Own Your Path with Clothilde "Cloey" Hewlett
"To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination." - bell hooks
In this installment of Own Your Path, we had the honor of interviewing the incomparable Clothilde "Cloey" Hewlett prior to her current appointment by California State Governor Gavin Newsom as Commissioner of the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation for the State of California. Cloey’s childhood was framed by poverty and reflected the changes being advocated for by the Civil Rights movement of the 20th Century; her mother helped train the Freedom Riders who participated in the desegregation missions in the South. Cloey’s life changed when a San Francisco community center volunteer named Jerry Brown--who later became Governor of California--encouraged her to attend the University of California, Berkeley.
A pioneering leader for the advancement of women and communities of color, Cloey previously served as Executive Director and Chief Legal Officer of Cal Alumni Association (CAA), advocating for access, equity, and inclusivity for the next generation of leaders. She has been recognized for her significant professional and community contributions including the National Diversity Council’s Most Powerful and Influential Women of California, San Francisco Police Department Award for Bravery, Black Women Lawyers of Northern California Outstanding Achievement Award, and UC Berkeley California Law Review Alumni of the Year Award.
1. Many of us start our careers in our early 20's without much prep. Going back to your first "professional" work experience, how did you get there and what was going on in your mind during that period of your career/life?
First and foremost, I had grown up in probably the worst that poverty had to offer. And so I was very driven. I looked at life, in my early 20’s, as a linear path. I was going to become a prosecutor, run for political office. I was going to be a major success, and then I’d get married and have kids, and everything would be perfect. I came out of Berkeley Law, and I envisioned the world would just see me, “Here I am, world, I’m ready to go!”
However, when I had my first professional job, it didn’t exactly go the way I wanted. I found myself going into something that I did not dream of going into. There weren’t any positions open in the District Attorney’s office, so I went in any way I could. As a Peace Officer. At that time, San Francisco was under a Consent Decree.
Women at that time were not even allowed to drive a patrol car. So I went in as one of the first women, not to mention one of the first women of color, because that was the only way I could get into law enforcement at the time.
As a Peace Officer, I had to go to the Police Academy. I had the powers of arrest. I sometimes had to be on the front desk, I was an investigator... I was only able to get into my “linear path,” when there was an opening in the District Attorney’s office, and that took about 2 years. I learned through that experience, if you’re a pioneer or just trying to get into an organization, you may have to start off at the entry level and Work. Your. Way. Up. Not “you-come-out-of-college-or-graduate-school-and-it’s-just-handed to-you.”
I thought being a prosecutor would just be great for my resume and political office goals but when I got into the role of being a prosecutor and a trial attorney -- I loved it. I really loved it! And I really wanted to become the best that I could be in that profession. Instead of staying there for two or three years for my resume, in total, I ended up there for 11 years, and not only was a pioneer before as a Peace Officer, but became a pioneer in the area of being prosecutor at a time when women were very scarce in the courtroom, and as prosecutors, let alone a woman of color.
Throughout my career, every position that I've taken, I've pretty much been the first one along the way. Even as Executive Director of the Cal Alumni Association, I am the first person of color in 150 years, and I’m only the second woman. So when you combine the two together, it’s like a real change for everybody.
2. What have you learned about what NOT to do as a boss/leader?
If as a leader you’re just giving directives, directives, directives, but you’re not getting buy-in from those who are charged with implementing your directives, you can’t really be effective. It’s much more important not to be a dictator as a boss and a leader, but more to be a leader of a team. I look at this as the difference between a pyramid, and a wheel. The reason I use the analogy of a wheel, is that in a wheel, every spoke of the wheel has a purpose and contribution. And when you get people to start thinking like we are part of a team, and that you’re leading a team, then everyone feels vested in the objective and the goal.
It’s also very important for a leader not to lose their temper at their employees. That is probably the worst thing you can do. Even though you might feel better in the moment, anger can have such a devastating effect that it may inhibit their creativity. They might not want to take that risk or meet that challenge, “because she may go off on you!”
I found I could be more effective in the latter part of my career using what I would call a “soft power.” Really trying to look at where that other person’s perspectives were coming from, and even feeling compassion for the person tormenting me the most, could actually be what is most effective in communication.
3.What are three key takeaways or advice that you have for those early in their career? What do you know now that you didn't know when you first entered the workforce?
First, you have to be flexible. Life doesn’t always work in a linear pattern you’ve planned out. And that’s okay, because LIFE IS LONG! You have more than enough time to accomplish everything that you want to accomplish. Some women take a detour to have a family, or care for elderly parents, or they may have health issues. Even though it does not fit within your linear plan, don’t worry about taking that detour. Every experience is valuable and leads to your success, wherever you ultimately end up in your life and your career.
Second, and this is something I’ve had to work on for myself - you can do everything you want to do in your life. But you sometimes have to realize, you can’t do it all at the same time. I was trying to be supermom, super-attorney, super public figure, super-wife, and my hair was literally falling out of my head. I had to step back and assess. I had to make choices. But this is an individual choice.
Third, take as much time and effort at self-care, as we do for our careers. It’s very difficult to do, particularly when you’re younger. Women need to really concentrate on their own health, inner happiness with the same DRIVE that they’re concentrating on their career goals. We need a deeper realization that the most precious thing we have is OUR OWN LIFE.
We enter the workforce with insecurities, we don’t necessarily realize our full capacity. Even though you may feel a problem or challenge at work is overwhelming, persevere your way through it until you get to the other end. Because it’s only in doing that, it’s only in facing the problem, facing the challenge, and overcoming it, and getting to the other side - that you bring out the best of you, and the best of your skills.
When I first became Undersecretary of State and Consumer Services Agency, I had no idea that I have a capacity for being a crisis manager. It was the furthest thing from my mind, and as far from what I thought I could do, or what my dreams were. And then I had what I thought it was the ‘misfortune,’ to encounter two major crises that helped me to discover my true ability.
One in California was the energy crisis. I remember very vividly when a public utilities commissioner called me up and said, “We’re having rolling blackouts in San Francisco, and what the hell are you gonna do about it?” My first response was, “Why me?” Don’t you have some emergency service or something? I don’t know anything about energy! I’m the least expert in all the agencies.” What she said to me was, “Yeah. But you’re the best organizer of people in the State government. Get people organized, and let’s do something fast.” So that’s exactly what I did. And as a result of it, which is still in place today, is what’s most advanced, proactive green energy platform right now in the United States. So that wasn’t a result of me having all this knowledge, but my ability to look at a crisis and be able to organize a team of experts to work together to address that.
The second one was 9/11. At that point in time my agency through some small little legislation was in charge of all victims and survivors of terrorism. Well, we never had a terrorist act really happen in our country. And there is no road map. But it was through that experience of caring for those survivors, caring for the victims’ families, that I learned about a skill that I had that I didn’t even know existed. And that is - regardless of whatever the problem or the crisis, I would be able to pull people together, create the best way out of the situation, and to put practices in place so that we would be prepared for the next time.
I would like to say that there is another way to do it, besides being challenged. But I have come to the conclusion that the only way you can find it, the only way to really develop it, is through the challenge itself.
4. What do you believe is the most important responsibility you have as a leader? What do you think is the most important quality or characteristic to have as a leader?
The most important responsibility is to provide hope. Hope is very powerful. “This project can be accomplished, we CAN reach this goal.” When people believe that it can be done, and that, but for them, it would not happen, that’s when you can accomplish great things.
Also, a leader has to do a lot of listening and have the ability to give praise. Praising team members in public, among their peers, to external forces. Giving them greater opportunities, going to conferences, trainings so they can achieve that next level. Monetary praise works very effectively, as well -- combined with all the non-monetary praises mentioned. Show that you believe in them.
5. What do you love about what you do?
Right now [as Executive Director of CAA] what keeps me so young and vibrant is I’m in the middle of a campus, surrounded by the next generation, riding the wave of the future at the same time I’m raising the next generation of leaders. I see a whole wave of entrepreneurship coming, focused on making a better world. You feel so filled with hope! For them, diversity is a given. They crave diversity. They’re enriched by it, and they look at the world in a much more global way. They’re the ultimate in flexibility!
Even if I technically retire, that doesn’t mean that I retire from life. I’m determined to stay active until the day that I die. But life, at the end of the day, means we are all going to die. So, be happy. Choose to live a happy life, and to do that, “to thine own self be true.”
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