Person: Wanda Herndon
Location: Starbucks in Belltown, Seattle
Every year since I’ve been in college, I’ve spent spring break visiting my brother. With the turbulence of college in the spring, I always look forward to the respite with family. For the past three years, that has meant flying to Wyoming, but my brother and his new wife recently relocated to Seattle, Washington, so that’s where I headed.
Considering that Seattle is the birthplace of Starbucks and their caffeine revolution, it only made sense to have coffee with someone who was a part of that magic.
I found the perfect person.
Wanda Herndon has an impressive resume. After graduating from Michigan State with a degree in Journalism, she realized that wasn’t the right route for her and decided to try her hand at Public Relations. Wanda set her sights on a successful corporate career and soon found herself advancing through various positions at Fortune 500 Companies, before ultimately ending up as the Senior Vice President of Global Communications for Starbucks in Seattle.
After 11 years there, Wanda left Starbucks and started W Communications, a strategic- communications consulting firm, where she takes on one client at a time. It keeps her working but leaves plenty of room for traveling and enjoying the life she’s worked so hard to create.
That’s the immensely truncated version of Wanda’s life. I’m certain we could have spent the entire hour talking about her 30-plus-year career and barely scratched the surface of her accomplishments. I found Wanda through a friend who met her in 2002 when Wanda received the highly-regarded Distinguished Alumni Award from Michigan State. When I looked into the award, I discovered it wasn’t the first of her accolades. She has been named one of the twelve leading African Americans in public relations by PR Week magazine, and among the “Top 100 Black Professionals in Corporate America” by Black Professionals magazine, and is a frequent public speaker among her many, many, other honors and activities.
But that’s not the direction our conversation took.
Instead, Wanda spent the hour passing along advice garnered from years of experience in the working world—advice I needed to hear. Rita Meyer, Cup Two, had told me early on that young women need more positive female role models—more examples of bold women setting the bar high and reaching their goals. After talking with Wanda, I really saw the value in Rita’s sentiment.
What I noticed very quickly was that Wanda doesn’t make excuses. I really admired her candid, no-nonsense approach, balanced with great generosity and spice.
I asked her how she dealt with the stress of being in a senior level position. She told me she’d always been a good multitasker, and had developed better skills as she had advanced through positions. I asked her how she found confidence as a young professional in intimidating business situations. She said she worked hard and paid attention to what others were doing. If she ran into a tough project, she executed it to the best of her ability and then looked for ways to do better the next time. I asked her how she kept moving forward when life got overwhelming. Her response was to just hang in there; tomorrow would bring a new day—patience, diligence, and perseverance were the keys.
Wanda told me there are always going to be people telling you that you’re not good enough and you shouldn’t allow yourself to add your own negative self-talk, as it only adds fuel to their fire. You should be your biggest fan, cheerleader, and promoter. Don’t be obnoxious, but stand up for yourself and believe you can do it.
Her mentality was like a Nike commercial: Just Do It.
Get the work done, learn something, move forward, repeat.
That was just the beginning. Wanda continued to share more insight that swam around in my head the rest of the afternoon before eventually spilling out onto an entire page in my notebook.
Later that evening I realized that one point stood out more than the others: Life is about choices.
The situation you are in right now, whatever it might be, is the direct result of the choices you made in the past; where you are next week, next year, or next decade will be the result of the choices you’re making today.
Life is not the product of the environment, the economy, the weather, what your friends are doing, or what your boss wants. Life is about what you choose to do under those circumstances.
Wanda has faced many difficult choices as she has moved through her career—inevitable aspect of any career—and it’s evident she is greatly satisfied with the results. Considering the next six months of my life will be full of choices, Wanda’s perspective was indispensable from a variety of aspects.
First of all, she reminded me that we all have to make decisions we don’t want to make. The fear of making the wrong choice sometimes incapacitates our decision-making abilities. We would rather procrastinate or sit on the fence, hoping someone or something will come along and make the choice for us. Wanda isn’t the type of woman who takes a passive stance when it comes to deciding which direction to take her life next; she has great confidence in what she’s doing and she is bold in her decision-making.
That’s a refreshing quality to witness. Her philosophy is to make the best decision possible under the circumstances, and if she finds out it wasn’t the right decision, she makes a correction. She redirects! Very few choices are permanent.
Her advice reminded me of my college search. I was so overwhelmed and worried about deciding on the right college. The best moment of the search happened when my mom told me, “Megan, don’t let the choice create so much anxiety. If you pick a college and hate it, you can transfer.” Like magic, her advice lifted a weight off my shoulders.
After talking with Wanda, I realized the real mistake isn’t making the wrong choice, it’s failing to change paths once you realize it’s wrong. That’s what she meant when she said people underestimate the control they have over their lives. All too often people get stuck in a bad spot. Whether it’s a dead-end job, an unhealthy relationship, financial trouble, poor health, or something else, people fail to realize they have the power to make choices that will change the situation.
Maybe we are afraid of how people will react to our actions. We get caught up thinking our behavior needs to fall in line with others’ expectations. When I told Wanda this, she shook her head and said, “Ignore the expectations others have for you. Create your own expectations for yourself and focus on those, because if you reach your own expectations, I guarantee you’ll be exceeding the expectations other have for you.”
When I walked away from my meeting with Wanda, I was overcome with a great feeling: a mix of energy and relief. Yes, I have a lot of decisions to make in the next six months—heck, I have a lot of decisions to make in the next 60 years!—but talking to Wanda made those decisions seem much less daunting.
I have high expectations for myself that can serve as a guidepost for my choices, and I have faith that I’ll have the courage to make difficult revisions if necessary. That’s a combination that generates confidence.
As a 22-year-old, soon-to-be-graduate, that shot of confidence is going to stay with me a whole lot longer than the shot of espresso.