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Alva James-Johnson: Fire burns in the hearts of Aflac’s Teresa White, young leaders

Fourteen-year-old Olivia Hamilton, far right, serves as a facilitator for the panel discussion at the Bold Moves summer program at the Girls Inc. Baker Center on Levy Road. From left to right, the panelists were Teresa White, president of Aflac U.S.; Alva James-Johnson, Ledger-Enquirer social issues reporter; Heather Avery, Aflac vice president of customer strategy and analytics; Tash-Marie Cheney, Aflac resource manager and budget lead; Tashia Brandenburg, Aflac senior manager of IT project management.
Fourteen-year-old Olivia Hamilton, far right, serves as a facilitator for the panel discussion at the Bold Moves summer program at the Girls Inc. Baker Center on Levy Road. From left to right, the panelists were Teresa White, president of Aflac U.S.; Alva James-Johnson, Ledger-Enquirer social issues reporter; Heather Avery, Aflac vice president of customer strategy and analytics; Tash-Marie Cheney, Aflac resource manager and budget lead; Tashia Brandenburg, Aflac senior manager of IT project management.

The ladies in the room represented the strong, smart and bold in our community.

Some were teenagers just starting out in life. Others were seasoned professionals with a few nuggets of wisdom.

In a packed room at the Baker Center on Levy Road, we exchanged perspectives, thoughts, ideas. And one could feel the torch being passed from one generation to the next.

The interaction between the two groups was part of a Girls Inc. of Columbus summer program created by Teresa White, president of Aflac U.S.

The Bold Moves program — in its second year — consists of eight weekly, skill-building workshops, focusing on topics such as interviewing skills, resume writing, finances, dressing for success, public speaking, business etiquette and manners. It runs until July 27.

This year’s program started Tuesday with White leading a workshop on leadership, followed by a very passionate panel discussion. I was asked to share my leadership experience, along with White and other Aflac representatives.

Fourteen-year-old Olivia Hamilton, a very astute Bold Moves facilitator, asked us thought-provoking questions about our backgrounds, role models, and the skills we considered important for leadership.

At least two of us were the offspring of immigrants (coincidentally from the same Caribbean island, a dot on the map called Nevis). Some were raised by single mothers.

Most of us spoke about overcoming poverty, adversity, and in some cases low expectations, to be where we are today. A couple of us mentioned developing our leadership skills at church, where we were given the opportunity to speak before audiences.

Mothers, grandmothers and other role models fueled our desire to succeed, we all said. And so did the naysayers.

During her workshop, White told the girls about growing up in a single-mother home. Some people didn’t think she would amount to much, she said. And when she attended a predominantly white college, she endured racial epithets from people who thought she didn’t belong there.

But their hateful words were just wood kindling the fire within to succeed, she said, and now she is a top executive at a Fortune 500 company.

Most in the room could relate to her story. At some point in our lives, we’d all been underestimated, and White’s words resonated deep in the soul.

As she spoke, I looked at the mostly black and all-female audience. When asked what they wanted to do with their lives, many said they planned to become doctors. One said she was torn between law school and entrepreneurship. Another said she wanted to be a teacher. When asked who were their role models, many said their mothers. I found that revealing.

I left the Bold Moves program feeling inspired by the stories that the professional women shared, and encouraged by a new generation of young leaders emerging in our community.

Looking in their eyes, I could see the fire already burning within.

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

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