Social Insurance. We need to make it possible for EVERYone to succeed in their unique seasons. This can show up in a variety of ways, and should be across gender barriers. I’m talking about paid family leave, public forms of childcare, care for sick, disabled or elderly individuals, legislation that protects part time workers, adjustments in the length of the school day and school vacations, medicare, reduced tuition… All of these social insurances would benefit women, and overall equality in the workplace.
As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlena Smith. Charlena is an in-demand, international keynote speaker, best-selling author, and the founder of Optio, a matched and guided accountability platform that empowers women to live their best, most inspired lives. 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 expectations of her. Trying to live every purpose but her own nearly killed her. She spent months in the hospital, several of them on full life support with a 0% chance of survival, and then a year in rehab: learning to walk and talk again, against all odds. While healing, Charlena was determined to create a solution to protect others from experiencing this kind of misdirection and burnout; while still holding space to create and pursue big dreams with an even greater probability of success. And Guided Accountability was born. Charlena grew up and lives in a multi-generational home in Baltimore, MD with her brilliant husband and their two incredibly mischievous, yet simultaneously adorable children.
Thank you so much for joining us, Charlena! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?
The “backstory”? Well… In my early 20s I ‘had it all’ by nearly every definition. I was the first in my family to go away to 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 also a 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 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. Especially a parent. My kids suffered a great deal in this season. I was determined that when I went back to ‘work,’ it would be with a whole new blueprint for life. I was determined to align my purpose and my family. And so, an entrepreneur and Optio were born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
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 or most interesting 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.
Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?
Heck yes, I can.
- Secret salaries. As a culture, we rarely disclose our salaries, and we don’t know what we don’t know. That has to stop.
- We expect women to work like they don’t have children and mother like they don’t work. The same is not expected of men.
- Using past pay as a salary benchmark. We continue to hire (and accept positions) based on previous salaries. This just perpetuates the wage gap. A person’s salary should be based on the job requirements and their unique qualifications.
Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?
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.
Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or example for each.
- As a society, we need to be more transparent with our salaries. Both men and women. There’s a cultural limiting belief that we are not ‘allowed’ to share our salaries, but that’s simply not true. We’re allowed to share with one another. Share your salary with mentees, friends, people both inside and outside of your immediate network. Our culture can make talking about money feel uncomfortable, but if we approach it as an open, supportive conversation to truly help all parties, it can be easier. Share your salary first, without expectation of a reciprocative share. We don’t know what we don’t know. Sharing is caring.
- Sharing labor at home and sharing the cognitive load of family life. We need to be proactive about breaking the cycle and intentionally creating a collaborative environment for managing the home and family between ourselves and our partners, including our children wherever possible, and anyone else who is a part of our life that we can lean on for support. As they say, it takes a village, and when we embrace that mindset, and bring everyone together to use the value that each person has to bring, it creates a strong foundation for everyone to feel valued and supported. Our family actually employs multi-generational living. If you look at most ‘blue zones’ where individuals are happier and live longer — a common denominator is multi-generational living. We need the extra support in our homes!
- Social Insurance. We need to make it possible for EVERYone to succeed in their unique seasons. This can show up in a variety of ways, and should be across gender barriers. I’m talking about paid family leave, public forms of childcare, care for sick, disabled or elderly individuals, legislation that protects part time workers, adjustments in the length of the school day and school vacations, medicare, reduced tuition… All of these social insurances would benefit women, and overall equality in the workplace.
- Societal structures that support caregiving. There are many arguments that propose the idea of supporting parents who choose to stay home to raise their young children, and the same could be proposed for the people who make the choice to prioritize caring for a sick family member. The government provides support in some way to situations where care is needed, whether it be through providing in home care to a sick parent that can no longer care for themselves or assistance for a family that is unable to afford the childcare necessary in order for them to work. Through making it a societal priority to support those who are in a position to care for those in their families that need the care, we would be allowing families to choose what is best for them, and taking the pressure off that often makes these choices unavailable to so many (and frequently falls on the shoulders of women). This encourages society to be more caring overall, and will allow caretakers to return to the workforce when it’s time from a place of choice and strength, rather than from a necessity for financial survival.
- Mentoring. So many people’s lives are completely limited by what they don’t know they don’t know. If we can find a way to get the stories of people who have created truly amazing and inspirational lives: wins, stumbles and all; out to the mainstream, it could be a profound start to showing what is possible to those who need to see it. It really is so hard to be what you can’t see. We need more female mentors sharing their wins and their stumbles on their journey without fear of damaging repercussions, so we can see ourselves in them.
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.
We are very blessed that 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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Abby Wambach and Glennon Doyle. They have served as such amazing examples of leading bravely through the uncertain and the unknown.
And Brene Brown. She’s an academic like me, and is crushing the vulnerability scene with grace and fortitude.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.