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How a Target intern became one of America’s most successful Black women

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Caroline Wanga on stage at Cannes Lions 2019 in Cannes, France.

Richard Bord | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

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.

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.”

2. Set a destination, be flexible on the path

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.

If I had waited to define the job I wanted and waited for the perfect job, I’d still be an intern.

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.”

3. Your story is as important as the business strategy

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.

4. Build alliances before offering advice

Over the years, Wanga built relationships with influential allies that backed her up when others talked her down. But you can’t simply go into a job, self-advocate and try to create change without establishing yourself first.

To influence corporate America, Wanga says you have to “do your job really well,” and build relationships with bosses, peers and key business partners who will vouch for you. Only then, can you offer your perspective.

“What happens wrong for a lot of people that look like me,” she says of having ideas rejected in the workplace, is that “it gets rejected not because it’s not good but because no one knows if you’re doing your job really well,” Wanga says.

5. If you can’t be who you are, go elsewhere

Black women are generally promoted at slower rates than other groups of employees and underrepresented in senior leadership roles, according to a McKinsey and Lean In study. Many Black women also say their managers are less likely to advocate for them, and 42% say they’re uncomfortable sharing their thoughts on racial inequities. Compared to all women, they’re twice as likely to say they can’t be their whole selves at work.

While Wanga preaches authenticity and is always up for a challenge, she also says if you can’t be who you are where you are, go someplace else. Many of her peers tire themselves out trying to change an institution that isn’t willing to change or put in the work.

“You do not have to be in a place that doesn’t respect who you are,” Wanga says. “If we start walking away, they’re going to fix it.”

Minority women and corporate America

When it comes to female and minority representation in corporate America, the numbers are disappointing. According to the McKinsey-Lean In report, for every 100 men promoted, only 85 women receive a promotion. Among minority groups, those gaps are larger with just 58 Black women and 71 Latinas attaining a promotion for every 100 men. At the beginning of 2020, women held just 38% of manager positions versus men who held a 62%.

Companies that fail to reflect changes in leadership and population growth risk falling behind, says Meesha Rosa, senior director of corporate brand services at Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to help women attain leadership positions. To retain and elevate women to higher positions, companies need to sponsor them, speak up on their behalf, and ensure they are getting “critical roles and assignments” that can lead them on the path to higher positions.

“If they are not willing to take that leap, they are not giving themselves the competitive advantage to strategically set them up for success,” says Rosa.

According to data from Lean In, just 21% of C-suite leaders are women and only 1% are Black women. When Rosalind Brewer stepped in as CEO of Walgreens earlier this month, she became the only current and third Black woman to serve atop a Fortune 500 company.

Many corporations are launching initiatives to help women and minorities attain racial equality. Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs recently pledged $10 billion over the next decade to advance economic opportunities for Black women. Their research suggests reducing the gap could lead to up to 1.7 million jobs and add $450 million annually to U.S. GDP.

The first step for many companies is to acknowledge the systematic inequality of black women in the workplace, but they also need to act, Hart says. C-suite executives are often given the opportunity to serve in board positions that come with opportunities to make decisions. But companies need to invest in succession planning that trains Black and minority women to fill executive roles. Black women are paid 63 cents to every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

“In the past year we’ve talked a lot about racial equity, advancement of Black and brown women in the workplace, but if we go back and look at some of those companies’ that made those declarations, their about us pages still look the same,” Hart says.

From innovation acceleration to the reallocation of limited capital, the global pandemic has fundamentally disrupted work. What’s next in your company’s transformation? Find out at the CNBC @Work Summit on March 30th. Hear from the world’s most influential voices who are defining the future of work, featuring Caroline Wanga, actor and author Matthew McConaughey, Greylock’s Reid Hoffman and Sarah Guo, Microsoft’s Kathleen Hogan and more. Register now.

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