Not every elementary school girl would relish having to tag along while her mother, a single mom, took night classes at a community college.
But a young Charleita Richardson saw it as an opportunity. She camped out in the college library.
“That’s where I learned to type,” she said.
At age 8.
As an adult, Richardson has long made providing opportunities for young people her focus in the Richmond area. As president and CEO of Partnership for the Future, she leads a program that gives high-potential high school students from challenging circumstances the tools and experiences to help earn a college degree.
PFF marks its 25th anniversary in 2019, and Richardson has overseen tremendous growth during her 12-year tenure as president. That first class in 1994 had a dozen students from one school division, and there were three supporting businesses. Now, the enrollment of 440 students comes from four school divisions, and more than 70 businesses support the program.
“On average,” Richardson said, “80% complete the program, 100% of those go to college, and 83% of those have finished college in six years or less.”
PFF was the brainchild of Alan Kirshner, chairman of Henrico County-based insurance company Markel Corp., which remains the chief corporate supporter. The program relies heavily on local businesses whose internships provide workplace experience and valuable relationships to PFF students.
Though Richardson started her career in the financial world, she had pivoted to youth programming – at a significant drop in salary. She worked for the city of Richmond to establish a workforce training program for area high school students. And at the Capital Area Workforce Investment Board, her duties as youth programs manager involved seven counties surrounding the city.
“I just had to pursue what I had a passion to do,” Richardson said.
By 2006, Kirshner was looking to hire a director of programs to be groomed as a successor to founding PFF leader Heidi Metcalf Little.
“I could see the fire in the belly, the belief in the cause,” Kirshner said of his first meeting with Richardson. “I could see that she would be that special person.”
He hired her, and the next year, Richardson became president and CEO. She knows every student who has graduated from PFF in her time there – and maintains contact with many and tracks their progress.
Aliyah Wooten, 23, who studied at J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico, has earned two degrees from the College of William & Mary: a bachelor’s in finance in 2018 and a master’s in business analytics in 2019. Now a business analyst for Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., she said Richardson "has played a pivotal role in my development as a student and as a person.”
While interning in the PFF office, Wooten said, "Ms. Richardson took the time to teach me the ins and outs of nonprofits and cultivated my interest in community engagement. She quickly became a mentor and mother figure, always being a consistent force in my life.”
Consistency is a key element of PFF. The program meets with its students during their high school careers to monitor their academic progress and discuss extracurricular activities. Students gather several times during a school year for experiential learning, and they meet weekly during their summer internships. PFF also offers college prep and savings assistance, as well as coaching and guidance during college.
Richardson continues to seek work internships for PFF students while broadening the organization's fundraising base. PFF recently developed a business plan that calls for 20% enrollment growth within the next five years.
Richardson has good reason for predicting success. “Actually,” she said with a grin, “we’ve hit that number already.”
IN HER WORDS: CHARLEITA RICHARDSON
president/CEO, Partnership for the Future
Tell us about an object you own that has great sentimental value
I have a collection of cardinal birds that represents my connection to my grandmother, who passed away when I was young. My grandmother had given me and all of my cousins a glass that featured a bird. Here’s the catch: We were not allowed to use the glasses, but we could admire them in the curio cabinet!
My bird was the cardinal. When I became an adult, every time I would see a cardinal, I would smile and think of my grandmother. I began to say that the bird represented my grandmother coming to say hello or that everything would be OK.
I later learned that cardinals are believed to bring messages from those who passed on. Now, my grandmother visits me often and at just the right time. I also look at my collection when I am having a rough day, and I just smile. It brings me peace.
If you had to pick a different profession, what would you choose?
I would be a high school principal. As someone who loves working with young people, especially teenagers, I think I would enjoy being their advocate and leading a school.
What is your favorite movie?
My favorite movie is "Lean on Me." It represents the power of positive words and what children can accomplish when adults believe in them.
The adults – specifically Joe Clark, the principal – fought to ensure that the students were safe, loved and taught that they could excel. Also, Clark did not back down to forces that were trying to diminish his reputation. This movie is truly about perseverance, redemption and expectations.
What is something you haven’t done that you’d really like to do?
I would love to go scuba diving. Growing up, I was always afraid of the water, even after I took swimming lessons for a week – epic fail for me! Finally, I decided in 2017 that it was time for me to conquer my fear, and I started swimming lessons again.
I am now proud that I am no longer afraid of the water, I can float, and I can swim a very short distance. Once I do my next round of swim lessons, I hope to be able to fulfill my goal of scuba diving at some point.
If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?
The poet Maya Angelou. I had the opportunity to briefly meet her several years ago when she visited Richmond. She was such a profound woman in that short conversation – less than 10 minutes – that I would long for an opportunity to spend the day with her.
I believe that she would share many priceless jewels of information about womanhood. I also would love to learn more about the creative process that led to magnificent poems like “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman.”
Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it
In 2010, I was in my second year of leading a local chapter of a service-based organization. It was a proud honor to be chosen as president of this chapter, and I recognized that it was the first major step in my quest to lead at a higher level within the international organization. Unfortunately, the organization faced some difficulties, and our local chapter had to make some very difficult decisions.
As the leader, it was incumbent upon me to listen to our members while also finding the necessary balance of support for the organization. Ultimately, a few of our members were not satisfied with the end result, and they began to attack my character because the final decision of the chapter did not align with their expectations.
While this experience was upsetting, I learned that I could not allow the attacks of others to keep me from being the professional woman that I am. In this moment, I developed a level of strength and fortitude that I did not previously have. And for that reason alone, I am grateful for this situation.
Who is your role model?
My mother, Charlene Richardson – see the name similarity?! As a single parent who often had to work at least two jobs to ensure that I had what I needed in life (and even many of the things that I wanted), she never ceases to amaze me. My mother is the best example that I have of someone who sets goals, achieves them and works hard to get there.
I always like to tell people about her goal of attaining her associate's degree. When I was about 8, my mom was taking evening classes at John Tyler Community College. She was determined to earn her degree but did not have anyone who could watch me. She became connected to the librarian at JTCC, and it was arranged for me to stay in the library. Now, what did a little child do in the library for those two hours? I learned to type on the typing program! I loved it!
Fast-forward: My mother was unable to finish her degree at that time because she had to pick up another job in the evenings to support me. Eventually she did graduate with her associate's degree – almost 15 years later! First, it was my college graduation, and then a couple of years after that, it was my mother’s college graduation.
She never gave up, and she worked hard. She continues to show me the way each and every day.
How would you spend a great day in Richmond with a close friend?
I would want my friend to experience the rich history of African Americans in Richmond. We would begin by heading to the Elegba Folkore Society to participate in a Richmond Slave Trail walk, which is simply powerful and carries deep meaning. After working up an appetite, we would head to Mama J’s for a nice down-home meal. While in Jackson Ward, we would venture to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia – and of course, I would point out Maggie Walker's house.
To conclude the day, we'd visit Shockoe Bottom to grab a slice of amazing pizza at Bottoms Up.
What is something about you that might surprise others?
I am an introvert. Many people often assume that since I enjoy public speaking (mostly in large settings) that I have extrovert traits. I am actually the exact opposite, and I pride myself on having a good amount of alone time. During these periods, I can be found doing a number things – whether reading, watching TV or a good movie, crafting or simply taking leisurely strolls.
Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you
When I was about 24, I went through what I describe as a quarter-life crisis. I began to question my chosen profession (accounting) and, ultimately, my purpose. One day while heading to my nice corporate job where I was well-compensated, I had an epiphany: I just did not want to spend my career in accounting until retirement. I wanted to do something with a bigger impact and that would be more fulfilling.
As I walked into the office, what I did not realize is that everything about my energy projected my thoughts. In fact, my manager – who was never at work before me – was there that day, and he immediately asked me what was wrong. At this point, I had a decision to make: I could share more about my revelation, or I could go about the day as usual. This was the defining moment for me, and I decided to share.
Fast-forward two months: I left my corporate job on a quest to “find my purpose.” After much reflection, I realized that my purpose was about helping people – specifically, young people. I did not know then that this defining moment would lead me to find a career that I am passionate about. I did not know that I would ultimately find great joy in helping to develop others.
That moment of coming to my revelation, accepting it and sharing it placed me on a pathway to fulfillment and happiness. I now choose to live each day around the question: Do my actions make me happy, and do they fulfill my purpose?
If you could deliver a message to a large audience, what would it be?
There is a poem, “Just a Minute,” by Benjamin E. Mays – a former president of Morehouse College and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I would share the poem and remind the audience that their lives are made of individual minutes, and it is incumbent to use them to make a positive change in this world, to do something that makes them happy, to inspire and motivate others, and to just be who God designed them to be.
These minutes are a collection of opportunities, and if we use them wisely, we can achieve our biggest dreams all while helping others. We also can influence and educate the next generation of leaders while inspiring them to make good use of their own minutes.