As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlena Smith who is the founder of Optio, a matched and guided accountability platform that empowers women to live their best, most inspired lives. Optio encourages and equips women to discover their purpose, then define and achieve their goals.
But life hasn’t always been so clear for Charlena. Before she knew how it felt to define and live out her own purpose, she tried to live out everyone else’s expectation of her. Trying to live every purpose but her own nearly killed her. She spent 6 months in the ICU, several of them on full life support, and a year in rehab: learning to walk and talk again.
Charlena was determined to create a solution to protect other women from this kind of misdirection and burnout. The creation of Optio has become the framework of Charlena’s purpose. Using both demographic and psychographic data, Optio matches women to their best accountability partner and trains them on the practice of guided accountability. Partners hold space for one another to define their own life blueprints and define goals in accordance. The result? An unprecedented 97% increased success rate for successful goal completion.
Charlena lives in Baltimore, MD with her NASA-genius husband and their two incredibly mischievous, yet simultaneously adorable, boys.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
What brought me to this SPECIFIC career is quite a journey, so I’ll show you the shortcut. In my early 20s I ‘had it all’ by nearly every definition. I was the first in my family to graduate from college, and I went on to earn four undergraduate and three graduate degrees, as well as a traditional MBA. I started pursuing my PhD full time at the University of Maryland while I was full time professor at one of the most respected universities on the East Coast. Plus, I was the proud COO of a rapidly expanding marketing agency. And did I mention that I was also a partner in marriage with my amazing hubby and mother to two fantastic little boys under two?
All at the same time.
I’m here to tell you: that’s bananas.
And it almost killed me. I had a really horrific pregnancy and that, along with the stress of all the other positions in my life, landed me in the ICU for six months. I was read my final rights multiple times and given a 0% chance for survival. Obviously, since I’m sitting here in this interview, I didn’t die. Awesome, right? But a few months in the ICU and a ton of rehab to learn to to speak, walk, and talk again has a huge impact on a person. I was determined that when I went back to ‘work,’ it would be far more fulfilling and purposeful. And maybe I’d only do one job at a time. So I had to create the perfect one. And so: an entrepreneur, and Optio, was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Actually, I think HOW Optio began is the most interesting. The pre-story to the pre-story, if you will. Here’s what happened. I started a non-profit marketing company, appropriately named ‘The Girl who Lived’. It didn’t take long before we were reforming the way local non-profits approached marketing. It was wonderful, but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped. I worked on strategy, implementation, media and other back-end functions within The Girl Who Lived. I was never on the front lines.
One day, I was having a typical, busy afternoon in my entrepreneur/mom life, and I stopped at Aldi to grab a few essentials. I was in a hurry because the window of time when both of my boys are in school was very short and I was already running behind. A checklist a mile long was running through my brain when a woman approached me. She spoke little to no English, was modestly dressed (though not nearly warm enough for the cold temperatures), and her demeanor was fraught with despair, but laced with hope. I recognized the energy. I could tell that asking for help was uncomfortable territory for her. But she was desperate. Her name was Maria.
I told her, truthfully, that I didn’t have any cash on me, but offered her a blessing bag from our car. My boys and I make bags filled with essentials — nonperishable food, toiletries, water, etc. and I keep them in the car. That was not enough. There was a great sense of urgency about her. I did not know it then, but she had many other mouths to feed. I trusted my instincts and walked with her into the store. We grabbed a cart and went shopping together. She bought gallons of milk, her weight in chicken, pork, potatoes, diapers, formula, onions, toilet paper, and laundry detergent. I paid for her items at the checkout and bought some bags for her to carry everything in. After we bagged it up, I then asked her how she planned to get home. She planned to ride the bus. She was loaded down with about 30 pounds of raw chicken plus three gallons of milk, she probably weighs less than 90 pounds, and — I discovered later that day — she’d given birth two weeks prior. And she was going to get on Baltimore’s less-than-desirable public bus transit system? I don’t think so! I took a HUGE leap outside of my comfort zone, and I drove her home. This is where I met one of her children, who spoke a tiny bit more English. I discovered they were from Romania and were living with a family from Syria, whom I also had the pleasure of meeting. All refugees that had been through more than I’ll ever be able to imagine. The formula was for her 2-week old daughter. She was breastfeeding, but her daughter continued to lose weight and she was scared she wasn’t producing enough milk, and didn’t have the guidance of a steady pediatrician. Her husband, previously their strong provider, had become very sick during the trip and was now bed-bound. The chicken and potatoes were to feed them all. Her eldest son, 14, was looking for work to provide for his entire family, but was having a very hard time because he spoke little to no English. He continued to ask me what his ‘skill set’ was — because that’s what interviewers had been asking him. But he didn’t know what ‘skill set’ meant. Because he was FOURTEEN. He told me about his plans to be a doctor when he grew up. Be he had to shelve those dreams for tomorrow in order to figure out how to feed his family today.
They were also terrified to travel. Being separated was their number one fear. The three year old little girl wouldn’t even walk near the doors of their empty row home for fear someone would reach in and grab her to take her away. She stood firmly planted in the center of the room.
I spent as much time as I could with them that day. They were so beautiful in so many ways. And they invited me, my husband and our boys back for dinner. We went. We became friends. Our children became friends. That three year old little girl? She learned English — and she still helps my son speak to strangers. (English may be her second language but she runs circles around his speech delay.) In that ONE event,that single step outside my comfort zone, I gained a deeper understanding of so many things.
Our friendship continued and through Maria, I found the International Rescue Commission (IRC) where I began the framework for Guided Accountability. The foundation of Optio.
Initially my work with the IRC was through The Girl who Lived. I was tasked with setting up a system to acclimate Syrians into the U.S. culture as smoothly as possible. They needed to learn to navigate not only a new landscape and different language, but also different medical, transportation and school systems, just to name a few. We paired them with established women in the community nearby and created a communication framework to help them navigate the language and cultural barriers. This framework was like wizardry. Not only were the Syrians acclimating faster than ever, but their American counterparts flooded us with comments, testifying to their changed hearts and the ability to access empathy in a way they’d never dreamed possible. It was life-changing in the best way for both parties. We thought: “Wait. Is this a thing? If we pair other women and use this kind of framework: give them space, time and permission to be vulnerable along with the tools to discover their purpose and live it out — will we get the same results?” We decided to find out, so we started our beta test with other women around the world. That’s how Optio, and the Guided Accountability movement was born.
We compiled loads of research and catalogued an intense amount of data from our pairings. A top NASA engineer (who just so happens to be that amazing partner I mentioned earlier… Lucky me, right?! ) created a complex algorithm to pair people to their best Guided Accountability partners. Now, a Guided Accountability partner is not a best friend, but rather the person that is going to bring OUT the best in you. We’ve created deep, thoughtful trainings on how to be a Guided Accountability partner, plus a specific framework for women to discover their true purpose, develop goals in alignment with that purpose, and see it through in a 12-week program that results in a 97% increase in success rates.
I never could have imagined how ONE act outside my comfort zone could take me so far.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One that comes to mind is back when we were first starting out with Optio, and Guided Accountability was a completely new concept. We were chatting with angel investors who may be interested in joining us on this journey. I was the CEO of a major company but had decided that it was really important for me to be able to work from home occasionally. I didn’t want to get tied up in the madness that nearly killed me a few years earlier.
So I decided to meet with a Fortune 10 CEO seed investor over Skype from my home office.
My son was in preschool at the time and should have been out of the house. But we’re in Baltimore and occasionally there are weather related changes to the school’s schedule. On this particular day, Baltimore schools opened two hours later due to weather. Rather than reschedule, I attempted to ‘do it all.’ I fed the boys breakfast, let them burn off some morning energy in the newly fallen snow, and then pulled up an educational but fun video for them to watch while I jumped on my video conference call. I was momming SO HARD I could hardly stand myself.
I locked myself in my office and began my presentation. Suddenly I heard the scratching sound at the door, but I didn’t panic. Not only was the door locked, I had a kid proof door knob and a safety latch in place. No one was getting through that door… Until they did.
Suddenly, there he was. My 5-year-old had figured out how to enter what I thought was a secure room with the aid of his ridiculously crafty 7-year-old brother. And what was he doing? He was in the corner of the video screen MOONING the CEO. MOONING HER! I nearly died. To make matters worse, I jumped out of my seat to usher him back out the door, revealing that, although I was neatly dressed in a sports coat and scarf on top, I was wearing blue and pink polka dot pajama pants on the bottom!
Oh my heavens! AAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!
And then there was complete silence, until… she laughed. She laughed so hard I thought she was going to hurt herself. And she said she was sold. She wasn’t entirely sure what I was pitching — but she wanted in on what I had. She also wanted to know how she could help and if there was space at our holiday dinner table.
I decided in that moment that that was what it was all about. I was still a CEO. I still had a family. Some people get it. Some people don’t. And that’s okay. This is my season. I’m a CEO and a Mom. And if you can’t work with me with a 5-year-old mooning you from the corner, well… maybe we just shouldn’t be partners. Because that’s my life right now. And I couldn’t possibly love it any more.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Optio creates a safe space to discover your purpose. What’s really interesting is how different that can look for different people. We had a woman with a law degree decide her purpose was actually to stay home full-time with her children. And the great part about that is that she can do it without feeling guilt or shame around the decision. The process allowed her to truly be present and enjoy the journey. We also had a woman who felt like she was drowning in her stay-at-home parent life decide to up and create a full on 501(c)3, pass legislation in front of Congress, and feed an entire state. Now, I think the MOST amazing thing is that both of these women were guiding each other. They were psychographically matched to bring out the best in each other, and they did it through Guided Accountability, over 12 weeks. They were both able to step into their purpose. Without judgment. Simply holding space and allowing the possibilities to surface. Optio has created a truly welcoming, empowering, and loving landscape for women. Of that, I am so, so deeply proud.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m so glad you asked! Two things come to mind.
The first is a special Mother’s Day Cycle of Guided Accountability. We’ve had a waitlist for Optio membership for quite a while in order to manage growth and still support current members. But we’ve just opened up membership again for public application. Doors close May 6th in order to properly pair all partners through our matching algorithm, and then we kick off Mothers Day weekend! We’re accepting all female applicants, and the focus is on finding ourselves and the light we’re meant to shine on the world. This is especially pertinent for mothers who so frequently lose themselves in parenting. We’re going to help women identify their life purpose- both overarching purpose and their purpose in this particular season of life. We’ll hold space and help them create S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals that align with this purpose and see them through to the finish line. I’m so excited I could burst. So many women’s lives are going to be changed for the better, and as a result, their families and greater communities at large will be dramatically impacted. The change will be palpable.
I also have a book on Guided Accountability being released this summer. It’s been several years in the making, and I cannot wait to get it in the hands of as many people as possible. The goal is to truly move the needle for world peace one intentional, vulnerable conversation at a time.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I have absolutely found strength in vulnerability. I used to be concerned about projecting an image that I had it all together. All the time. Newsflash: NO ONE has it together all the time. When I started being transparent about my shortcomings, my team truly rose to the occasion. They had my back. I was human and they loved me so much more for it. Barriers came down, bridges were forged and lifelong relationships were born. I truly love my team — and they see ALL my flaws and still manage to love me in return.
I’ve also carefully curated my team based on my strengths and weaknesses. When you pull together a group of individuals with the right strengths you can create an incredibly strong team and nearly eliminate weaknesses entirely. But you can only do this when you acknowledge and admit where you’re weak. I can’t express how key that has been for me in my business.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Clear communication and radical candor. The larger the team the greater the opportunity for the childhood game of telephone to rear its ugly head. A message begins one way and ends up in a completely different place. To alleviate this, I truly try to remain as transparent as possible and empower my team to grow independently in their own ways. I do not micromanage and I encourage my managers to avoid micromanagement, so long as KPI’s are being met. And I work hard to foster a comfortable environment where everyone can bring their wins AND their losses.
Radical candor was a bit harder for me. I hate hurting feelings and I used to sugar-coat many of my messages. But it took SO MUCH longer to get my point across — and in the end it was showing disrespect for BOTH my time and theirs. I’ve found that being radically candid in my feedback and expectations, and allowing for that radical candor to be reciprocated without consequence, has saved us immeasurable time and allowed us to plow forward and make quick decisions wisely.
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?
This question is so easy and so hard in the same breath. I would have to say my husband, Scott. You see, if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t even be here to spread the good news that is Optio. Scott’s a top engineer at NASA and insanely brilliant. I don’t say that to brag, but to provide context. You see, when I was in the ICU, the doctors had pretty much given up hope. I was ‘too far gone.’ My lungs, in particular, were so severely damaged they were certain that even if I did survive, I’d never come off life support. But Scott refused to give up on me. He never left the hospital. Never. He went to the library every day and read about extreme cases like mine. (Did you even know that they have libraries in hospitals? I didn’t!) He read about what worked and what didn’t. What had been tried before. What had been hypothesized, but never tested. And then, one by one, he made requests of the medical teams. He begged them not to give up. He outlined the experimental procedures he was reading about and calculated how they could apply the same procedure to me. After all, they had already given up. What could it hurt? Initially they said ‘no’. But Scott’s tenacity and sheer brilliance made them reconsider. Slowly but surely, they tried one thing after another. Scott, effectively, became a pulmonologist in those few months. And you know what? It worked. Some of his ideas just resulted in pain and heartache. But some of his ideas led to growth and healing. And little by little, that growth and healing led to a FULL recovery. Just so you know, we’re still friends with those same surgeons today. One of them even asked if he could sponsor Scott to attend med-school. He declined. Exploring outer space is his true calling. He’s the most loyal, brilliant, loving man I have ever met. And he 100% saved my life.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Vulnerability and transparency for women. Big time. We have this notion that we can ‘have it all.’ And we can — in a way. But it doesn’t look like what people think it looks like. Balance is totally bogus. That REEL life of social media? Where the size 0, CEO Mama is joyfully pushing her super well-behaved child, wearing white, through some organic, vegan grocery store, in her stiletto heels while simultaneously conducting an international board meeting AND singing the Dora the Explorer theme song in their third language with no help… that’s not REAL life. At least not the everyday part of it. You know how I know? Because I WAS that mama. And I shamefully admit that’s the image I had put on social media. I was perpetuating an impossible stereotype and feeding a ravenous social media culture. Until it almost killed me. And I will do everything in my power to keep that from happening to someone else. There is SO MUCH JOY in this world. And not the kind of joy you find scrolling through perfect, edited photos on Instagram. The kind of joy you get when you realize life is so much more than that. And that YOU are invited.
Because you know what IS real? Trying to sign on an angel investor and having your toddler break in the room to moon her while you simultaneously expose your very NOT corporate pajama pants. THAT is what my REAL life looks like today. Oh yeah — that story went on my personal social media profiles. In ALL it’s humiliating glory. THAT is the goodness I’m putting out into the world. Along with a matched and Guided Accountability framework that leads women to discover their life’s purpose and live it — I am also leading by example. And showing what it truly looks like behind this ‘magical’ curtain that so many have coined ‘success.’
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Always remain Accountable. This one might be obvious since my entire business is based on ‘Guided Accountability,’ but I truly believe in accountability in leadership as a core value. Accountability is a choice. And we have to continue choosing it — even when things get tough. Accountability, especially in leadership, is the willingness to account for your actions, accept responsibility for them, and disclose the truth with transparency. It isn’t always easy. But it’s always right. A consistent example of this in business for me is transparency of finances with my team. We don’t keep salaries a secret. Our budget is an open source document for anyone working on the project. If you can remain accountable through your finances, it’s easier to remain accountable in other areas as well.
- Accept that you will fail. This was so, so hard for me. I came from a blue collar family in a poor town. The dreams I set for myself were huge compared to what I knew to be possible. And I accomplished them. Time and time again I accomplished them. I got so comfortable in my successes that when I failed it felt like a blow to the gut. I doubled down, worked harder, and knocked it out of the ballpark. Even if that’s not what I really should have been doing. I began to succeed just for the high of it. Winning became a drug. Failing? Inconceivable. And it almost killed me. The Universe brought me to my knees. Not only had I failed, but I had lost the very basic privilege of freedom and independence. I couldn’t speak, or breathe. My organs were literally failing one after another. I had worked SO HARD to win, refusing to give in and rest, or as I deemed it: fail. — And yet there I was, lying in an ICU bed with a list of failing organs. The irony was not lost on me. Once I had that great big failure under my belt, and was blessed to have survived, I could embrace failure with a kind of rogue brashness. One of our core principles at Optio is “Fail Frequently. Fail Fast. Fail Forward.” How much time and pain could I have saved myself if I had led by this principle from the very beginning?
- Forgive freely. When you forgive others it frees you from the disabling chains of unforgiveness. Forgiveness is liberating. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about living a life of freedom. A life you deserve. When I was very sick, there were some core people in my life who couldn’t handle it. One, in particular, literally sent me a ‘break-up’ letter that I received the day before I went into the ICU. We had been bestfriends since the second grade. The pain I felt when reading that letter is difficult to explain. He literally sent the letter and then boarded an international flight. He didn’t take my calls. He unfriended me on all social media platforms. I was in the hospital, being read my last rights and my family called him to say goodbye. He declined. THAT was hard to forgive. But do you know what’s also hard? Being a friend to someone who’s that sick for that long and somewhat in denial of the whole situation. When I got back to my regular life, I reached out to tell this friend that I did not bear any ill will. I loved him deeply. Still. He meant so much to me. And I forgave him with every ounce of my being. But I also could not have him in my life again. Forgive freely… but that doesn’t always mean forget.
- If you want to be great…. Become a great servant. At every point in my career I have risen when I come from a place of serving with a grateful heart. When I was rising in the ranks of corporate, I gladly served those above me, happy to run errands or just exist in their presence, while learning more trade secrets in one coffee run than I had in an entire year of college. Ultimately I ended up creating an entire business model, Guided Accountability, based on the principles of serving. Truly genuine acts of service are what makes the world go round.
- Faith and Persistence are the most powerful formula. Nothing is impossible if you have faith and persistence. Faith is powerful. Faith is trusting in something greater than yourself, trusting in the abilities that have been placed within you, and trusting that with every step forward you will find your way towards your dreams and your goals. Just keep persistently taking the next right step out on faith. It will work out in the end. I’m living this testament now. I’ve been working relentlessly at building a framework that moves the needle for world peace. It’s a huge goal. And I’m confident I can achieve it. Not just because I’ve done countless ‘impossible’ things before — but because I know, and am proof, that faith and persistence win every time.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Guided Accountability. The process of discovering your purpose and designing your own blueprint in response to guidance and a safe space provided by an accountability partner.
It seems so simple. And it IS. Yet, it isn’t. It’s like going to the gym. Yes — you know it’s good for you and it’s the right thing to do. But sometimes showing up again and again is hard! Simple in concept — more challenging in the execution. That’s where the framework behind the movement comes in.
Let’s go back to some grade school math and science. Are you with me?
Like the mathematical term vector, Guided Accountability can be represented by an arrow, composed of both direction and magnitude (And yes, Despicable Me Fans — I totally stole that. No shame in my Mom’ing game). The accountable party holds the magnitude, the guide provides direction, or space for an intentional direction to be explored.
Now think back to science lab. Develop a hypothesis for the trajectory of your life. A hypothesis is used to define the relationship between two variables. Remember, a variable is any item, factor, or condition that can be controlled or changed. Can you change the passing of time? Einstein’s Relativity aside, no. (If you are reading this interview, you are probably not on a spaceship traveling near the speed of light.) For our purposes, time is constant. But how you choose to spend that time is up to you. Our quality of life is the variable. When are you going to decide that your life is a variable worth investing in?
The crazy thing is this: Guiding isn’t difficult, but we’ve been trained for years to avoid it. So you may be a little rusty, and frankly you’re probably a little uncomfortable having a conversation that looks like those that occur in the Guided Accountability space. They sometimes require space for silence (deeper thought), uncomfortable questions, and mirroring what you see — not just what you think the other person wants to hear.
Guided Accountability partners carve out time and space to intentionally define the blueprints of our lives.
If you’re starting to wonder why you can’t just carve this space out for yourself, I’d encourage you to consider that the true value of a guide is to serve as a mirror to the guided, pointing out blind spots you may not be aware of and strengths that may have gone under appreciated.
The Guided Accountability framework walks you through every step of the way. We have, literally, outlined the exact conversations you need to have for all 12 weeks of your Guided Accountability commitment. And 12 weeks is not an arbitrary or random time commitment. It’s based on a significant amount of science, data and research. As humans, when we truly push ourselves, we can get the MOST return on our investments within a 12-week cycle. Optio has structured the time and space to allow you and your partner to get the absolute most out of your time together. This pairing is about CONNECTION. And you have what it takes — inside you right now, in this very moment — to be an amazing Guided Accountability partner.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”
This quote by Marianne Williamson has served as a lighthouse for my life. Every time I dream big, and then start to back down out of fear, I remind myself that by letting my own light shine, I unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. The ‘light’ shines in different ways for me in different seasons. Sometimes my light looks like what others might call success and sometimes my light looks like hanging on to life by a thread, but refusing to be extinguished. No matter what the season, my light is always bright, transparent, courageous and vulnerable. Because I want to allow others to feel liberated enough to be who they were born to be, too.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Oh, wow. There are so many people I’d love to meet.
Brene Brown and Dax Shepard. They both live in this space of true, fearless vulnerability that I absolutely love. Call me, you guys!