The Liberation of Being Yourself
Caroline Wanga is the Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer and Vice President of Human Resources at the Target Corporation. In this episode, Chanda and Caroline explore how their stories have intertwined in the past 20 years. They also discuss how Caroline developed grit and resilience as a young mother, her journey to self-acceptance, and how who you are is non-negotiable.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:12
Hello, this is Chanda Smith Baker from the Minneapolis Foundation, where I am the Senior Vice President of Impact and the host of Conversations with Chanda. On today’s episode, we welcome Caroline Wonga, who leads diversity, equity and inclusion for the Target Corporation. I wanted to have a conversation with Caroline as she is a person who I greatly admire. I met Caroline 20 years ago when we were both single moms trying to figure out where we were headed. It’s been a pleasure to watch her leadership unfold. What I’ve appreciated most is something that she says often, which is who you are is non-negotiable. And want to talk with Caroline about how she has continued to show up as who she is, in her most authentic way, inside of Target. So thank you, Caroline, for being part of our conversation today.
Caroline Wanga 01:09
Glad to be here.
Chanda Smith Baker 01:11
I wanted to start out and have the listening audience, get a piece of who you are. So who is Caroline?
Caroline Wanga 01:16
Lord Jesus, that’s hard to make that a piece. Here’s what I would say: I am a Kenyan girl… Born in Kenya, child of two PhDs who love education, which is why there’ll be no more Dr. Wangas in the world. I am a mother. I’m a mother who became a mother before I became a legal adult. And it has shaped a lot of the way that I see the world and live. I’m a sister. I am a friend, an aunt. But I’m also a member of the Minneapolis community. I’ve lived here for 30 years. And so it is a place that is more than a location. It’s been critical to how I came to be who I am and how even you and I know each other over the last 20 years. And then I’m also just what I would consider to be a person who is privileged enough to sit in a place and look back and decide what changes she wants to make about the experiences that other people have, whether that be through the lens of my job, or who I choose to be as a woman, who I am in terms of my ethnicity and personality, I do not take for granted that the journey from birth to here is filled with a lot of great things. But I would love to be able to leave it better than I found it. And that is the space that I’m living in today. I have a daughter, her name is Cadence. She’s a fantastic, compassionate human being. Her common sense and book sense aren’t always in the same place. But all parents would say that and she knows I say that. So when she hears this, she’ll be fine. But that’s who I am. Anything I didn’t share?
Chanda Smith Baker 03:01
No. But what I think about often is how we reflect of… Can you believe where we are?
Caroline Wanga 03:06
Lord. What we wouldn’t give for our journey now?
Chanda Smith Baker 03:09
And what did we learn? And where did we start from? Right? And so becoming a mom before you’re a legal adult is quite a statement.
Caroline Wanga 03:15
Chanda Smith Baker 03:16
And so how did… How did becoming a mother at a young age inspire and influence? And what challenges did it present to you? Like, you know?
Caroline Wanga 03:30
I’ve thought a lot about this topic because the last four years of my life have been pretty self, like exploratory, like I’ve really gotten to know Caroline again. And so this is gonna sound much more brilliant in hindsight than it did live. But the first thing I would say is there, there is a secret blessing behind becoming a mom before I became an adult, simply because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And so when I look back at the moment that I became a parent, there is a grit that I have, that I didn’t know was grit. Because I didn’t realize that the 17-year-old mom situation I was in was supposed to be difficult… Was supposed to be against the odds. Like, I knew those things intellectually, but I personally hadn’t yet matured into an adult enough to process it as an adult. So I lived in that like 24 hour periods in the sense of raising my child. And so there was a grit related to that, that I really do benefit from now, that is about like I live in this idea personally and professionally. I have the unmitigated gall to believe in futures other people can’t see. And I think that the moment where I became a mother, and the different ways in which people were both supportive and concerned, appropriately, for what it would do to my future… I had this quiet rebellion that was I’m going to show you that this is not going to end my potential, I’m going to show you that I might have to rearrange the schedule of the things I’m going to do in my life, but I’m still going to live my life. I’m going to show you that I’m not going to be a statistic. I’m going to show you that, even if I have to do and this is real, even if I have to go and donate blood plasma to buy groceries, I’m gonna show you, I’m gonna show you why I’m starting a cake business underground and my friend Chanda is letting me sell pies in her kitchen.
Chanda Smith Baker 05:33
Caroline Wanga 05:34
Illegally, I was working, because I lost my work permit. But um, and I was like, fine at making cakes. But I’m just gonna show you that. This won’t stop me. But I don’t know that at the time, I knew I had the… I didn’t have the vision to go and this is what it’s going to be. I was just motivated by like, I’m not gonna be the failure, y’all think I’m supposed to be because of the variables. And, and I am so grateful for that, on this side of my life where in a body of work related to resolving issues of parody, that have systemic personalities to them. I see the day when those things don’t exist. I have the grit to exist beyond what people win and learn as they try to do this. I have the patience to allow people to go on their journey at their pace. But I never dilute the intent of the destination. And I’m okay if I’m the only one that believes it till everybody else sees it. And I have thought about this a lot in my life. And it has been that moment is one of the louder moments. There’s been many of them throughout my life with parents and friends and other things, but I think there is a grit and a patience and a resilience and a de-victimization kind of spirit to how I roll that when Cadence came into my life got created that I valued differently now. Yeah, that’s what I’d say.
Chanda Smith Baker 07:05
That’s really good.
Caroline Wanga 07:06
Chanda Smith Baker 07:07
Caroline Wanga 07:09
Cuz, you know, I used to sell cakes. Yeah?
Chanda Smith Baker 07:10
Yeah. They were good, though. They were good. The other point that I think was pivotal, and you’ll have to affirm if it was or wasn’t, but losing your work permit…
Caroline Wanga 07:22
Chanda Smith Baker 07:24
Right? Like, that could have landed you in a really bad place. And maybe it did for a moment. But it also allowed you to perhaps see an opportunity that you wouldn’t have seen the same way had you not lost it.
Caroline Wanga 07:37
Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean, the story of being an immigrant has so many facets to it, regardless of where you immigrate from. And for me, we came under my parents. And so the visa we were on… All of that stuff was related to my dad coming in for his education. So for those that are wondering, yes, we were legal. We decided, my parents decided because we were children, to pursue permanent residency. We applied for it as a family. It took the powers that be a really long time to move to the next stage, which was interviews. So when we walked into the interview, I had aged out of the application. And I didn’t know that until I walked into the interview, and the gentleman interviewing us said, you have to leave the room, you’re no longer… So we had no idea till we walked in there. We wish we would have been told that. But the process to get the interview took years. So I was at the right age when I applied. But at the interview, I was over 18. And we didn’t find out, they kicked us out of the room. So it wasn’t even anything we had a prediction around. Well the consequence of getting kicked out of the room was that I no longer had a legal status. Because we were in the process of applying for permanent residency. And as long as I was in process, I had a status, it was the status of in process from political asylee to, to permanent resident. You kick me off the application, and I don’t have a status. Now, the solve was I had to restart the process. But because I was in an in a status that I was, you have to have a work permit to be authorized to work when you’re in the status that I was in, which is not abnormal. And you have to renew that work permit every year. In fact, your social security card says not valid for employment without additional documentation. That’s what’s stamped on your social security card. And so when I lost… When I came off that application, I also lost the right to work because now I don’t have a legal status to get a work permit to be employed.
Chanda Smith Baker 09:51
And you’re a mom and you had…
Caroline Wanga 09:52
I had a five-year-old and so I walked into the job I was working and told him I couldn’t work there anymore. And cried with the boss that I had because she couldn’t do anything. And the next big milestone coming up was Cadence’s fifth birthday. And Cadence wanted a Barbie cake. And I couldn’t afford a Barbie cake. So I went to a store that I found, and she had the pan to make a Barbie cake. And I asked her to show me how to make the Barbie cake. And there I found out that she taught cake decorating classes. And so I enrolled in her cake decorating classes and for the season, which ended up being almost two years that I was ineligible to work, I made cakes. And friends like Chanda would allow me to cater their events and I used to do this thing called the taste of the holidays where I’d make pies and take orders. But it all started with wanting my baby girl to have a birthday party. And I learned how to make the cake from the lady at the store. I borrowed tables from my church and put them in my backyard. And I didn’t really have any money for themes. So I called it a playdate party, which meant we just go and play with toys and have a Barbie cake in my backyard at 1614 Emerson. And you just make it through. But it was a significant altering experience because my ability to provide for my child was disrupted by a systemic error. And I don’t think there’s a person out there that hasn’t had an experience like that. Where something beyond your means creates a moment where you’re not sure if you’ll be able to survive. But the beauty of it is the village, right? The village that is you in the village that is everybody that was raising me and Cadence at the same time. And people still came to the playdate party and they didn’t talk smack because it was low budget. They didn’t care that the Barbie cake was a good attempt. And I just kept renting pans and baking cakes till I could work again. Yeah, I was working now. I was hustling.
Chanda Smith Baker 11:59
When you look back at your life, are you amazed at yourself?
Caroline Wanga 12:03
I’ve gotten there. I wasn’t always there. There’s a lot of things about my life that are great. The moment that I chose to be a parent is a moment that only in the last four years have I figured out how to reconcile psychologically. I spent most of my adult life wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t had Cadence and comparing myself to people who I knew at that moment. And whether or not I was advancing at the same rate they were. I was 30, 35 physically in chronologically. Psychologically, I was stuck at 17. Even though I knew I was moving forward, I was looking at life through: But what would have been better if I hadn’t? What would have happened if I stayed on my track scholarship at Hamline, right? What would have happened if I would have been able to be an Olympic heptathlete like I wanted to? What would have happened if I’d have stayed in school? Would I have found a husband? Like what would have happened, what would have happened, what would have happened, is how I lived my life up until about five years ago when I had the realization of where I was chronologically versus psychologically. And the beautiful thing about what’s happened in that time, once I had that awareness is I’ve had the opportunity to celebrate birthdays and milestones by reflecting upon what’s really good about where I am, that has nothing to do with when I became a mom. And that has been a wonderful exercise in celebration of self. And then to move myself psychologically has been about in every time I noticed something that’s just goodness and grace and blessing, I get to celebrate a birthday. And psychologically try to align my psychological age to my physical age, and see the life that I’m blessed to have that is just not a life that anybody can be guaranteed to have. That has nothing to do with the fact of when I became a parent, and when I took that filter off, I am humbled and grateful and obligated for where I am now. Not because I don’t deserve it. But because it’s miraculous. And that for me is the fuel for why I want everybody to be able to get to that miraculous thing with full potential, full belonging, full rights to believe that that’s what you can have. Because I’ve lived moments both self-inflicted and others where I started to renegotiate my potential and I’m excited to be in a place where I accepted I celebrated nice start to now pay it back. That’s what’s important.
Chanda Smith Baker 14:42
There’s a lot of people in the community that have made choices that may have been of their own doing or that may have had systems that have interfered somewhere in their life that they may be holding on to in some way in shame or fear of being vulnerable… Or understanding what that experience may bring them in life in terms of blessing and how it may be motivational or inspirational to others. When I think about the hard work and the disparities that we are living in within our city, and I hear your story, and I think about the individuals, not the statistics, not the disparity, like not the numbers, but the human that make up those numbers, and what they might be living through… What do you think is important thing for someone that’s outside like assessing? Right? Whether or not… I don’t know, the issues are worth investing in, or the people that are worth investing in? Like, what would you say to them?
Caroline Wanga 15:56
I think the first thing I would say is, it’s not your job to assess somebody’s potential. So stop doing it. Stop doing it. If you are trying to figure out how to make a change. Just ask who needs it. Don’t research what stats it’s impacting. Don’t research whether or not they are at risk enough to be worth investing your money. Don’t measure how much tax exemption you’ll get. Don’t measure how much brand reputation you’ll get. Function in the spirit of individuals. You as a person and them as a person. And what is the privilege exchange that can happen between the two of you. Because there is too much thought that choosing to invest in communities that are up against systemic barriers is one way. It’s give so they can. Right? Show up so that they can. Fight so they can. And I’m not saying that’s incorrect. I’m saying that there’s a real big assumption that you’re not going to get anything out of it. And you’re just doing this benevolent exercise. What I, what I would urge people to think about is that the investment in the people who are facing barriers beyond their control, and all they need is the barrier moved, and then they have everything else they need to go forward. They don’t need you to help them, they just need you to remove the fence are the people who will take care of you. They’re the people that will become your neighbor. They are the people who will become every service you have that is offered by a human being is who that person is. And as you think about the role that you can play in removing barriers, think about who’s going to be taking care of you, and how you want them to feel about you, when you need them more than they need you. And if you are worried about how they will treat you when they’re taking care of you in your elder stages, when they’re the ones paying the taxes that help you live your next stage of life, when they’re the people creating the software that extends your life… Think about if you’re okay with how they would feel about you. It’s the same reason why we don’t insult a waitress when we order food because I don’t want nobody to spit in my food. Will they spit in your food? Or will they serve you with honor? And what role do you play on how they think about you when they get the choice? Because they are in charge of your care financially, societal… Geographically? How do you want them to feel about serving the people who had the opportunity to play a role for them? And will you feel good that you’ve invested in a way that they’ll return that? Or will you be concerned that you were too obsessed with other things? And now you’re not sure if they’ll give you the full capacity of what they have? Because you didn’t give them what you had when they needed it?
Chanda Smith Baker 18:53
A privilege exchange.
Caroline Wanga 18:54
That’s privileged exchanged.
Chanda Smith Baker 18:55
Yeah, that’s good. When… So I’ve known you since back when.
Caroline Wanga 18:59
I mean, I mean, if the walls could talk.
Chanda Smith Baker 19:02
If the walls could talk, we wouldn’t want them to talk.
Caroline Wanga 19:05
Or we make a movie first. Yeah.
Chanda Smith Baker 19:07
So we can control the narrative. So I’ve watched you evolve. And you’ve become bolder and bolder, and I’ve heard you talk about who you are is non-negotiable. Can you say why… How you arrived at that and why you share that as part of your giving to community and your community at Target that who you are is non-negotiable.
Caroline Wanga 19:37
So first of all, I would say we evolved together. I would say we watched each other. We walked together, we fell together, we stood together, we laughed together. We have fun together. So I would say I think our evolution was collaborative. I think we’ve walked that journey together. And I’ve watched you in the same way you’ve watched me. What I would say about the who you are is non-negotiable piece… It’s actually… I would categorize it as actually an exercise in atonement. And what I mean by that is I am hypothetically angry about how long it took me to step into all of who I am. Because the liberation I live in now is so wonderful. And man, did I waste a bunch of energy, trying to wear New York and Company cardigans. Right? And putting lye in my hair not because there’s anything wrong with lye, I just didn’t want to and it burns and it hurts. No, I just have to reconcile and forgive myself for waiting so long to step into it. Because the liberation, the spiritual, psychological and physical health, the miraculous manifestation of things that were really easy for me that people think are mind blowing, that are signs that you are operating in your purpose, could be so much further along had I started that sooner. And so the journey of who you are as non-negotiable. That is the story of how I got to where I am right now, but not the end of the book. It is a story and trying to make up for that gap by getting people to step into their’s sooner because the experience and living of all of who you were created to be and pursuing that as the impact you’re supposed to make in the world is the sweetest thing you’ve ever felt. You will feel grounded. There’s a… I’ve talked about I’m a D+ Christian, like he’s just not done working with me. And I talk about there’s a concept in the Bible around Jesus being in a boat with some disciples… You’re gonna see how much of a D+ Christian I am right now… Jesus being a boat with the disciples, and there’s a storm. And they asked Jesus to calm the storm. And that that story is fine. Who you are is non-negotiable is about learning how to calm yourself agnostic of the storm raging. Because being centered to who you are, gives you a confidence that no matter what’s happening around you, you’ll be fine. And what you are bringing to the table is exactly what you’re supposed to. And it’s an acquired taste. So everybody ain’t supposed to like it. And instead of pursuing the people who you want to like it, go after the ones that already do, and spend 90% of your time doing what you’re naturally good at, and 10% just mitigating the risk of what you’re not good at. Accept the people that don’t want to be in your space, because they can’t be next to your authenticity, and find the people who are comfortable with it. And then figure out how to with your own liberated authenticity, allow others to coexist with yours. And if the world and individuals within it got to that place sooner, oh my God, how many problems would be solved? And how many things would not manifest because we’re making other people responsible for our own issues with ourselves? Right? And if people can get comfortable with themselves, what do we jump past? Systemic issues go away, by the way, because most of them are created by a self filter. Right? Not an us filter. And so you would stop building systems based on what’s best for you, you would build systems based on what’s best for the least. Because you would.. it would be much easier to find the people that really need the help because the ones who don’t would be standing strong in who they are and offering the dividends of that. To those that haven’t gotten to that place. And that’s what who you are is non-negotiable. It’s an exercise in atonement to resolve the gap between when you don’t know who you are, and you know who you are, and trying to get people to that place sooner so we can go kill it in this world is what it’s about.
Chanda Smith Baker 23:55
What and how does that manifest in a workplace?
Caroline Wanga 23:59
Well, first of all, it has to do with where you choose to work. One of the quotes that I use often when I do that talk is who you are is who you are. If you can’t be who you are, where you are, you change where you are, not who you are. And as simple as that sounds, it’s profound, because most people don’t think about it that way. When they think about an employment relationship, although they think about it that way. When they think about a people relationship. They think about it that way, when they think about a relationship between them and their retail therapy. They think about it when they think about where they go eat food. I often talk about in the Black community potato salad is a big deal. And people will literally starve if they don’t know or don’t like whoever made the potato salad at a gathering. Like literally will starve like I’m going to Shake Shack to get some fries, but yet we’ll work anywhere. We’re picky about the wrong things sometimes. And your desire on where to spend most of your day should be based on the place where all of you is allowed to exist. And every employer may not have that, but be an indignant pursuit of the one that does. Because you will never achieve the fullness of your potential, if you choose to put yourself in an environment where who you are isn’t what matters. It will cap out at some point. And once you go into an environment to work, and know that it doesn’t work for who you are, and stay, it’s a choice. Don’t pretend you’re a victim. You can stay. But it’s a choice. You’re not a victim, and know why you stay. If we would interview the places we want to work as hard as they interviewed us, would we take the job? If we were as picky with our places of work, and the people we work for in the environments we work in, as we are about potato salad, would we? And if organizations that employ people had to reconcile that people are literally refusing to work there, because of who the company is, the company will change. If we continue to accept as the talent that can help them make money or make impact, accept the environments that are unacceptable, then why should they change? They react to variables. Who you are is who you are. If you can’t be who you are, where you are, you change where you are now, who you are.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:24
So now that we’ve gotten to know you personally, and some things about… That were pivotal to your own journey. Can we talk a little bit about Target?
Caroline Wanga 26:35
You can. You absolutely can.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:38
And now that we just had this workplace conversation about how you show up… So you’ve had a few jobs there at Target.
Caroline Wanga 26:46
I mean, I never intended to be in corporate that long at all.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:51
Did you ever intend to be in corporate?
Caroline Wanga 26:52
Heck no. I thought was gonna say…
Chanda Smith Baker 26:55
I did. I thought you were gonna say the other “H” word.
Caroline Wanga 26:57
Here’s why. I… This is where you and I met. I went into community work when I had my daughter. And every day I was fulfilled, agnostic of other variables. I went into corporate simply to be able to raise my child. I just compromised. I said, that’s cute that you want to have a mission, but you got a mouth to feed. So go get some money. So I went corporate. It wasn’t a career decision. It was a survival decision.
Chanda Smith Baker 27:31
And when did it move to being a career decision?
Caroline Wanga 27:33
Five years ago.
Chanda Smith Baker 27:35
Caroline Wanga 27:36
Uh-huh. And I’m gonna tell you why.
Chanda Smith Baker 27:37
Yeah, tell us why.
Caroline Wanga 27:39
So I started in supply chain. And in Texas, and I knew…
Chanda Smith Baker 27:45
Why were you in Texas? Can we just…
Caroline Wanga 27:47
I was in Texas, because I dropped out of college when I had my daughter and I… And the child to two PhDs, as I told you, and so the value of education in my family system is loud. And I was starting to get feedback as I was working in different nonprofits that moving upward would be difficult without a degree. And I was salty about it. I was like, I’m not gonna be no smarter. I’m gonna do the job now. But it just was becoming a barrier. So I had been trying to go back to school and ended up finding a historically Black college in the city of Tyler, Texas, that had a single parent program that removed the barriers. Single parents got a scholarship. And… Visit in October, left in January, nothing to lose. And it was just to get the degree to shut people up. And then that’s how I ended up working at Target. I had a summer internship at a distribution center there. Knew that I was like… Okay, this corporation isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Because of course, as a nonprofit girl, I thought I’d sold out and become a corporate drone. And I was like… Okay, it’s not as horrible as I thought it was gonna be, but like, what do I want to do here? So I built through a lot of great advice, different experiences, I wanted to have to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. And honestly, that’s what drove my career up until this job. So it was to lead hourly people because my career could have led to stores, it was not lead people at all, I hadn’t decided if I want to do it. It was lead salaried folks, because that’s a part of your trajectory. And then it was have a role in HR, which my mentors made me put on there. And I thought it was crazy, but I put on there so they shut up. And literally, that drove my career. I was leading non-exempt. In the job I was in, I ended up getting solicited for a job to be an individual contributor that brought me back to Minnesota. So that was my not leading people job then it was lead leaders, which came through ending up getting an HR job after being turned down for five. And that’s where I got my HR experience in my lead leaders experience and then I evaluated that to see what I want to be. So you got turned down for five internal jobs. Five HR jobs.
Chanda Smith Baker 29:41
Oh, okay. My fault.
Caroline Wanga 29:43
For the thing that I didn’t want to do.
Chanda Smith Baker 29:44
Okay, but you were applying.
Caroline Wanga 29:47
I told y’all HR don’t need to be on my plan. And there’s a woman who actually is my boss now that was behind the scenes on all of them. I hadn’t met her and she’s like one more job and I’m like, no, I’m done being carted around as a supply chain girl that y’all want to put in HR like we’ve dated, we went on five dates, HR, we can break up. Right? And I had a leader at the time that just had a good amount of love and tough and was like, take your butt up there for the interview. And I was like, fine. But I’m never going to another HR interview if I don’t get this one, and I got the job. So that was generalist.
Chanda Smith Baker 30:21
And so now you’re in what role?
Caroline Wanga 30:23
So now I’m in the diversity and inclusion role, which came out of evaluating all of those experiences plus an experience leading our African American business group, where I said, if I’m gonna spend more time in corporate, I need to be informed about what I want to do. And so those four experiences plus that one, are what I evaluated and said, I want to be a DNI practitioner. In the corporate sector, it was the closest I could get to a soul within corporate and got me back to what I love to do. When I finally became visible to it, which was through the business group role. And I gave Target first right of refusal. So I showed him the plan, I showed it to my boss, my boss’s boss, my HR partner, and the person who had the job at the time. I said, Are we all in agreement?
Chanda Smith Baker 31:01
You are funny. So this was five years ago? Is this the five year…
Caroline Wanga 31:05
This was technically in 2012 and I promoted myself over time on this piece of paper, and said, I wanted that job in July 2018.
Chanda Smith Baker 31:13
Can you just… So I know what the piece of paper looked like. But can you just share for the audience? What did you do exactly?
Caroline Wanga 31:20
On my piece of paper?
Chanda Smith Baker 31:21
Caroline Wanga 31:22
There’s two versions. The first one was when I was trying to figure out what I want to do. And I had four experiences, I said, what I want to get out of each of them. And those drove the first five years. When I was done with that first part of my career… When I was done with that and did the second map, which is the one you’re talking about, I… At the time was a HR generalist. So what I had had is experiences are what informed and to be a DNI practitioner. And then what I did is I defined through what I would get to do as an HR generalist, the businesses I want it to support. So that I could get visibility to the businesses that the DNI practitioners work with, in the company. And I went to my boss and said, so here’s the… As y’all are talking about networks move and talent dialogues, here’s the moves I want. Because they have the businesses that I want to understand that work with a DNI job. And then for fun, I promoted myself over that time, and calculated that it would be July 2018. And this was June 2012. The reason why I remember that is because I was daydreaming at a conference and doodled on a piece of paper with a date on it. And I gave it to him. I said, Are we all in agreement? Yep. And then we put it away. Fast forward to November 2014, when my boss calls me and tells me… Now mind you, this is November 2014, where my boss calls me and tells me, “Hey, remember that job? We’re gonna have to do it. Here’s the details. But there’s a DNI job coming do you want it?” And I’m like, but July 2018… It’s like 2014, I got stuff to do. But then it was like, Wanga, shut up, you opened your big mouth. And so I took the job in February 2014. And here we are. And it’s the first time in my entire life in corporate America, where I am working in a job that is aligned to my passion. And so I don’t feel like I’m working. And so when you said, like, you know, when did that moment come? The reason why I said five years ago is because I… In hindsight, strategically, in the moment, it was to tactically stir tactically moved myself into taking ownership of aligning who I was, with how I wanted to make money. And indignantly fought on behalf of Target, I would love to do it with you. But it was a statement about, this is what I want to do. And so I will find the partner that’s gonna let me do it. But I will give the place that I am first right of refusal, and they decided not to pass. And I will never regret choosing to fight for Caroline, and what she needed. But not in an antagonistic way to Target… In a way where instead of Target being the hub of the wheel in me as the spoke, I’m gonna be the hub of the wheel and Target gets to be a spoke. And therefore Target gets to be a part of my experience versus me needing to be a part of Target’s. And that partnership has been beautiful over the last five years, and I couldn’t have asked for a better moment and a better experience in the last five years. I like the 15 years, but this has really been the best of it.
Chanda Smith Baker 34:17
So when you started in this role, you didn’t have dreads.
Caroline Wanga 34:21
Oh, heck no.
Chanda Smith Baker 34:22
Now you have dreads. I’m sure someone tells you not to have dreads in a corporate environment or something along that line. And so there’s all these unspoken rules about how you survive as a person of color.
Caroline Wanga 34:34
Chanda Smith Baker 34:35
Yeah, we listening. Tell it. Tell it.
Caroline Wanga 34:36
So here’s what’s funny about the hair thing. I, like, my hair, my life… You know this… Has been an accessory. Like I’ve had a fade better than most Black men’s fade. I had waves and every thing. I have had braids… Like my hair has always been an accessory so I’m not a person who didn’t ever want to change their hair. Locs is something I’s always admired but there was a narrative playing in my mind that they’re unprofessional, you don’t wear him in the workplace, they’re forbidden. I couldn’t tell you who, where, or when that was told to me, but the narrative was loud and rooted. And so I just never did it. And when I got this job, I had a, I had a moment of conflict, where I was like, so you just gonna tell people to be who they are, and you’re afraid to change your hair, Wanga? Like, that’s, that’s how we’re going to live our life? And so I cut out my micro braids and I went and started twists with fear, and thought that literally for the next week, everybody that was looking at me was about to fire me. It was that heavy. Like I literally all of a sudden became concerned for a very successful career. Target and I have contributed to each other for 10 years, and all of a sudden because I changed my hair, that entire relationship was in question very realistically, in a way that I was infusing a lack of psychological safety at work because of how afraid I was. And the reason why that’s an important story to tell is because first of all, what’s really important to share in that is, we’re talking about a scenario where there’s a group of people who feel like their hair in their natural state will cause them to not be able to make money. Like just process that for a second. The hair you were born with will become a career limiter? Like just process that for a second. Just like what? So you’ve been manipulating your hair? If you want to do it for vanity, fine. I’m talking about the people who did it to survive. Just to be employed? What?
Chanda Smith Baker 36:44
Happens every day. Yeah.
Caroline Wanga 36:46
Right? And so… But it’s real. And there are some places where it’s a documented policy, that it’s against the rules, and there’s other places where it is a lived policy… But what Black women as an example have to reconcile every day, every job transition, every interview, every podcast, every whatever, is how am I going to wear my hair? And that is not a question that for us is the first question is beauty and style and aesthetic. It’s a question we’re asking that with it comes, do I have the patience for explaining to people what I’m doing with my hair today? Do I have to worry about somebody touching my body without my permission, because you’re fascinated with my hair? You can ask but I’m worried about if people are going to touch me. And if there was any other scenario where somebody was talking to me, they wouldn’t touch me without my permission. But because my hair is curious to you, you’re going to touch me without my permission. And I don’t know you, stranger. You’re not an immigrant house, that’s for generation people. It’s also a place where you go, at what point will I reach a certain place in my career where I can wear the hairstyle, I’ve always wanted to, I’ll go natural when I get to a level I’ll go natural. It’s a situation where you literally are making a decision based on your hair, about what your career, what your job, what your performance, what your reputation is going to be. And there are entirely too many people in the world that never have to think about that. And so when I put locs in my hair, the decision I was actually making is, it’s something I’ve been covering. And if you don’t know the topic of covering, look it up. I’ve been covering that I can’t cover because I’m in a job where I’m asking people to bring who they are. But I am fully prepared for my employer to break their relationship with me that is very solid because of my hair. And I was prepared for that to be a consequence. It didn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have the psychological concern that it would and what that does to your health. And so I tell people, I’ve been in this job this long, and I grab my hair, because the length of it is a symbol of that moment where I brought the last of my physical attributes that I had not wanted to bring to work into the workplace to test if where I was could work with who I was. And I passed… They passed. But what I tell people is listen to the wisdom of the people who advise you based on their experiences. Do not accept it as your truth until it happens to you. Because it may not happen to you. And if I would have kept listening, I wouldn’t have locs to this day. But I chose to test the truth. So that as Caroline with Target as my employer, I can test what’s happening and if they were okay with me.
Chanda Smith Baker 39:46
So that was a psychological hurdle that you had to jump and once you jumped it, it gave you some other freedoms of expression.
Caroline Wanga 39:55
It was super liberating.
Chanda Smith Baker 39:56
And so you have evolved in a way and used your position and how you show up every day to visually support others at Target and in other places of work to show up as their authentic self. So can you talk about the other transformations? And why… How you show up and why you show up the way you do?
Caroline Wanga 40:21
Yeah. So there’s locs, as you’ve mentioned, which also get worn in a 1,000 different styles just because it’s fun. Unicorn horn is my favorite. Clothing. I wore New York and Company for work. And they’re a great company. And this is not a shade to cardigans. But I hate cardigans, I don’t like them. And I had two sides to my closet. I had the closet I wore, because I thought that’s what I had to wear to continue to be seen successful at work. And I had the closet I wish I could wear to work. And I wish I had enough time outside of work to wear everything in it. And so part of it was adjusting to putting on my version of what’s appropriate for how I walk into professional spaces. And not having it be dictated by what was the majority I was seeing versus me. I’m not dressed inappropriately, but I am dressed in celebration of who I am. And so it was about adjusting that wardrobe. Because as much as it sounds surface, it’s critical. What you wear impacts how you feel. And when you’re wearing something that doesn’t align to how you feel then no matter what your limiting how much you can produce that day. And so when I liberated myself by wearing the clothes that actually and putting a style together that was more reflective of who I wanted to be, all of a sudden I had more capacity for the real things I needed to go do and change. I have a way that I introduce myself to people with these slides and the one around style I say I wear W-E-A-R where I am W-H-E-R-E. Blue lipstick. So I was never really like a huge makeup person, I might have worn a little bit of foundation. But like I didn’t wear the red lipstick because I didn’t like the way it looked on me. And I didn’t wear any lipstick. And so after I came to work with my locs, I was like they might be ready for blue lipstick. And so I did blue lipstick. And nobody said. Now they’re probably talking smack from like I just talk about people thing. But like nothing happened. I was like well, and then became the attire. And then I would say the biggest transformation was being of Kenyan descent, I just had a hunger to have my cultural dress be represented in where I am every day. And so I started to have made African fabrics in modern silhouettes. And it’s been so much fun because tied with my style hobby, it’s just fun to like get in a competition with myself about how outrageous I can be because I tend to like architecturally interesting clothing. So I like there’s some visual like aw really to the way that I choose to do it sometimes. But what’s more important about it, is now… This job comes with speaking and external representation as a part of the job. If I’m going to be on a stage, I have African attire on.
Chanda Smith Baker 41:13
And why is that important?
Caroline Wanga 43:20
It’s, it’s there because I need you to see the Kenyan girl in the corporate executive. I need you to see cultural heritage and pride without thinking it’s a threat to your cultural heritage and pride. I need to challenge what has been defined as a traditional dress code that was just based on the majority that are present, versus the fact that traditional business casual is subjective to what your cultural heritage is. And where I’m from, when we dress to the nines we put on our fabrics. And so my business professional from a cultural perspective, yes, there are suits, but that’s about the influence of colonization in Kenya. And you can wear suits, that’s not a shade on people that wear suits. But my cultural heritage when we have significant life moments, we put on our fabric, we put on our fabric and there is room for our fabric in what I take to work every day in the work that I do. And so it is a little bit of atonement. It’s messaging that I want you to feel like how you dress is not the way that I see you. I want you to come as you want to be dressed so we can go get this work done. And I want you to feel that if you how you dress has a connection to culture, then bring it. And so anytime I get on the stage I have on African attire to just push people uncomfortably to go yep, you’re probably processing why I have on a pair of shorts and a tie. Because that’s my aesthetic. But this is also onkata, it’s dashiki, it’s teranga. The fabrics of Africa means something to Africans. And so this isn’t just about this girl wants to wear her style. This girl is proud of her heritage. And for the people who are across the pond at home, who for generations didn’t think a Kenyan girl would come and be vice president. This is for them. This is for them. And there’s a line out there I’ve seen in many names that says you’re your ancestors wildest dreams. So when I get up there and my African fabric, I’m fulfilling wildest dreams. I am picking up the batons that have been put down for me and leaving them further ahead than I picked them up. And there’s so much pride in knowing that standing in front of audiences, working for Target, that’s what Africans say.
Chanda Smith Baker 45:52
Say it again?
Caroline Wanga 45:53
Working for Target. Some people say Target. Some people say Tarjay. Africans say Target. This is for my grandmother, and for Jomo Kenyatta, and for the battles of colonization. And for all those in the diaspora who were stripped of their identity, I’m gonna bring some of the back in a symbol of solidarity and celebration, and giving people permission to live with me and my African identity and not feel threatened by it. Because the principles of Africa… Lucy was found in Africa, by the way, so pretty…
Chanda Smith Baker 46:36
Caroline Wanga 46:37
Lucy, the fossil thing was found in Africa. We’re all African. They found it in East Africa. Go look up Lucy. Anyway. But it’s reconciliation for misinformation, disrupted pathologies. Selfish story documentation about who African people are. And so if I have the privilege of standing in front of audiences with a Fortune 50 company, in a corporate officer role, I want to write a new story for those that may have the wrong story by saying, I’m good, and I’m Kenyan. I’m smart and I’m Kenyan. I’m a girl and I’m Kenyan, I work for Target and I’m Kenyan. And those things don’t need to be separated, nor do you need to be surprised when you encounter me. Because there’s a lot of mes, you’ve encountered you, they just didn’t get access to the stage. And don’t make them have to get to this stage to be acknowledged. That’s why I do it.
Chanda Smith Baker 47:49
Caroline Wanga 47:51
Chanda Smith Baker 47:51
Man, so much power in all of that, I almost hate to pivot but I don’t know if it’s quite a pivot… But there is something about being in front of audiences and the power of convening and the power of using your platform. And I’m in discovery mode. And the Foundation is in listening and learning mode. Yeah, right? I’m in a new space, and I’m trying to get to my stride. Yeah. And, you know, what, what advice do you have me in this role? And especially, you know, is there power in convening? I mean, is, is there something that can shift and change by just being in front of an audience to help change narrative that can be applied to philanthropy?
Caroline Wanga 48:36
Yeah, I mean, the first thing I was thinking, as you were, as you were asking, the question is, I think one of the principles that are really important to understand in this question is, there can be a difference between the message and the messenger. And if you’re willing to treat those things differently, you will make impact. I think what often happens that gets in the way of things like being able to convene on stages like that is that there is an over desire for the messenger to own the message. And if there are entities like a foundation, or other philanthropy entities that are willing to craft the message of intent, but flexible on how the messenger, which messenger delivers it, if that ego calibration could happen, we would see much more impact to our work. So as an example, the Minneapolis Foundation, I know a little bit about you guys, because you employ one of my best friends. But if I take it as an entity, aside from my personal connection to it, nobody in the community knows who the foundation is, if they aren’t an entity that gets money from the foundation.
Chanda Smith Baker 49:41
Or they give money to it.
Caroline Wanga 49:43
Or if they give to it, right. Like there’s an individual to foundation relationship and there’s an organization to foundation relationship. That is about the exchange of resources. If you aren’t in that circle, you don’t know who the foundation is. You don’t know what diversity and inclusion is you don’t care what you care about as an individual is your lived experience. The opportunity comes when organizations that play a role in philanthropy are willing to let go of the messenger being their decision and become good facilitators of the message and trust the messengers to deliver it in the best way for the audience that needs to hear it, or for the people that need it. So if it’s a big stage, and the moment makes sense for Chanda to be on the big stage, to share a story to the big stage, because this big stage group of people are hard to access individually. And so when you have them in a captive moment, take advantage of the moment, do it. The wrong side is only having a strategy that takes advantage of only those moments. It has… We only do those things when we’re in a stage at a conference and organizations have to watch their ego because that’s often how you evaluate whether or not you want to take the opportunity to speak. Is it in alignment with who we are? Is it too small for us? Or too big for us? Versus who’s the audience? What’s the message we need to share? And is that the right way. But there’s also a part of this that super grassroots. Chanda, you’re super connected and community, because I’ve sat with you in community for over 20 years. You’re at the Minneapolis Foundation, be as the lead of community engagement because of your connections in community. My hope would be that you are allowed to use the expertise of being a member of community. And having a network of community to influence the work that Minneapolis Foundation wants to do however it… You need to. And that you’re not being forced to do PowerPoint presentations, just because that’s the way of doing things. That you’re allowed to bring your strength of connection, activate the Minneapolis Foundation’s mission in the way that you can with your network that the person sitting next to you might not be able to do because they don’t have the network, but they can do it differently. And you both be right. And we often find ourselves in places where the stage, the moment, the messenger is something that we judge each other against or we decide isn’t good, because it’s not traditional or the way the person who’s talking to us did it. And so as much as I get on stages, I do a lot of grassroots stuff on my own that I have never written down on a process map and never will. I do a lot of relationship capital. But that goes back to how you and I grew up — we’re community organizers at the end of the day. Our number one plan is always door knocking, tea and conversations. We go meet kids after school to get them to do what we need them to do. We go sit with mothers at NorthPoint to get them to do what we need them to do. We don’t need a strategy deck, we don’t need a suit, right? We don’t need a corporate fund, we don’t need a title, to go and sit with the people we’re in community with and do the work of the big organization. The goal is to be agile. And organizations become flexible with the mission being delivered to the messengers that are qualified to do it their way. And don’t claim you on a different messenger if you’re not going to let them do it with their expertise. And if you’re going to force them to do it the way the organization wants it, you’ll fail. And I have had the privilege in this job of being allowed to do this work the way that I think it should be done without question of my methods, because the results demonstrate themselves. And the more I deliver results, the more there’s trust, even if they don’t understand that my methods and my approach and my strategic intent will work because you’re seeing results. But no, I can’t put a PowerPoint together and present to UI. And don’t make the fact that you don’t understand it my problem. Understand the results. And then just choose to believe that what I tell you or what others tell you are the experiences are true and find where you can help instead of making it my job to prove you right, or to prove myself right with you before you’ll help. Trust I’m telling the truth, look at my results to see if I did it. And if those two things are working well, leave me alone.
Chanda Smith Baker 54:06
All right, some of the principles of boldness. Yeah?
Caroline Wanga 54:09
Yeah, but intentionality. And who you are is non-negotiable. Because telling people to trust my methods requires that I trust myself enough to know that I will deliver. And I don’t spend a ton of time trying to solicit support for my move. I just move and a pattern in my life that has been true. That may sound arrogant, but it’s just reflection is: I’m never the cool kid when I come to a group. I’m always the weirdo people are like, who let this girl in and who employed her because I’m always in some other train of thought. I function differently. Every time I join a group or an entity or a stage or a moment, I’m the weirdo. And I always come out the popular girl. Why? Because people don’t know how to deal with who I am for themselves until they see the results connected to it. And if that’s how long it takes them, then I’ll be able until they get there. And I’m okay with that.
Chanda Smith Baker 55:02
I want to thank you, my sister-friend, for spending time with me.
Caroline Wanga 55:07
The fact that we here… Well, we wouldn’t give for our journey now. Who would have thought that we’d be sitting here having a podcast? First of all, when we met, we didn’t know a podcast. So there was no podcast. Two girls living in North Minneapolis trying to raise their children. Trying to work at the NAACP. Get worked on an old park at North community Y. Turning point. What we wouldn’t give for our journey now. And we hope that the Cadences of the world take it further.
Chanda Smith Baker 55:40
The beauty of the journey, right? The beauty of it. We didn’t know it then but we know it now.
Caroline Wanga 55:44
Thank you for the coverage because there were serveral very special decisions in my life, that but for God.
Chanda Smith Baker 55:51
But for God. Thank you.
Caroline Wanga 55:55
Of course. Thank you for having me. I hope this is helpful. My ask is — do one thing with how you feeling right now, do one thing with how you’re feeling. I don’t care what it is. Do one thing with how you’re feeling.
Chanda Smith Baker 56:09
Please check out the Minneapolis Foundation website to find more episodes of this podcast, information on upcoming events, and for my book recommendations. Thank you to Weber Shandwick for their partnership and support in making this podcast come alive.Close Transcript -
Caroline Wanga leads Target’s strategic intent to champion an inclusive society with accountability for inclusive guest experiences, a diverse and inclusive work environment, and societal impact. As a cultural catalyst, she fuels Target’s business objectives through the company’s first-ever performance-based diversity and inclusion goals.
Caroline earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Texas College and is an inspirational thought leader and public speaker. Her innovative shared-accountability approach to driving business results is featured in “The Innovation Mentality” by Glenn Llopis, “Our Search For Belonging” by Howard Ross, and “The Multiplier Effect” of Inclusion by Dr. Tony Byers. A Kenyan citizen, she has been named a Top Executive in Diversity by Black Enterprise. She is a member of the Executive Leadership Council, the Talladega College Board of Trustees, and the Intersectionality, Culture, and Diversity Advisory Board for Twitter, and she co-chairs the Retail Industry Leaders Association Diversity & Inclusion Initiative. Her greatest life accomplishment is her daughter, Cadence.