyder said. You were to treat others fairly and with respect, herself not exempt even in the moments of discrimination she encountered.

Once, while leading a succession plan exercise where company heads were to rank the top 250 executives in three tiers, one white male executive stopped James, then the vice president of global human relations.

“Donna, I just want you to know that I put you in the middle third,” he told her. “Because in my mind, and in the mind of some of my colleagues, the jury is still out on whether you are where you are because you really have talent, or if it’s because you’re black and female.”

Fighting through a rash of emotions—hurt, disappointment, anger—James stilled herself before answering, knowing the comment wasn’t meant to be cruel.

“I appreciate your honesty,” she responded. “Because people who look like me think that people who look like you feel that way, but it’s not often that we hear it. But if that’s all it takes to get to this level, then why aren’t there more people who look like me here?”

That started a dialogue, James said, and she and that executive became good colleagues.

“She focuses on the bigger picture,” said Snyder, who witnessed some moments of discrimination. “It’s always about bettering not just her, but the people around her.”

After the encounter—the likes, she says were few at Nationwide—the witty James wrote a poem as a way to express hope in the middle of frustration. It reminded her that every time she entered a room she is likely younger than everyone else and one of the few black women. “But when I walk into those rooms, I focus on what I want to leave with. I focus on what I can bring to the table,” she said. “It really is about what you do in those moments in spite of how you feel.”

It didn’t take long for others to recognize her business savvy. She was applauded for her acumen and executive status in Black Enterprise, Essence, Time and BusinessWeek. Boards such as Limited Brands and Coca-Cola Enterprises sought her expertise.

And the accolades haven’t stopped. She continues her work with Limited Brands, and now sits on the boards of Time Warner Cable and Marathon Petroleum Corp. In 2010, President Barack Obama, whose staff had been begging James to submit her resume since his election, appointed her to chair the nonpartisan National Women’s Business Council. As chair of the advisory council to the president, Congress and Small Business Administration, she leads research to understand why and how to promote the growth of women-owned small businesses.

 

Sixteen-year-old Donna James dangled her legs off the exam table, alone in a doctor’s office. Tall and thin, the high school athlete—a cheerleader, volleyball player and runner—had missed her period. Finally, the doctor said aloud what she’d silently feared.

She was pregnant.

Something inside her sank. Shame was followed by panic, and a fleeting thought of taking her life. Her Baptist faith interceded, reminding the teen it wasn’t just her life she’d be ending.

The honor student would have the baby.

But before she figured out how to raise a child while finishing both high school and college, she had to tell her mom.

“It was like something had sucked the very life out of her,” James recalled.

Still, the lab technician who’d earned her high school diploma at 30 never told James she had ruined her life.

But others did. The second oldest in a blended family of six was outcast by friends and treated like a bad kid by adults.

“There was an immediate perception of what kind of person you must be, and that was painful,” James said. “I had to personally get strong enough to endure that judgment every time.”

It’s why seeing personal dignity trampled grips her like nothing else. And why, in learning only 30 percent of the 1,800 Franklin County teens who will give birth this year will graduate high school, she had to do something.

So she birthed The Center for Healthy Families, which provides teen parents and their families support to succeed.

“Children are having children, and they need our help,” said James, who knows she could easily have been a statistic if not for her own home support system. “These are not people you throw away, and these aren’t people you say, ‘Well, they brought this on themselves.’ They’re kids. Kids make mistakes. They should be responsible and accountable. But they need help doing it.”

So that’s exactly what The Center for Healthy Families aims to provide—a support system. The center’s resource advocates help teens map out goals, such as finishing high school and learning fiscal responsibility. And then they arm them with the necessary tools to achieve them.

Committing to every teen for at least two years, they make sure each client has a safe home life. If their guardian needs assistance, such as keeping the lights on at home, the center connects them with existing entities that can help. The hope is that by creating a stable home environment, everyone under that roof can thrive.

The center’s president and CEO, Toshia Safford, spent two years working with James to outline the purpose of the nonprofit, which they founded in 2009. In focus groups with expecting teens, James would roll up her sleeves, take off her jewelry and speak to them like a loving aunt, Safford said. She wanted to make sure they felt comfortable with her.

Which they did.

“She has a warmth about her that is very calming,” Safford said. “She is sort of infectious.”

In three years, the center has helped more than 150 teens, ranging in age from 13 to 19, and their families.

 

Donna James sips tea at her kitchen table, looking out at a spectacular view of Bicentennial Park, which fills the picture window. Even in white jeans and a T-shirt, she radiates a quiet sense of refinement. She speaks softly with a voice exuding confidence and warmth, punctuated with a sharp wit and easy laugh.

She’s a presence even in an apartment decorated with vibrant, eye-grabbing artwork.

Her husband of 23 years noticed that from the start.

“Donna always had an elegance, and a kind of gentle spirituality. It was just the way she carried herself,” recalled Larry, an attorney who worked in her building in the late ’80s.

For a year, he admired her between small interactions—a casual joke at the ATM, helping her off the runway at a benefit fashion show (she modeled professionally on the side for nine years).

Finally, in 1989, the divorced partner at Crabbe, Brown and James LLP gave his twice-divorced colleague a call.

Larry and Donna—who each had a 14-year-old son—were engaged within a month and married less than a year later. Today, they have five grandchildren between their two boys, Christopher (hers), who lives in Columbus and Justin (his), who’s in California. Retirement has given James a chance to dote on them the way she loves.

“She’s probably one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever known,” Larry said. Being with his wife, he readily admitted, transformed him from an uncompromising, hard-hitting man who lived in black and white, to a nicer version who’s learned to live in the grays. “We don’t just complete each other, we enhance each other.”

It’s easy for him to see why, to the dozen up-and-coming black professionals they mentor through the African American Leadership Academy every year, James is like Obi-Wan. Seldom judgmental, she has the patience to meet everyone where they are, he said.

But she’s not afraid to put anyone in their place, either. Make an off-color remark, for example, and James will let you know. It’s one of the qualities Larry loves most—that she won’t allow anyone to be ugly around her. “She’ll figure out an appropriate time to say something,” he said. “She can do it with such grace, people more often than not say ‘thank you.’ ”

Executive coach Chasity Kuttrus was charmed when she met James, who had come to her for guidance as she prepared to retire. She’s a woman wired to embrace the goodness in people with natural followship, Kuttrus said.

“Her engagement and her charming nature are what make her special,” said Kuttrus, who spent nearly a year helping James establish a transition plan and is now a friend. “People are busy, and she has so much on her plate, but she’ll invest time with you, with others who want to be coached (and) mentored. Those kinds of things are what fill her tank up.”

Living every bit of the map they laid out together, Kuttrus believes James has found fulfillment.

She’s also far from finished.

“I think the day you say you’re done, the next day somebody might be putting you in the ground,” James said. “I don’t think we do that. We transition to next.”

And Donna James is enjoying the pursuit.