Honestly, the best way to offer support is to listen, and ask what they need. Right now, when I am in a space with family and loved ones, I put down and aside all devices and give them my full attention. This helps them to know that I am fully listening to them, what they have to say is important, and that they can trust me with whatever is bothering them.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carmen Westbrook.
Carmen is the CEO and co-founder of Aina Giving, a socially responsible servant leadership development firm. As a diplomat, military spouse, six-year stay at home mom, marathoner, and entrepreneur, Carmen knows the ins and outs of leading a balanced, fulfilled life while also accomplishing the goals and dreams life has handed our way. Carmen is trained as a co-active leadership coach and developer, and has trained governments, international aid organizations, and mothers worldwide, and is currently planning to move to her fifth continent (Africa!) with her husband of 17 years, three wonderful children, and one fluffy dog.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
As an author, I love sharing stories. And I love so much that there are so many stories that lead us to the path that we are now on.
I think the story of my life that fits the best here is the story of my mother — probably the most amazing, successful woman I have ever known — advising me and my sister to not enter the sciences because it was “a man’s world, and she didn’t want us to have to keep fighting through that.” As a research chemistry professor, she knew of what she spoke — my sister and I saw her struggling through the old boy’s club that is still present in the sciences, making her way, and telling us that she “couldn’t wear those clothes because she wouldn’t be taken seriously” when we tried to get her to dress in a bit more feminine flair (Express pencil skirts were most definitely out). That story, and the love that she demonstrated as a mother to her daughters, have driven me in my life to grow into this leadership position of training people in socially responsible servant leadership, as well as working very hard to bring in the feminine — not just women, but the actual feminine energy and powers — into the different fields and organizations in which I work.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
Well, as an entrepreneur and business owner of a multinational corporation, my start was when I got frustrated enough with the options that were available to begin my own company. There are so, so many interesting stories around that…and one that sticks out to me the most in this context is a vivid memory I have of pitching to an incubator with my three business partners at the time. Three women, dressed as women, pitching a very feminine concept — and being asked by the male panelists why we were only targeting women to begin with. I remember the female panelist giving us the “woman I understand” eyeball and replying that it was to niche down for marketing purposes at the beginning. Now, years later, knowing how much we struggled with niching, and how incredibly important that is in any business… I still ponder that story. Why did those men ask us that question? And why did they so obviously feel excluded and hurt by our niching into women? Still something that fascinates me there.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Oh, we are pretty much always working on new projects! I think one that is currently really speaking to me is the project our nonprofit arm is beginning in giving empowerment and economic training to extremely young mothers in Kenya. We’ve been working in Kenya for a couple of years now, and I love that this is a new segment we are moving into — that of teenage mothers in very vulnerable communities. I feel so strongly that empowerment and economic training there will have huge ramifications for future generations — the generation my kiddos will be in and working with.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have an amazing, amazing team, and it is incredibly apparent to me that none of our success would have happened without them — I just happen to be the one that’s the loudest in public. One of our amazing team members is Sharon Njoki, who is the Executive Director of our nonprofit arm and heads up the empowerment program we do in Kenya. Sharon is only in her 20s and just blows me away every day with how dedicated, organized, hard working, and intuitive she is in response to a very complex and evolving situation in our nonprofit. I would say one particular story is her own personal dedication to the empowerment programs that we are running in the Kibera slums, the largest slum in sub-saharan Africa. She went — at risk to her own self — into the slum, bringing needed supplies, meeting with the ladies, and forming a partnership with the Feminists for Peace, Rights, and Justice Center and their incredible leader, Editar Ochieng. Sharon does all of this with such grace, love, and a smile at all times — she is a gem, and we are incredibly fortunate to have her.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
Well…pretty much all of the things? This, in fact, is what we are hearing from our women business leader clients and colleagues around the world — that covid-19 has been an earthquake in the families, and that the subsequent aftershocks have truly impacted every area. We are seeing a massive amount of women leaving the paid workforce in order to enter the unpaid workforce of family caretaker — much more so than men. This is going to have a huge impact on our society to come, and I’m so grateful for this interview existing in and of itself, as it means there is at least the beginning of a conversation around this.
For me, personally, I think of my children and husband and blood relatives as only part of my family — my work team and all of the people that are also involved with us are our family, too. And the biggest thing that I am seeing here is an incredible need for slowing everything down and working on our relationships. People around the world are needing to talk about, process through, and deal with all of the emotions that have come from this huge upheaval, and all of the paradigms that have shifted and been broken in society. From my years as a military spouse, moving roughly every two years, I know what those kinds of upheaval can have on our own psyche, our image and understanding of our self and our place in the world, and how important it is to have a space where we can work through that, both on our own and together. That demands relationship, and spending much more time on relationship than we have up until now. Talking with my team, my kiddos, and my husband have taken up a much, much larger share of my day and productive time than they did previously.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Two HUGE words in leadership development: Self Care. We hammer this into the leaders that we work with — you cannot lead effectively if your own life and own self is uncared-for and suffering. I wake up every morning at 5am to have two full hours to myself before the kids wake up, I have been instituting alone time in the afternoon and evenings so that I can be truly present when it’s needed, and I’ve allowed myself to be much, much less productive than I was in the past. I do that in part because I want my team to follow that lead, and in part because it’s just good life and business practices. I don’t want to burn out, and I don’t want my team to burn out, and I don’t want my world to burn out. So I lead by example with self care.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
I think having that space to truly be alone and focus on my own work has been the biggest challenge. We currently live in Italy, have been planning for a year to move to Ethiopia, and now my spouse is back in the United States trying to work through the processes to see what is actually happening next for us. My kiddos have been in full online schooling since February, when Italy shut down. We are just on top of each other in all ways — physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally. We are also emoting a lot more than we were before — I can feel my kiddos emoting when I’m in my office and they’re all the way on the other side of the house in their rooms. It’s been a big challenge for me to carve out and define that space that is “my own,” and also teach them (and my team) how to do the same. I do it totally perfectly now, by the way….
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
So I would say first and foremost I told shame and guilt to go take a hike. It can be helpful to feel those emotions for about a millisecond…and then they just need to move on so we can get the job done. I work very hard to not let others expectations and opinions of how to do life impact me, and allow myself to define those terms for our family and my life. I’m not going to sugar-coat it: that can be a hard thing to do. And I’m so immensely glad that I’ve done that.
Practically, that means that I start my day by meditating/reading my own stuff and setting my own day. Find whatever works for you — the Bible (my personal choice right now), the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, just being silent — it really doesn’t matter, just be pragmatic and find the thing that helps and brings you to that space of expansiveness and peace. And then I journal, put down some of my own learnings from the past few months, and determine my own intentions. Then I go for a run, do a Facebook Live to talk with the people I love, and then hop into work. Work, for me, is defined as “what needs to be done today,” and includes reading with my youngest, developing leadership curriculum with my team, and paying the bills for our family. All of that is work, and falls into that work category. That frame helps me to take breaks and soak up some sunshine when I need it, and again — not feel guilty about it.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
I think the best thing that I ever did in this area was to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in our family. Honestly — it’s just super complicated to have everyone at home. And we’re going to get on each other’s nerves, because that is what happens when we live in close contact with each other. So simply knowing that and accepting that as a fact of life helps take the pressure off. Then — intentionally cultivating gratitude helps to mitigate the annoyance. We will dance around the house to “You’re Welcome” from Moana, singing “you’re welcome! You’re WELCOME!!!” to each other and to ourselves, thanking our own selves for getting through another day with love and forgiveness. That gratitude for keeping up doing the right thing feeds energy into continuing that behavior — even if we’re the ones feeding that energy in ourselves. It’s been very helpful to remember to just accept the gratitude of those around us for everything that we are doing to help support the family.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
GO FOR A RUN. I have been advocating this since the very beginning — it is bad for our mental health to stay inside all day. It’s also bad for our physical health. Find a safe, socially responsible way to get outside of the house — and then get outside. Every single day. The vitamin d boost alone is mandatory, not to mention the extra endorphins that come from exercise, and the psychological benefits of not being “stuck” in one place. When times get tough, we need to pull on all of the extra resources that are available, and getting outside for a bit of exercise every day is an amazing mood booster. I personally try to go really early — during those two hours of alone time in the morning, if I can — in order to reduce the congestion of people outside.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Honestly, the best way to offer support is to listen, and ask what they need. Right now, when I am in a space with family and loved ones, I put down and aside all devices and give them my full attention. This helps them to know that I am fully listening to them, what they have to say is important, and that they can trust me with whatever is bothering them. And then I really like to ask, at some point — what do you want from me now? Do you want an ear to listen, advice, or coaching? That stating of options (and then honoring the response) does two things — first, it gives them a situation where the number of choices in a decision is limited (three). We, as humans, make decisions easier when there are only 3–5 options. Second, it gives them control over the situation — they get to make that decision, and they have practice doing so. That feeling of control really helps to reduce anxiety, and helps us to recognize that, even when things are slightly wild and unpredictable in the world, we always have the ability to choose how we respond to that. And that is a very powerful position indeed. For those that aren’t coaches out there, there are a lot of great resources available on how to have a coaching conversation, and that will give the basics of that option.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have so, so many favorite quotes — they litter my walls and my journal. One that I feel is particularly relevant here is ““A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.” -Eleanor Roosevelt. I try very hard to keep that in mind when I am juggling all of the things, and remember just how much Eleanor had to juggle in her life.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can find us at ainagiving.com and follow us on all social media outlets @ainagiving. I’m also a really big fan of starting conversations and sharing my own inspiration and hope, which I do on my own personal Facebook and LinkedIn profiles (Carmen Westbrook).
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!