By Erin Wooddell
In the good old days of radio, audiences knew their DJs and radio personalities. They’d tune in every day to catch the same show, they’d recognize the radio stars out around town, and they felt like the person coming in over the radio waves related to them as someone from their neck of the woods.
Donna “Elle” is one of those personalities, and though traditional radio programs have gone by the wayside and syndicated programs like The Steve Harvey Show and Delilah have taken over small-town radio waves, she’s still recognized as Donna “Elle” almost everywhere she goes.
Her radio career began early, with an introduction to the business as young as 13. As a child, she idolized Oprah Winfrey and loved how she connected on such a true and deep level with her audience in a way that audience members and fans always saw her for who she genuinely was.
Moving from radio to television, working night shifts and special events, Donna “Elle” has since moved on from the broadcast world and though she sometimes misses it, she said she thinks her definition of success between then and now has changed.
“I used to be in the public eye and I wanted to be there. Now, I empower more people behind the scenes. I think God took me purposefully through a large platform so that I could continue on through mediums like social media to change lives and empower women,” she said.
Donna “Elle” now engages with many aspects of business, providing PR services for small business and nonprofits to improve impressions of visibility, maintaining speaking engagements, and holding twice-weekly fitness classes for women in the area. She is driven by motivation — but not her own. She lives for motivating other people.
“Nothing phases me like it used to,” she explained. “I used to think certain things were important, but getting to know someone’s character, their passion and values, that’s more important than individual success.”
She follows this belief by striving to build up other women, whether in the workplace to stand up for their worth, in body image and exercise efforts, or just to let other women know they’re appreciated as friends, mothers, sisters, and community members.
The Search for Motivation
Donna “Elle” grew up with her mother, grandmother, and sister. As a tight-knit southern family, they loved each other deeply and, as she explained, they loved to eat. While her family loved her for who she was, she felt the world was cruel about her weight. And while she loved performing and loved working in radio, she still found the world to be cruel.
She never thought losing weight was for her — that it was unattainable. But when a beloved aunt died from colon cancer, she had the wake-up call she needed. With her son cheering her on, Donna “Elle” began to exercise and lost 100 pounds.
This transformation filled her with such energy and passion, and she knew she had the gifts to help empower other women to make lifestyle changes. After receiving her AFFA, YMCA, and CPR certifications, she began an exercise group. The class, now called Donna’s D.I.V.A.s, first began with mostly plus-sized women. Then suddenly, as its popularity grew, attendees began to range from size 6 to size 28. She realized she’d found a way to satisfy a need most women in the area have: healthy motivational exercise.
“I could have a cashier at a fast-food restaurant exercising next to a CEO of a company. Socioeconomic situations no longer mattered. Home life no longer mattered. We all had authentic stories and we would go through this journey together,” she said.
The exercises are no walk in the park. Participants flip tires, tackle agility drills, and work with ropes. Donna “Elle” pairs the women up so they get to know each other’s names, has them shake hands with women they don’t know, and high-five the women next to them. Over the last 7.5 years, her mission in this exercise group has been to help other women make real connections and to show them how to support each other so they can feel their best.
“Women come to class and they may have had the worst day at work or are dealing with tough times in relationships or worried about children,” Donna “Elle” says. “This is time for them. One hour not on their cell, one hour there for themselves… to get their power back.”
Boosting Others Without Competition
Acting as the exercise leader for Donna’s D.I.V.A.s all these years, Donna “Elle” has learned one important thing about leadership: Anyone can be a good boss and manage people. A leader, however, makes other people feel good.
She’s learned that she loves people who laugh, as she laughs with abandon. She loves to be around others who bring out the best in her and challenge her, and she strives to do the same for them.
“There’s a difference between having a purpose and a gift. My gift I take with me no matter where I am… in my career, at a new company, with family. And my gift is to make people feel better than they did before,” she said.
When it comes to careers, she’s found most women want to be in a position of comfort and to be heard. They want to know people value what they’re trying to say. Good leaders, she explained, understand this and boost others by not only listening, but learning to be quiet so others can have a voice.
She feels women need to practice this when working with and leading other women.
“Women feel they have to compete, but they can easily sit back, be quiet, and cheer others on. The success of the whole is greater than the success of one,” she said.
A good way to start this practice? Understanding your own individual value and what you bring to the table, and in turn, recognizing and accepting everyone else’s gifts. This way, women can learn from each other, gain different perspectives, and grow.
She said she realizes that looking out for others isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to promotions or applying for new jobs. When people aren’t chosen, they ask, “Why not me?” But Donna “Elle” said she feels there’s a way to work toward success without competing and taking away from other people.
“If you’re not chosen, it doesn’t mean it’s the end-all, be-all. Something better is coming. Sometimes God tells us we shouldn’t move positions or we’re not ready for a role, but we ignore it because it’s what we want. Take time to be quiet and spend time with yourself. Get up and pray or meditate, workout, and go somewhere and make a difference.”
To learn more about Donna “Elle”, check out her Q&A here.