Two pioneering women who’ve become leaders and role models — Condoleezza Rice, the first Black woman to serve as secretary of state, and Allyson Felix, theU.S. Olympian in track and field history — are now working together to help other women succeed by prioritizing wellness.
At the recent KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit at the Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, Rice and Felix spoke with CBS News about their advice for alleviating stress, especially as they became firsts in their fields.
“Nobody ever sets out to actually be the first,” said Rice. “I’ll never forget a conversation with my good friend, the late Sally Ride. She said, ‘I didn’t want to be the first woman in space. I just wanted to be in space.’ And so, I think if you think too much about being the first, you won’t enjoy the opportunity before you.
“Enjoy the ride!” she laughed.
The ride to the top wasn’t always smooth. Rice said.
“I grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. And if I had thought about barriers, I wouldn’t be where I am today. My father had a very good way of saying it: Don’t let somebody else’s prejudice be your problem.“
“It’s difficult to be the only one in the room,” said Felix. “But I think there’s freedom on the other side of fear.”
She once feared losing her livelihood if she didn’t hide a part of her truth: “I was training at 4 a.m. while it was dark, so that no one would see that I was pregnant,” Felix said.
That’s because at the time, in 2018, she said her sponsor, Nike, would reduce athletes’ pay if they couldn’t compete, even if they were sidelined by pregnancy. Felix went public the following year in a New York Times op-ed.
“I went through that very hard time right when I was having my daughter, and just looking at her and thinking about the world that I want her to grow up in,” she said. “I was absolutely terrified, but I deeply believed I was doing what was right.”
Nike changed its policy, and Felix went on to found her own athletic shoe company, Saysh, which aims to support women, especially mothers.
Felix has long spoken out about Black maternal health — most recently about her friend and former teammate, Tori Bowie,from complications during childbirth. An autopsy revealed , a high-blood pressure condition that disproportionately affects Black women.
Felix said, “I think it’s been a really hard situation for everyone. It’s just highlighted that we are facing a maternal health crisis for women of color.”
According to CDC data, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related complication, and 80% of cases are preventable.
“Women of color have to know that they’re at risk,” Felix said. “They have to know the signs to look for: Their vision being impaired, swollen feet, headaches.”
In addition to awareness, Felix raised concerns about the impact of implicit bias in the medical field. “In the past, Black women have not been heard. Their pain hasn’t been believed. And that just has to stop,” she said.
Health, child care and work are all factors that contribute to higher stress levels. In a new KPMG study, 91% of executive women report feeling an exponential growth in stress over the last three years.
“Stress is a part of life,” Rice said. “And particularly as you go up the ladder, it’s going to be more stressful. And frankly, that’s also true for men.”
How does she manage it?
“I always found, first and foremost, acknowledging it,” said Rice. “If you suppress it, it doesn’t help. I always said to myself, ‘All right, this is a stressful situation.’ And by naming it, I felt that I could deal with it then. And saying, ‘Oh, I can’t be stressed’? Come on. What you can say is, ‘I’m feeling stressed. How do I manage that stress?’ And I think that’s the most important thing.”
When asked about her wellness practices, Felix said, “I start my day off with my gratitude journal, and that really just centers me. I started playing a little bit of tennis. Sometimes when my days get absolutely crazy, sometimes wellness looks like sitting in my car for a little bit longer, you know? Doing a little bit of meditation before I walk into the house.”
Both say practicing wellness has been key to their success. For Rice, that means playing piano and making time to unplug. Even in her high-powered role as secretary of state, she would try to keep Sunday afternoons for herself.
“And I would say, ‘Now if you have to call me, do. But if you don’t, let me watch football on TV.'”
Rice’s love of football is more than just a hobby; she’s alsoof the Denver Broncos.
“My father, who’s gone to Heaven, probably thinks I’ve finally got an important job, you know?” Rice laughed. “My dad was a football coach when I was born. And some of my happiest memories are watching football with my dad. I can remember at, you know, 6 or 7 years old, ‘Condoleezza, what are they doing?’ ‘Daddy, that’s a trap block.’ Or ‘They’re setting up a screen, Daddy!'”
Felix also spoke of lifelong memories she wants to impart to her daughter: “I try to speak life into her. We do affirmations. I just want her to be really confident, because I know at some point she’ll have to take on her own battles. And I want her to be really ready for that.”
When asked what today’s affirmation was, Felix replied, “We haven’t done it yet. But I think it’s going to be, ‘Challenges help me grow.'”