Leaving the Fast Lane

Donna A. James was a successful professional with one objective in mind: to become CEO of one of the nation’s largest corporations. At the time she was executive vice president and chief administrative officer of human resources, corporate communications, and corporate administration for Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Insurance and Financial Services, a division of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., one of the country’s largest insurers and financial services organization. James made a lateral move to a struggling division that offered a better title but no additional money. It was a move she felt would provide her with the necessary skills to pursue her goal.

In 2003, James was named president of Nationwide Strategic Investments, a division with $650 million in annual revenues. At the same time, she managed a portfolio of investments through Nationwide Mutual Capital, a $150 million venture capital fund. She also held board positions with Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. and the Limited Brands Inc., and she chaired the internal boards of several Nationwide subsidiaries.

In February 2005, James was a cover subject for BLACK ENTERPRISE’s 75 Most Powerful Blacks in Corporate America–a high point in her career, she says. James had just returned from an exhaustive travel schedule the same week the magazine hit the stands. That Friday morning, as she was getting ready for work, her body shut down–literally. James, at 47, had suffered a transient ischemic attack–a mini stroke, which put her at risk for a major one. Although she recovered fully, the stroke was her turning point: a catalyst, she explains, for redirecting her goals.

Today, James spends a great deal of time with her husband, two sons, and five grandchildren. She heads her own firm, Lardon & Associates L.L.C., and still maintains her board positions. A teenage mother who battled against the statistical odds, James also mentors young professionals and spends time speaking with young, disadvantaged women. Here, she recounts how her illness changed her perspective on her life goals and what it took for her to make the change.

It was a Friday morning and I felt really tired and I was bumping into things. I felt like, “Why can’t I just wake up?” Finally, I get to my bathroom and I just slide down the wall to the floor because I can’t stand.

My husband walks in and I’m lying on the floor. I’m conscious, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong with me. He asks me what’s wrong and I tried to say, “I don’t know.” The words are in my head, but my mouth is not moving. And I could hear a greater intensity of concern in his voice and there I am trying to smile to comfort him like, “I’m OK,” but I’m not OK.

He called 911 and right as the squad is putting me in the ambulance, my motions start to come back. I spent the weekend in the hospital and required no therapy. There were no warning signs. I had no high blood pressure. I have no weight problem. I have no cholesterol