COLUMBUS, Ga. — Teresa White, the first woman and African-American president of Georgia-based insurance giant Aflac U.S., has the knack to inspire. So says Seychelle Hercules, a formerly bashful girl who went on to win Georgia's Miss Columbus pageant after hearing the trailblazing black executive speak.
Hercules' life took a major turn after White told her and some other teenage girls about how she overcame obstacles and stereotypes in rising to the corporate suites of Aflac U.S., a $130 billion brand known for its TV commercials featuring a duck that randomly quacks out the company name to potential customers.
White told each young African-American girl present that they, too, were capable of success. Hercules walked away filled with hope.
"She inspired me that day," said Hercules, who went on to win beauty pageants and now represents Columbus, a rural Georgia city south of Atlanta where Aflac is based. "She spoke with so much confidence and grace. One thing I love about Mrs. Teresa is that she looks like me. She gives me hope. I can soar to greater heights. She's a pioneer in so many ways."
Since joining Aflac in 1998, White stood out for her ability to write computer code — a skill she says is uncommon for most African-American women around her at the time. Now 50, White landed the prestigious position of president in 2015, becoming the first woman and African-American to hold the title in the company's 61-year history. Even today, the company's information technology group still reports to her.
Not bad for a woman who originally wanted to be a beautician.
"I had plenty of people who told me since I was a female that I should stay on the beautician side," White said. "Because I was African-American, the stats say you're not going to make it here. But I said to myself that I'll prove them wrong. That was the tingling in my fire to say 'That's what you think, but that's not what I think.'"
White now oversees 3,500 employees for Aflac's U.S. operations, focusing on product innovation and expanding distribution. She received several honors this year from the American Business Awards and was recognized by Black Enterprise Magazine as one the most powerful women in business.
Though African-American friends and peers have told her of their struggles to climb the corporate ladder, White says her ascent was made less difficult by Aflac's initiative for diversity. Aflac's executive leadership team is one-third female and two-thirds of the company's workforce is comprised of women. About 40 percent of employees are minorities.
"It's what made me stay," White told The Associated Press in an interview. "Certainly, I've had opportunities. But for me, you can't replace an organization that has the groundwork already laid to allow people to be who they are and honor their work product and not their skin color."
During her tenure at Aflac, White has sought to uplift her colleagues with early morning devotion times, where employees join her to read Bible scriptures and meditate, sometimes in her spacious 12th-floor corner office at Aflac headquarters in Columbus. She also began a career development program for those in the company in 2014.
But White wanted to do even more in the community, specifically for young girls she felt needed mentoring in a major way.
In 2015, White created the Bold Moves, an eight-week summer program in Columbus to inspire African-American girls ages 13 to 17. The program is backed by Aflac and features nearly 30 women who are community and business leaders teaching various lessons ranging from personal finance and entrepreneurship to business etiquette, resume writing and more.
Hercules and many other black girls have been inspired by White and have taken part in Bold Moves. The program works with Girls Inc. to recruit girls such as Hercules — who's been involved with both programs for years.
"She cares about the people," Aflac CEO Daniel Amos said. "When you know the boss cares about you, you work harder for them. It's that caring attitude that really makes her the person she is. Then, it's her IQ and her ability to manage and leadership skills ... She's got the combination of it all."
White felt she could relate to the girls. She and her sister were raised by their single mother in impoverished public housing in Dallas, where drugs were rife and she recalled people around her who made a lot of "bad decisions."
Mentorship, she said, helped her overcome the obstacles and set her on her career path.
"I want to be a lighthouse," White said. "This is an opportunity to show a different picture of what success looks like."