By Samantha Subin
Caroline Wanga thrives on chaos.
That’s why she stepped away from roughly 15 years of hard work at Target in 2020 to tackle a new obstacle: helping a half-century-old Black media brand reinvent itself.
When Wanga joined Essence in June, the Black culture mainstay was a little under two years out from a buyout by African-American entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis, founder of Sundial Brands, a beauty company — now part of Unilever — that creates products for Black consumers. After nearly two decades under the ownership of Time Inc., it was back to being Black-owned for an Essence in the midst of an identity shift.
Photo : Richard Bord | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
For Wanga, who easily gets bored with the status quo and says she works at her best when things are “falling off the rails,” it was the perfect project.
“I like to go to the problem when the fires are there,” says Wanga. “Throw me in when things are impossible and it’s the end of the world.”
Over the course of her decades-long career, Wanga has defied boundaries, working her way up the corporate ladder at Target from an intern to positions including vice president of human resources and chief culture, diversity and inclusion officer. As a Black woman, single mother at 17 and Kenyan immigrant, Wanga hasn’t let stereotypes define her. Now, she’s running one of the largest media ventures in the world that caters to underrepresented communities, and she is leading with authenticity.
A self-described oversharer, Wanga prides herself on being unapologetically open with employees, so that they can feel welcome. She says her approach to leadership and life helped overcome negativity and succeed in corporate America, and she has several lessons to offer those just starting out.
1. Don’t let unexpected events derail success
Wanga started at Target in the “most non-strategic way possible.”
After getting pregnant at age 17, she dropped out of college to raise her daughter Cadence. It was the first major disruption in her life, especially troublesome for her parents, who both have doctorates, but it was far from a life-altering setback.
“That particular moment is actually the theme of my life in a very interesting way,” Wanga says. “After that happened, I became indignant that this wasn’t going to end my plan to success.”
Back at home in Minnesota, Wanga — who moved to the U.S. from Kenya as a tween — attempted several hybrid school programs before quitting to work a series of jobs in the nonprofit sector. In 2003, she enrolled in a business program at Texas College at the age of 25.
“The barrier to the degree was not the program,” Wanga says. “It was my life. I had this little girl and I was not going to ask for help because I’m going to prove I could do this on my own.”
When she joined Target in 2005 after attending a career fair, Wanga says she didn’t have a passion for improving supply chains, nor was she thinking about the end-goal. It paid well and she wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of her daughter. While at Target, Wanga hopped between roles and worked her way up the human resources chain from a distribution center intern. But human resources was a path Wanga admits she never thought she would take.
She eventually set her sights on director of diversity and inclusion, a position she jokes is the “closest you get to a soul in corporate America.”
Wanga planned on attaining that by 2018, but she leapfrogged her mission years ahead of schedule and worked her way up to chief diversity and inclusion officer by 2015. Her lesson: agree on the destination, negotiate the path to get there.
When Wanga joined Essence as chief growth officer in June 2020, she saw it as an opportunity to give back to an institution integral to her identity and that of many other Black women. At the time, Wanga had reached a crossroads at Target and was looking for the next project to add to her portfolio.
It was a new brand, a new workplace, and while difficult to walk away from Target, it’s what Wanga calls the “next role I didn’t know I wanted.”
Within a month, Wanga was promoted to interim chief executive officer at Essence, before taking on the CEO title full-time this February.
“You don’t have to have all the answers, the path can be different,” Wanga says. “If I had waited to define the job I wanted and waited for the perfect job, I’d still be an intern.”
Over the years, Wanga says one of the biggest drivers of her success is authenticity. Often known to overshare her personal life experiences, Wanga told CNBC’s Inclusion in Action forum last September this is foundational to being a good leader. Telling the story of who you are is as important as explaining the strategy of the business you are running.
“Because at the end of the day … you have to model what you’re saying you want them to experience and you have to be willing to go first,” Wanga says. “You cannot on the one hand talk about authenticity and wanting to have inclusion and wanting to have representation in your group … and then people only know you to be the CEO that shows up at team meetings.”
When working with a new team, Wanga shares a list of 20 slides which she refers to as her “dimensions of difference.” They cover everything from who she is, to where she is from, to what her family looks like, to being a D+ Christian and having diabetes.
“She brings her authentic self to her work,” says Minda Harts, author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.”
“From the outside looking in she has not adapted to the status quo, but has changed the norms of what leadership looks like,” Harts adds.
Read the full article at CNBC.