Claire Babineaux-Fontenot remembers the first time she felt true hunger. It was 1987, and the Louisiana native was in the middle of her first year of law school at the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge. She worked at a local department store to pay for rent and textbooks, but between paychecks, she had nothing. Finally, one afternoon, she walked to a Salvation Army near her apartment.
"I was so embarrassed and approached the center with my head bowed down," the Feeding America CEO tells CNBC Make It. "I said, 'I don't have anything to eat, can you help me?'" she recalls.
The volunteers there showed her "such care and empathy" and gave Babineaux-Fontenot a food voucher and emergency food stamps that helped her purchase gas for her car and enough food to eat until she received her next paycheck.
That experience stuck with her, and in 2018, Babineaux-Fontenot became the CEO of Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States.
Feeding America has been on the frontlines of the hunger crisis spurred by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has had an especially devastating impact on families with young children and people of color. According to Time, the organization's network of 200 food banks provided more than 6 billion meals between March 2020 and March 2021 alone.
Below, Babineaux-Fontenot shares what she learned during her decades-long journey to the C-suite, from combating imposter syndrome to beating breast cancer.
Babineaux-Fontenot, now 57, had a unique — and record-breaking — childhood. She grew up in Opelousas, Louisiana, with her parents and many siblings.
Her parents, Warren and Mary Alice Babineaux, cared for more than 100 children through a combination of birth, adoption and fostering, though there were never more than 16 children living in the house together. In 2008, the couple was inducted into the National Adoption Hall of Fame.
The vast majority of her siblings came to the Babineaux household from "some combination of trauma, abuse and neglect," she says.
"Even when I have had to do something incredibly tough, I think back to my siblings and how in spite of all they have been through, they've never lost hope," she says. "They help me be more cognizant of my privilege and grateful for the life I have."
But the person who inspires her the most is her mother, who died in 2012.
"She was the oldest of her siblings and worked on a farm to help support the family so they could go to school," she says. "Though she didn't graduate high school or have much, she wound up being a mom to 108 children … she was just a brilliant, generous woman."
She honors her mother's giving spirit through her work with Feeding America. "People have made me upset, or done things that I thought were unkind, but I have this mantra: You don't want life to be fair, you want it to be good," she says. "If life were fair, my siblings, my family would not have gone through such tough times — life is not fair, but I want to help make it good for others."
In 2004, Babineaux-Fontenot was hired as Walmart's vice president of audits and tax policy, becoming the first Black woman to hold that position in the company's history.
She felt confident accepting the job and thought her previous roles in business development and tax practice prepared her well — but before she started, her team doubled. Then it doubled again.
"Suddenly I was in a job where I had almost no clue what was being asked of me," she recalls. "Imposter syndrome set in deep and hard, I created a narrative that said who I am isn't sufficient for the job."
She decided to adapt the mannerisms and approach of her predecessor, so for a while, Babineaux-Fontenot says she was pretending to be a "white man from Alabama." Still, she was "failing miserably."
"Being someone else was not working, so I decided to be myself out loud instead," she says. That included being transparent with her manager about where her knowledge and skills fell short, hiring people to fill those gaps and speaking up more in meetings about what she needed to help her team thrive.
"It's important to be honest with yourself and accept that you can't be all things to all people," she says.
Babineaux-Fontenot left the corporate world after a cancer diagnosis in 2015 made her question whether she would be fulfilled if her current job at Walmart was the last thing on her resume.
Babineaux-Fontenot had worked closely with Feeding America throughout her tenure at Walmart, which continues to be a corporate donor, and decided she could make a bigger impact — and help more people — by joining a nonprofit organization.
"The cornerstones of their mission to feed, nourish, empower, connect and unite communities in need really spoke to me," she says. "I knew that's where I wanted to be."
Babineaux-Fontenot understands that Feeding America can't be all things to all people — but there's a few ambitious items she's hoping to cross off her to-do list before retirement.
"My aspiration is an America where no one is hungry, and that Feeding America helps make that dream a reality by improving access to nutritional food inside vulnerable communities," she says.
She's also hoping Feeding America can be a leader within the diversity, equity and inclusion space, both by promoting diverse, equitable hiring practices within Feeding America and increasing its engagement with communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Feeding America established the Food Security Impact Fund in March to help meet this goal. The fund, which was seeded with a $20 million donation made by MacKenzie Scott, will drive investments to communities facing poverty and racial inequity, as well as work with minority-led organizations to improve local food security.
"We can create bigger tables and add more chairs," Babineaux-Fontenot says of the initiative. "We can listen, we can ask questions, and we can be even more excellent than we are now."