Yolanda (Smith) White ’92 published her first story in fourth grade. With cardboard, notebook paper, a pencil, some crayons and a few staples, she turned an alligator tale into a book, and got hooked on storytelling.
Bound to be a writer, she majored in journalism and flourished as a newspaper reporter for five years after graduating college. At the point when daily deadlines, late nights and weekend editions were no longer a fit for the lifestyle she wanted, she figured out how to transfer journalism skills to other industries, including non-profit and agency work. Public relations (PR) is where she found her niche.
PR keeps White connected with her love of storytelling, and challenges her to reimagine the narrative in different ways. As she puts it, “There’s never a dull moment. One day, I’m writing remarks for an executive, creating a communications plan or meeting with others to strategize. The next day, I’m standing in front of a community group talking about my company or answering media questions. That same week, I’m with a camera crew shooting a video. Then, I’m working behind the scenes ensuring a large-scale celebration for associates is executed according to the plan.”
The variety keeps White professionally energized and driven to learn and adapt. It’s no coincidence her role with Honda Manufacturing of Indiana accelerated from team leader in 2015 to corporate affairs unit manager three years later.
Today, she oversees Honda’s Indiana communications team and the PR agencies they collaborate with on projects across North America. She also is the local point-person for executive, crisis and human resources communications. She continues to harness the power of storytelling for work and fun, such as making TikTok videos with her teenage son. Here, we share a glimpse of White’s insights about mapping a successful career, being a good leader and adapting with the times.
What traits make someone a good professional communicator?
“Writing and speaking are among the fundamental skills, but a critical trait is being an active listener. Learning to focus on what others are saying as well as their tone and nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and hand gestures, can provide insight that helps you do your job better.”
And a good leader?
“A good leader helps others reach their goals and allows them to grow and shine. For me, it’s important to have teammates who bring different skills and knowledge that I don’t necessarily have. Diversity of thought and experience makes teams stronger. And most important on my list for a good leader is someone who has a good sense of humor, especially when things go wrong.”
What are some leadership best practices you follow?
“I believe in my team. I’m not the type of leader who needs to be front and center every time. I don’t have to always be the one presenting to senior leaders. I try to find ways for members of my team to get these kinds of opportunities as well, not only to provide exposure for them but because I know they are capable, which is why I hired them in the first place. I also like to have fun. It’s important to me that we take time to celebrate our good work, be that a celebration lunch after doing well executing an event or important life events of my team members, like a birthday or closing on a house. Taking the time to show appreciation for my teams is important to me. It’s also important for me as a leader to always say thank you.”
What traits have helped you stand out and advance in the workplace?
“I’ve been fortunate to be presented with opportunities to take on different roles and advance, and I’ve always had the mentality of going for it. I’ve also been fortunate to have managers and leaders who see what I bring to the table, believe in my skills, value the work I do, appreciate my work ethic and results, and recognize how I can help the company meet its objectives. In terms of traits that have helped me stand out, I’m always willing to take on new assignments. I also ask questions and challenge the process when necessary, and I’m not afraid to admit when I don’t know something or when I make a mistake. I see the latter as a chance to learn. Plus, I genuinely love what I do, and I think my enthusiasm for my role as a communicator comes in every aspect of my work-life.”
What professional skills have you added over the years to stay effective and marketable?
“Definitely, social media. I’m dating myself, but when I was in journalism school, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok didn’t exist so I’ve had to get training. I’ve also had to continue to grow as a writer, learning diverse styles from executive communications to communications for a general associate audience, to messaging externally. Then, there’s the very critical skill of executing strategic communications and measuring effectiveness. And I continuously strive to have awareness of the next ‘thing’ that will provide another way to communicate.”
Prior to joining Honda, what did you know about car manufacturing? What have you learned since?
“Honestly, I didn’t know anything about cars let alone what it takes to build them, but that was the most fascinating part about joining Honda. I saw it as a chance to learn something new. Five years later, I’ve learned about the tremendous amount of skill our associates have to build safe and quality products for Honda customers around the world. Every time I get to go onto the production floor, I’m amazed by seeing the automobile manufacturing process firsthand.”
What barriers and stereotypes have you had to break down as a woman working in the male-dominated automotive industry?
“Working in the male-dominated automotive industry can be intimidating, and that in and of itself is a barrier. I remember the first time I presented to our senior leaders, who at the time were all male. I knew the material and my immediate supervisor worked with me and prepped me on what to expect. Still, to stand in front of that meeting room and to look out and not see another woman, I was nervous. It wasn’t because I didn’t get support from my male leaders – I did. It was just my first eye-opening reality that there simply wasn’t any other woman in a key senior leadership role at the table. Until then, I don’t think I paid attention to the gender dynamic in the auto industry. And though there are a few more women leaders in key senior positions at my company and throughout the industry, there still aren’t enough. Representation not only matters, it’s critical.”
How has working in communications/PR changed since the COVID pandemic?
“The COVID pandemic has presented so many changes to working in communications/PR – some good and some not so good. A lot of what we do is about building relationships with multiple audiences and our inability to do this in traditional ways such as face-to-face meetings or large-group gatherings has meant we have had to adapt. For example, one of the strategies used with journalists is to get them into auto plants for tours to see processes and new technologies. With COVID, that obviously hasn’t happened. Instead, we have had to rely on technology – Zoom and Microsoft® Teams meetings, videos and social media – to provide this same exposure. Increasing attention to and focusing on the value of company social channels and creating content for journalists to pick up also is another change. And like I said, relationship building is important in this field and so having the chance to interact in person with team members has been a challenge. Technology is great, but there’s just something about that personal touch of sitting down over coffee with a colleague who works in another state or on the other side of the country that I miss. Also in this age of work-from-home and technology being readily available, I’ve found it hard at times to turn off my laptop at a reasonable hour.”
What’s your most proud professional achievement?
“Co-creating an internship boot camp targeting students of color that ended up earning an industry diversity award, the first for the PR agency I worked with at the time. That boot camp continued a short time after I’d moved on to another role. It felt good to provide the foundation for that program, which other teams expanded.”
You are an active community volunteer, even beyond Honda- related initiatives. Why?
“I believe in my heart that I have a responsibility to give back and share my talents with others. My parents set the roadmap for volunteering at our church and schools. I’ve been the recipient of volunteers who took the time to speak with me about their career, offer advice and listen to me. And I’ve had volunteers who started out as role models and mentors who are now good friends. It’s always been important to me to do the same — to impact a young person the way others did for me.”
Diversity and inclusivity seem to be long-running themes in your life, and at one point were even part of your career. How does advocating for diversity and inclusion align with your passion and purpose, professionally and personally?
“I’m passionate about equity and providing a level playing field. I firmly believe that no organization, company or even group of friends works well over the long haul when every person has the same values, views, thoughts or backgrounds. When that happens, there’s no room for growth or learning. That’s why diversity and inclusion are so important to me. I appreciate the simplified definition that diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance. It’s not enough to have one Black person or one women at the table. The question is how to create opportunities for everyone to feel included. We still have a long way to go in this area, which is why I will continue to use my voice, talents and influence to keep the conversation going.”
What’s an important lesson you learned as a Franklin College student?
“The value of internships. Before I graduated, I completed three, which were key in helping me confirm my love for and skill as a writer and communicator. Not only do internships provide valuable hands-on experience outside the classroom, internships can be life-changing. I’m a strong proponent of that kind of learning.”
Who were your Franklin College mentors?
“In the Pulliam School of Journalism, my mentors were Bill Bridges and Jerry Miller (also my academic adviser). Whether they were teaching Basic Reporting or Media Law, or advising The Franklin or The Wellhouse literary magazine, they were excellent teachers who brought to their instruction the context of having had long careers in journalism before academia. They were passionate, knowledgeable and true champions of the student press. I loved their classes! Outside of journalism, definitely David Carlson (philosophy and religion), Kathy Carlson (English) and Emily Stauffer (English). They took students under their wings and made the time to work with us on issues related to race, diversity and inclusion on campus. They were always fair and lived by the lessons they taught. I always appreciated that about them.”
Which classes or student organizations were most impactful and why?
“When I was on campus, a group of friends and I started the Student Association for the Support of Minorities (SASOM). We were mostly students of color and allies who were inclusion and diversity advocates. We were conveners of students, staff/faculty and administrators, for discussions about the racial climate and practices on campus, including such issues as recruitment, student treatment and retention of students of color, and we also were educators, hosting events and providing platforms to have open dialogue.”
What do you like doing when you’re not working?
“I have a close-knit family, and I like spending time with them. I have been married 22 years to James, and we have two sons, Jamison, 21, and Aury, 16.”
Story by Amy (Kean) VerSteeg ’96, Editor, Franklin College Magazine
POSTED May 11, 2021