Powerful Women: Let's Talk – 75: Claire Babineaux-Fontenot
Our guest is Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, Chief Executive Officer of Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization and second-largest U.S. charity.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot is the Chief Executive Officer of Feeding America. She oversees the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization and second-largest U.S. charity. Claire has a deep personal commitment to strengthening communities, and has long been an avid volunteer and board member. She has volunteered in the fight against hunger and other causes since her youth.
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Intro: Produced by women about women. Powerful women Let's talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world transforming who we are and how we live.
Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone. It is time for powerful women. Let's talk. Thanks so much for joining us today. I'm Jennifer Moss. It is a pleasure to bring you today's powerful woman as Chief Executive Officer of Feeding America, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot oversees the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization and second largest U.S charity. A Louisiana native, Claire has been entrusted with the leadership of teams for nearly 3 decades and prior to joining feeding America. Claire spent 13 years as part of Walmart’s leadership team with her most recent role being executive vice president and global treasurer before Wal-Mart. She was partner in charge of the Baton Rouge office and tax practice leader for Adams and Reese LLP. That's one of U.S News and World report's best law firms. Now, of course, all of that has powerful woman written all over it. Plus, Claire has a deep personal commitment to strengthening communities. She's been A long, been an avid volunteer and board member. She has volunteered in the fight against hunger and other causes since her youth. And later, she served on a number of nonprofit boards, including the court appointed special advocates for children. The board of directors and audit Committee for the Thurgood Marshall college fund among many others. And so, we're so glad to welcome you Claire Babineaux-Fontenot to powerful women. Let's talk. Thanks so much for being here.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Thanks for having me.
Jennifer Moss: You know, we're glad to welcome you know, we wanted to talk to initially during Black History Month as we look at all your achievements. But the work that you do stand out any time of the year. So again, we thank you for joining us. You’ve had quite a calm and accomplished career. So first, tell us about the work that you do with feeding America. We all know that hunger remains a huge issue in America. In fact, during the pandemic, your office reports that about 60 million people turned to feeding America in 2020 putting a spotlight, of course, on the need there hunger still critical in America. I'm surely guessing it is. Tell us about that.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Yeah, that's absolutely true. So as CEO of Feeding America it is my privilege to serve as part of the vast network. I often say that we are wherever hunger is. And unfortunately, every County, every parish. That's that Babineaux-Fontenot coming out in me across this nation and Puerto Rico. No matter how rich. or how poor every single one has people struggling with the weight of food insecurity inside of it. So, we serve this whole country. One of the things that we're really proud to be a part of is ensuring that people get access to food that they need and so many people can't do it alone. So, we're there in partnership with communities during the pandemic since the beginning of the pandemic are estimates are that we provided 10.7 billion meals 10.7 billion meals. So, I get to be a part of that along with over 200 food banks, over 60,000 agency partners. Millions of volunteers across the country. It has been a huge privilege to get to serve, especially right now it feels even more powerful for me to play on the work. Powerful that I get to be a part of this network right now.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. And you know, I've done a number of stories over the years on those who may have ended up needing help from a food bank. Is there still perhaps a sort of a misperception of sorts of just who might need help from a food bank. You know who they actually serve, especially in lieu of and during the pandemic. A lot of people misplaced and, you know, needing services they didn't require before.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Yeah. One of the big issues I think we've had in in this country has been around misperceptions around hunger. As I mentioned before, even the richest counties in this country have people who are food insecure inside of them have for a very long time. So, people fail to identify that you have to look to distant shores to find people struggling with hunger. and food insecurity is simply not true. And it's been true here for a very long time. 10's of millions of people around 10% of our population has struggle with food insecurity. Consistently for many decades, it peaked, during the 2008 economic downturn to almost 15% of our population. So, a lot of hunger all around hunger looks like you hunger looks like me hunger could be you. Hunger could be me. And that's one of the things we learned in the pandemic, by the way, is what if all of a sudden out of the blue. You didn't have a job and you're in a 2-income family and your partner didn't have a job either. Would you need to get in that line? How long would it take for you to get in that line, so hunger is us. And we together, though, can do something about it. So, I'm glad to get to be a part of an organization that's focused on making sure that line gets shorter and shorter every day and every year.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. You had a lot of work to do you lead. A transformational team and a change building a diverse group of female leaders. What did you do and what does that look like?
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: So, every place I've ever worked- You gave that intro, and I was thinking about all the places I worked before they were less diverse. When I join them, they were once I was here, and I think that's part of my responsibility. And of course, they were more successful after they were more diverse. So, I'm very focused on ensuring that our goals are achieved I know that goals are more likely to be achieved. If you bring diverse voices to the table. People with unique experiences. They get to weigh in on these thorny issues together. You'll be more successful in, and it's proved true. Every place that I’ve been, and it's certainly has proved true here at Feeding America. We have extraordinary leadership here and extraordinarily to extraordinarily diverse leadership and many of the leaders on this team, our powerful women who are using their power and service to communities. So, it's quite it's a lot of fun to watch. Honestly, it's gratifying to watch. We prove out every day. The power of diversity
Jennifer Moss: And that is, of course, huge and so through feeding America and perhaps beyond. Do you believe that you can maybe put an end or at least a huge dent in the hunger crisis in America?
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Absolutely. I know that we can because some of it just doesn't make sense. I give you, you know, you talked earlier about in the intro about my background. And I used to do numbers for a living, I was a treasure at fortune one. Well, let me give you a math problem. So OK, so about 72 billion pounds of perfectly edible food go to landfills every year. Not counting household waste. Which some estimate at 40%. But don't even count that 72 billion pounds perfectly edible food go to landfills while 10's of millions of people left food insecure the math just doesn't make sense. Food insecurity in this country doesn't make sense. So of course, we can do something about it. We have too first. know, it's real. I think the pandemic helped us to know It is real and we have to decide it's unacceptable and then together this country can do anything. [ It decides. We went to the Moon. Remember that.
Jenifer Moss: Absolutely.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot if We can go to the Moon. We can solve hunger.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely because it doesn't have to be. I mean, the bottom line is it doesn't have to exist. Really.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: That is exactly right. It does not. We choose for it to exist. We could choose for it to not
Jennifer Moss: So, let's talk about Claire. You have had held many positions in a number of companies. And we often ask our powerful women interviewees. Have there been any
barriers. This is more on the personal side of Claire when I say that that you've encountered along the way. You know, any obstacles, perhaps that you have faced on your careers journey.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Oh, absolutely. Um. One of the things that I when I meet other women who have achieved some success in the conventional senses of it. If you matriculated up in organizations that some things that we must have a common. Right, If you're a woman of color than there’s some other stuff we must have in common. So absolutely. There been barriers. I chose. Or it chose me? Maybe I've always had a head for numbers. I say I have a head for numbers and a heart for people. So, I chose areas that were so unconventional for people like me. And there were obstacles to people taking me seriously in those spaces like tax and tax relief and I found people struggled with the idea that I would be competent in such a highly technical space. And I believe that the fact that I was black had something to do with it. When I had opportunities to lead teams. I was young when I had my first opportunities to lead teams. My youth was considered a barrier surely, she won't be able to have command and she won't be able to lead people. My being a woman I believe was a barrier in that as well or perceived as barrier by other people. Well, she won't have what it takes to do the hard stuff when young people deal with hard stuff to do hard stuff. Women deal with hard stuff and do hard stuff black people deal with hard stuff and do hard stuff I happened to be all of those at the same time for well, I'm no longer young. I'm no longer young.
Jennifer Moss: You can claim it. Yes, you are.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot there you go, young at heart but those are things that that definitely were obstacles. And there are times when they were overt obstacles. When people actually told me things about like I've never reported to a woman before. So, you're going to have to be patient with me when I don't quite understand your language.
Jennifer Moss: you're going to have to be patient the onus is on you, of course.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Well, you don't understand my I language, OK, so I'm speaking a foreign tongue when I think woman in the workplace. So of course, I had those things happened, but more often than not. I also had extraordinary people who saw things in me that sometimes I didn't even see myself at the exact same time as I was having to deal and confront with some of the of the ridiculous unavoidable. I also had these opportunities to see myself through the eyes of other people who saw a lot in me And sometimes those other people were other women and that was something extraordinary for me to be to be in the company of accomplished women who thought, you know what you can do more and I'm going to invest in you so that you get a chance to do more. And that happened with men, too. And it happened. People of other of lots of races. And if you think about the fact that in most of the roles that I've had leadership roles that I've had I have been the first African American to do that. Sometimes been the first woman to do that as well as a consequence. Whomever it is that was making the decision was not going to be African American was not going to be a woman. So, and then lots of investments in me throughout my journey, especially my professional journey by people of all stripes and I feel grateful for that. And I also feel responsible for trying to be that for other people. At the same time.
Jennifer Moss: And you know, that is the whole point behind. Part of that is by the point behind powerful women to share those stories to share the fact that you had obstacles and those types of things. So many women face those things and other women that are encouraged, you know, just like you are encouraged by some of those that you came across as well. So, so for our listeners and our viewers tell us what it has been like to find your own voice as you look at that to become comfortable in your own skin. You know, to be the CEO of feeding America. I would imagine you have to be comfortable in your own skin and to and to have found your voice. So how did you do that. Encourage others with that.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Well, actually, you know, it's always darkest before the dawn. That certainly is my story on that question. So, I found myself throughout the course of my career always worked hard. And I got tapped for these opportunities and they were wonderful opportunities, always felt highly competent to do whatever the job was that I was being asked to do so. I got to Walmart, and I was asked to be my first job. There was BP of audit and tax policy. And I felt I had spent 16 years getting ready to do that job. Well, between the time that I got that. I said yes. And the time I got there; my team doubled by the time I arrived within about 4 months. My team had doubled again within another 4 months. It had doubled again within a year and a half. I was the chief tax officer, global chief tax officer at Walmart, the person who had been who had been in the role before me. I I tend to just call it like I see it. So, forgive me if I'm being too unfiltered and saying this, but the person who was in the role that for me was a middle age white man from Alabama and he's a fine guy. But I then spent the next 6 months. My first 6 months is chief tax officer pretending to be a middle age white man from Alabama. And I don't know if people are taking a look at what I am not a middle age white man from Alabama. I what so deep in the imposter syndrome. Oh, my goodness. I worked so hard at denying who I was to myself and all around me. And what I found after 6 months of doing that was, I was failing miserably in the job. I had to go in and talk to this guy who was my boss, who saw something in me is one of those people who saw something in me. He and my CEO at Walmart. The saw something in me. They've given me this opportunity and I'm going I felt the need to go in and tell him I was feeling that was transformational for me was to realize that what was certain is I pretended to be something I was not. I was going to fail. So, I had to been stop and say, OK, so I've got to acknowledge I am finite. I this is a big job. I'm not an expert in every aspect of the job. And this is what I really leaned into building diverse teams. And I said, no, no, I need to do an honest assessment of my gaps and of the organizations gaps and we need to go find people with skills that I do not have that was transformational.
Jennifer Moss: And it was part of that finding that voice there you had to really take a deeper dive into yourself before you could make progress in what you're doing that you're trying to be somebody else.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: That's exactly you are absolutely correct. You are spot on That's exactly what happened. And over time once I did that, what was certain to me because it was so stark because I was in it was, I was going to fail. If I, did it that way. I was so I had to make a change or fail to me. I just couldn't let myself fail. And in that space, not I have felt that people are counting on me. When I get the chance to be first in. And you know, you I tried it to alleviate some of that pressure from other people who get the chance to be first. But I certainly felt the responsibility of being first when I was when you get the chance to be first. You can't fail, right. So anyway, so that compulsion cause me to really do some introspection and to emerge as myself in all my finiteness and the build a team of people who were exceptional and that organization, thrived when I got out of my way. And when I got out of its way. So now I'm at feeding America. And the first thing that I did was to do an assessment of. So, what can I bring to the table? What will I not be able to bring to the table? Let me surround myself with people who have skill sets that I do not have let me value those skill sets that I do not have. Let me lift them up. One quick example is I'm not a food banker will never be a food banker. So, I don't come into this. While pretending to be a food banker so I surround myself like people who have deep Food banking experience and that's part of the secret of the successes that were having
Jennifer Moss: That is huge. That is because it's a lot of pressure to be in that spot. And until you find your voice. Like you said, you come up on the wrong trail. So, as you have moved forward with that. You work with so many people. I know being feeding America CEO what the leadership traits that you often look for with those that are with you on this journey. Perhaps those you work with those you mentor what are some of the leadership traits that you look at.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Yeah. So, number one is I need to understand the person's why
Jennifer Moss: it's huge.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: Yeah so, I go deep, have lots of questions about what really drives you, what does success really mean for you. What do you hope to achieve like in the work that I do at feeding America? If there's not something in inordinately Important to you about ensuring that people get enough to eat. This isn't the team for you no matter how brilliant you are, no matter how skilled you are, this is not going to be the right place because it's going to get hard. And that's got to be a reason that you stick with it when it's hard. And if the reason isn't because you care desperately about being a part of solutions for people experiencing food insecurity than you probably shouldn't be on this team. So that's one of the things I'd like to understand, a person’s Why? Another thing is I like to. I try to work with people who are authenticate Do they know themselves really. And sometimes it's hard to face who you really are. Have they gotten to a place where they're willing to look in the mirror and do they know who they are, are they authentic if they're going to be leading other people? They've got to care, and it's got to be palpable that they care. So do you care about other people will you invest in other people and then I look for specific technical skills, but I don't even get to the technical skills before those other things. The servant leader model is the one that speaks to me. Most powerfully I find work best with people for whom that model speaks to though not everybody is don’t show up in exactly the same way for everybody. But that's the model that works best for me. And I find when I compliment myself with people who have a similar approach to leadership that it tends to translate to values so those would be my answers.
Jennifer Moss: So, what has been your inspiration as you traveled along. Again, we're on this journey. All of us are on a journey. Are you where you want to be? And the bigger question, are you enjoying your journey?
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: I am enjoying my journey. And I think in enjoying is interesting because, you know, you watch a movie, and it might even be a sad movie at parts. But after the movie. So over, there's this fulfillment that you feel even if it's not a comedy, right?
Jennifer Moss: absolutely, absolutely.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: So, the movie that I'm and if you will, the world that I live in. it certainly has some heart wrenching parts to it. I go into communities, and I see suffering. But there's a lot of joy in this work. I feel so much joy that I get to be a part of it. I am absolutely enjoying the journey. I'm learning every day I'm stretched in so many ways. There are things I thought I knew that I realize I didn't actually know as well as I did, and I had to go on unlearn some things and learn some new things. So, it’s such a dynamic environment. So, I'm absolutely enjoying the journey
Jennifer Moss: and your inspiration. What has been your inspiration along the way?
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: The most impactful leader I have ever known in my life that I've gotten to know happens to be a woman and happens to be my mom
Jennifer Moss: wonderful
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: and oh, my goodness. I walk around and ask myself almost daily and sometimes more than once in the same day. My mother is now deceased, then this will be the 10th year. We will commemorate her passing a decade ago. She's never left me. She's never left me. She was a woman who was the daughter of sharecroppers. She was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant and she sacrificed. She is the oldest of her siblings and she sacrificed her own education because as a sharecropper and that being the oldest during harvest season. She didn't go to school. She made sure that her siblings did. She didn't graduate high school, but everyone her younger siblings did. She was such an example and then and then although my dad he was a hardworking dedicated. Guy too and he worked as a day laborer a lot of the time and he worked himself up. in the construction industry, but my mom, well, they didn't have a lot in that way. My mother was the inspiration behind deciding that she was not going to look past kids in need. So, she went out and she when she hears that there was a child who was suffering. She tries to find a way to help. And my mom over the course of my mom and dad's life together. They were Mom and Dad to 108 children.
Jennifer Moss: Wow.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: I'm so privileged to being one of them, one among them and to watch the struggles that my mom had out loud. She didn't. She didn't hide struggle from us. And I'm so glad that she didn't because then I it would taking me longer than 6 months when I was at Walmart. To make that turn around haha because to start that turn around. But my mom's example of not hiding struggle showing strength in spite of and maybe because of struggle. So, I didn't come up thinking that my mom's expectation for me was that I'd be perfect. She knew me well; she loves me anyway. And she let me know her and love her too. So, my mom for sure.
Jennifer Moss: Isn't that great about moms I can identify with so much of what you said. I lost my mother a couple of years ago and self I get it and that it just continues on inspiring you throughout your years. It just doesn't stop right. So that's a blessing. So, tell me. This is one of my favorite questions. It's so easy, breezy. But in what is it that makes you laugh. You know, we all need a good life. They say it's good for the soul. What makes you laugh.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: There's a who makes me laugh
Jennifer Moss: that works too.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: My husband makes me laugh out loud and double over.
Jennifer Moss: That's the that's what I'm talking about is that double over gut-wrenching kind of laughter. That really just knocks you out.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: We've been married for 33 and a half years, and he knows me too. He knows me so well. And so there you know, when you're with somebody for all that time. We started dating when we were teenagers and we've been together for so long. We have all of the shared history. So inside of a moment that wouldn't be funny at all to anybody else. He can make it. Hilarious for me. Right. And sometimes it's just a look that he gives me, you know, the side eye or he'll say one word. Are, you know, just go “huh” And then I will burst out laughing. Yes, we I have done hard work as has he. But in my hard work when I have a hard day, he knows when I've had a hard day like my husband even knows I get migraines from time to time. And he tells me in advance “Claire, you want me to get the medicine” I'm like, what? What are you talking about? “Like Claire You know you're about to have a migraine.” Look, he is so in tune with me that, he even notices this in advance of the migraine. I've got that little thing that happens before the migrant happened. So, but he can also tell when I'm when I need a good laugh, he will do. He will talk Seinfeld with me. He knows he knows the jokes that a matter that will get right to it and that will change my mood immediately. So, he it's definitely very funny makes me laugh.
Jennifer Moss: That is awesome. That's wonderful and no better person than your husband to make you laugh like that. This is day in and day out. So, you know that you get that, that laugh-in. So, you know, of course, we've been talking. We talk about feeding America. We talk about hunger in this Earth. So much is happening in the world that we live in today and people are often looking for a word of encouragement to you by chance have any favorite sayings, perhaps a motto that used to encourage yourself and perhaps others.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: I will go back to something that happened experience I had at Walmart. That gives me that I studied I wanted to understand what was the common a common trait among highly successful people. And what I learned it wasn’t where you come from wasn't the school you went to and a lot of things that wasn't but that what highly accomplish highly successful people have in common is that they expect to win, that people who expect to win usually do. And no matter how bleak it might see feel in the moment. You can't win after you've given up keeping on going. When I struggle with cancer and I use to have a mantra I would I'm not a runner, but I ran during team to try to keep myself going, especially when I was feeling weakest and my mantra was, I am strong. I feel strong. I am strong. I am start. So I think it's a combination of those 2 things and I had to land on anything in particular will probably be. I am strong and the person who needs to be convinced is you That's how it connects back to the first one person who need to be convinced. And sometimes I forget that I'm strong and I have to remind myself, you are strong.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. And saying that out loud just kind of reinforces that. And you keep that with you day in and day out. What I tell you, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot. I really enjoyed this conversation today. It is so nice meeting you via zoom, of course. But it is just so thanked you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule. I know to talk with us.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot: I'm honored that you would talk with me. Thank you so much.
Jennifer Moss: Well, you are enlightening as a powerful woman. Some glad we had a chance to talk. I want to thank all of our audience for joining us for another edition of powerful women let’s talk
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