On November 9, 2023, President & CEO of ESSENCE Ventures Caroline Wanga sat down with President of Spelman College Helene D. Gayle for a Fireside Chat at the Sisters Chapel on Spelman’s heralded campus. Tapping into her years of experience as a leader and visionary, Wanga delved into her upbringing, the power of purpose, being one’s authentic self, and much more.
The discussion kicked off with a silent video introduction honoring the day’s guest, and gave the audience insight on some of the things that helped mold her into the woman that she ultimately became. When Dr. Gayle posed the question, “who is Caroline Wanga?,” the media magnate opened up about her life in Kenya and Minnesota, the life-changing effects of motherhood, and how she felt the moment she got the opportunity to come to ESSENCE.
After an initial bout of hesitancy, Wanga eventually realized that the reason why she was asked to take the job was because of how she was living her life, not how she was qualified. “My technical qualifications were not what was needed in the job at the time—that’s what a lot of the people there are supposed to do,” she said. “The way that I was living my life was necessary in the moment for what this brand needed.”
“Me coming to ESSENCE was not going to a new job, it was paying recompense to the women, the men, and the communities that had done what ESSENCE had represented for 50 years,” she added. “So, I took the job in June 2020 and here we sit on the campus of Spelman College with me telling you the story about how beautifully you will succeed even if you fail.”
For Wanga, it has been failure—and changing her relationship with it—that has allowed her to reach the heights that she has thus far. She spoke about failure being something that many people are taught to avoid by any means, when in actuality, one should embrace failure so that a person can build a threshold for it by allowing yourself to fail five times before it should be considered a bad day.
The conversation then transitioned to the word authenticity, and how it is tied to purpose. Wanga also talked about not compromising “who you are” because of “where you are.” The person that you are shouldn’t be defined by your location; whether it be a city, a room, a job, etc., because loving and accepting the person that is in the mirror is paramount. In being yourself, one can properly deliver their gifts to all that may need it without apprehension.
“I believe every single person on this earth was born with a purpose,” Wanga said to the attentive audience. “Whether you believe it—I don’t care—you have one. You ought to live in indignant pursuit of fulfilling it because it is your obligation to the world. Nobody can do it but you, so if you don’t do it, then whatever is the thing you are supposed to bring forth in the world, the world doesn’t get.”
Following a stirring response about how impactful ESSENCE has been to homes, cultures, and communities globally, the Texas College graduate explained to Gayle, along with everyone else in attendance, the true power of the Black woman and how they will continue to inspire future generations as long as they maintain the courage to do so. “Make your change in the world and go build the next throne so the CEO after you can get to this throne–you will become a living succession plan,” she said.
Wanga then went into detail about her struggles with depression, and how having a self-compassion plan helped to manage those depressional triggers in the past, saying “I will never in my life again be embarrassed to tell people about what I need to stay healthy.” What was perhaps the most moving portion of Thursday’s Fireside Chat was the Q&A section, where current and former Spelmanites were able to ask questions, seek advice, and gather insight from Wanga directly.
Questions from the audience ranged from entrepreneurial endeavors, dealing with self-esteem, and how to navigate self-sabotaging behavior, among others. A particularly poignant question was asked by a young student about finding out who you are beyond your resume. “The resume is not your definition of success,” Wanga responded. Instead of focusing on what a person does for employment, it’s critical that they place more emphasis on their lives.
“Change the narrative,” she said. “‘How do I want to be remembered when I die?’ If you make that how you define what you want to be true about you when you depart, you will stop chasing accomplishments and you will start to live the life that delivers what you want to be remembered for. Do you want to be known or noticed? Your resume gets you noticed, your life gets you known. Don’t chase accomplishments, pursue purpose. Accomplishments will come.”
“I have no goals in life except to move to Bora Bora—but that’s introversion,” she added. “I have no accomplishment goals. I do have what I want to be remembered for when I die. Which is, I was a living, breathing example of the democratization of authenticity even when it was a threat to my existence. And because of that, I’ve never pursued a thing. What I have pursued is a life.”
During her time on this earth—from her Kenyan roots to becoming President & CEO of ESSENCE Ventures— Caroline Wanga has definitely pursued a life that is worth living.