Claire Babineaux-Fontenot’s life changed in 2015. Because she received a cancer diagnosis from her doctor. Claire, a Walmart exec at the time, underwent treatment and realized she needed to reconsider her career. She went on to become the CEO of Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief organization. This week, Claire sat down with us to talk about how she found meaning in her career. And gave her advice on how you can do the same.
On Changing Her Career
Carly: 2015 became a really critical year in your life. And I want you to sort of paint a picture of who you were in 2014 and then who you were in 2016 and what happened in the middle.
Claire: It’s perfect that you say 2014 because it's in 2014 that I took up running. And so I was in what I believe to be the best shape of my life in 2014…. And I mean, my career had exceeded my expectations. But I always was operating with an understanding, as I said very early on, about the want in the world, the inequities in the world, the different cards people get dealt.
I finally decide I'm gonna start getting my physical on my birthday weekend. Okay? Then I won't forget. I'm not gonna forget my birthday. So please, everyone who's listening, get physicals regularly. So I went in to get my physical on my birthday weekend in 2015. And what I hadn't thought about was that I might get bad news. And I learned that I had cancer. And I remember sitting there going, "What? I'm a runner. I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm young. What do you mean?"
So I had to confront my mortality in ways that were really profound for me…. And I went through chemo. I had surgeries, et cetera. But I was changed after that. I couldn't deny how finite I was after that happened. It forced me to say, "Are you living what matters the most to you? Is this really the way you wanna live your life?" In fact, I remember explicitly asking myself... "What if the last thing that you ever get to do professionally is the last thing that you could do at Walmart? Would that be okay?" And my answer was no.
So I started leaving Walmart…. I had a very long transition at Walmart. Because it wasn't an anti-Walmart move. It was a pro-me move and what I wanted to do with my life.
On Self Care
Danielle: You work in hunger relief. That is not a low-stakes job. How do you make sure you're taking care of yourself now?
Claire: So first, context. I don't always do it well. But this mission needs me to do it better and better all the time. And I am getting better in fact.... We have people out in the field who are putting their lives at risk in order to deliver food to people who need it. And I knew that. So I didn't feel comfortable with sleeping. How can I be sleeping? There are people who are desperately hungry and who are afraid…. So it did put in this layer of feeling of responsibility that I had. And I didn't notice that it was translating into me not sleeping. And keeping my phone right next to my bed and waking up at different points in the evening, jumping up and looking at my phone to make sure that no message came through that I needed to respond to. And so I had a lot of trouble at the beginning.
…. And my responsibility as a leader, a large part of it is to lead by example. So as I noticed that pattern with myself, I started paying attention. That pattern was happening throughout our organization…. I was providing a terrible example. And although I wasn't talking about how many hours I was working, they could tell because I was sending out emails. Or I handled something…. So the big thing that drove me to start working on self-care was actually not self as much as thinking about what the implications were for this mission that I care so desperately for and for these people that I get to work with.
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