This month, our See It To Be It podcast guest is another inspiring female leader, Tonita Webb, who is the CEO of Verity Credit Union. She tells us about her journey to becoming CEO in a male-dominated industry and the struggles she faced along the way being a BIPOC woman. But how did she get to be CEO of a credit union? Well, Tonita grew up in a single-parent household and her mom was sick with Lupus, so her responsibilities were to take care of her mom and her siblings at the same time. She has always dreamt of living in a different place while she was growing up, due to the trauma she experienced in her hometown along with the limited opportunities. She didn’t know where that place was but she knew it was not in her hometown. She always kept that possibility in front of her and when she got older and started school she found a liking for science and math. She said in her high school there was a big push for African Americans to become engineers. She joined an engineering group in Highschool and then it led to her going to college to study engineering. Looking back though, she does not think she was built to be an engineer. She says she is a people person and LOVES to help people achieve their goals and that is how she got into management, although being able to think like an engineer did help her to get into the business world.
When she got into college she did not want to be in a lot of debt, and the thought of debt just stressed her out. She asked herself, how could you finish school and not be in a ton of debt? The Air Force answered her question. She had the opportunity to go into the Air Force and come right back to Hampton University in Virginia to finish school, which she had every intention of doing. She said four months later she was stationed in Berlin, Germany, and was a police officer, laughingly she said, “and that was not in the plan”. She did that the whole time she was in the military. She ended up finishing school but not in the way she thought.
Fast forward four years, Tonita got married and had children. When she was in the Air Force, her heart would ache from missing her children, so she decided to get out of the military and got a night shift job at a bank. She then became interested in the training which is what introduced her to Human Resources. She loves working with people and that is what started her HR career. She then went to Florida and started working for the Department of Health with their HR department. Tonita says, “this is what helped me awaken a desire to help people''. Fast forward another year or two, she had another kid and her husband then decided to resign from the military after ten years. They went back to Seattle and had two more kids. With four kids now, she wanted to go back to work. She had three options of work: a bakery, credit union, and Seattle's supersonics. She said the credit union job just spoke to her because she could have a better opportunity to help people.
Tonita says that one of the things that drive her as a BIPOC woman is that she gets to change the system and be part of making that system more inclusive. She says the one thing she wants people to know, especially people in the BIPOC community, is that people make mistakes. No one is perfect, and you do not need to be. She says, “I learned what I know today by trial and error.” Tonita didn’t have great examples of how to plot a great financial future and she has made a lot of mistakes along the way, but she wants to be that example for the future generation. She saw firsthand her mom struggle with debt because of her illness, it was hard for her to work. She just knew that that was not the life she wanted for herself. She says that her mistakes are her greatest education because you just learn as you go. You can take ten steps forwards and five steps backward but all that matters is that you are moving forward.
Melinda then talks about how Tonita is a black woman in a male-dominated industry and asks her what struggles or challenges she had on the way coming up in this world. She said it wasn’t easy and the world of management, leadership, and business was designed by white males. Because of this, she did not feel comfortable in her own skin because she did not grow up with a white male figure in her life, and cannot relate to them easily. She said what she learned was that she had to discover herself first before she could navigate her career journey. She would talk to a therapist as a BIPOC woman about the hardships she had to face with navigating her career in this industry. Once she discovered herself in this way, it allowed her to help more people.
Melinda asks Tonita what is her favorite piece of advice. Tonita says that she has learned that women have to balance and accept their humanity, take space for themselves and step aside from the expectations that society has on women. We have to stop labeling and putting expectations on women. Women have to balance workspace issues along with balancing relationships and motherhood. You need to allow yourself to have space.