Resilience & grit: Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow lives the principles of her work

Attorney. Air Force veteran. Former VP at the NCAA. First African American woman to make the Indiana University Maurer School of Law Journal.

Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow has a lengthy list of professional achievements in her career, and the latest is her appointment as one of 25 IU Bicentennial Professors. A clinical assistant professor of business law and management at the Kelley School of Business at IUPUI, Charlotte now joins a group of IU professors in providing public outreach and community engagement throughout the 92 counties of Indiana.

“How’d this little girl from the east side of Cleveland, Ohio get to be one of the 25 professors who have the opportunity to go out into the community and represent Indiana University?” she said. “It's because of resilient and gritty parents, and teachers and role models who cared about me, believed in me and wanted me to succeed. That’s why I do all I can to give my students what I was given: someone who cares about them and their success. It’s all about them.”

A girl from Cleveland

“I remember my parents telling me that I was going to go to college before I could spell my name,” Charlotte said. “In our house, there was no question: their daughters were going to college, period.”

Charlotte is the oldest of four girls born to blue-collar parents Herbert and Charlene Betts. They took their daughters to exhibits at Cleveland Museum of Art and concerts performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, bought them books, showed them documentaries on TV and emphasized the importance of earning an education. They bought the girls musical instruments and enrolled the in the Cleveland Music School Settlement, where Charlotte studied classical piano, clarinet, guitar and music theory.

Charlotte with her sisters.
Charlotte's high school graduation photo.
Charlotte with her sisters.

Charlotte’s parents also sought the best K-12 education they could afford. They moved from Cleveland to the suburb of Garfield Heights when Charlotte was in fourth grade because the suburban schools promoted college prep. It was lonely time for her, however, since hers was one of the few African American families in the neighborhood.

“There was a lot of white flight shortly after we moved in the neighborhood and I often felt rejected socially,” she remembered. “But my parents said, ‘You have to push through this, be tough, strong and remember: stay positive.’”

This seed of resilience would become a strong theme in Charlotte’s life, career and academic pursuits.

I do all I can to give my students what I was given: someone who cares about them and their success.

Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

Grit, Resilience

Charlotte enjoyed and appreciated her time building the Diversity and Inclusion office at the NCAA. She met former U.S. Presidents Bush and Obama, and many top coaches – some of her favorites were coaches Tyrell Willingham, Tony Dungy, Nick Savin, Vivian Stringer and Lisa Bluder. She interacted with inspiring student athletes and on projects that created change.

But things were about to shift abruptly. Charlotte was entering the most difficult and challenging time in her life.

In March 2009, Charlotte’s beloved husband, David, unexpectedly died. Six months almost to the day after his tragic death, Charlotte’s mentor, friend and boss Myles Brand also passed away. Within a year of that loss, Charlotte’s position was eliminated by new leadership at the NCAA.

“In 18 months, I lost my husband and best friend, my mentor and an awesome job. None of it was expected – you wake up one day and it’s there, and the next day it’s gone. My life was completely different three times in a row,” she said.

It’s why I’m fascinated with resilience. I’d been in my own living experience of it... After the initial shock and pain, I had to keep going and believing in myself.

Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

When faced with setbacks, Charlotte says she does all she can to focus her energy and inner thoughts to clarify her purpose: What do you want to do? What you passionate about?

For Charlotte, the answer was teaching. As a result of that clarity, she had coffee with former associate dean of the Kelley School at IUPUI, Phil Cochran.

“He had an opportunity available for a visiting professor in business communications,” she said. “We had this course that was taught mostly by adjuncts called Negotiations, and he asked if I’d be interested. I jumped on that! Talk about transformation – that’s something you achieve through negotiations.”

Life at Kelley

In 2012 Charlotte began teaching team dynamics and leadership at Kelley at IUPUI. She revamped an undergraduate course in negotiations and later offered a workshop on the topic to the Kelley Indianapolis MBA Women’s Association. Following the workshop, the attendees requested that a negotiations course be offered in the MBA program.

“They contacted the associate dean and school to petition a negotiations class in the Evening MBA Program, which they decided to offer,” she said. “The first time they offered it, I was told 80 percent of the Evening MBA students wanted to take it.”

Charlotte currently teaches in the Evening MBA Program and plans to expand teaching team dynamics and negotiations to other programs at IUPUI. She continues to consult with businesses in Indiana and across the country in the areas of cultural competency, cultural intelligence, negotiations, grit and resilience and business communications.

Charlotte with the 2018 Samuel S. Dargan Award.

The woman who once hesitated to enter law school recently received the 2018 Samuel S. Dargan Award from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Black Law Student Association (BLSA), which is awarded to distinguished graduates for continued involvement with the BLSA and law school communities.

Since 2006, Charlotte has served on the Indiana Board of Bar Examiners, which writes the bar exam and evaluates applicants, and she also serves on the Indiana State Bar Association Board of Governors to set policy for attorneys in the state. She provides workshops on negotiations and generational diversity for the Urban League Exchange Program, instructs charter school teachers in cultural intelligence and does a variety of work with student organizations, including helping agricultural students better grasp cultural competency as they work with more global companies.

Regardless of the topic on which she is instructing students, Charlotte looks for the cultural competency element: how does a person’s cultural context affect how they are receiving and interpreting a message?

“In negotiations, there’s a lot of talk about win-win and getting to ‘yes,’ and finding out why a person wants what they want,” she said. “But if you don’t understand the cultural context someone comes from, it won’t be successful. This is one area I plan to focus on in with the Centennial Professorship.”

Much like her work and research, Charlotte has grit. She has defied odds and heartache to pass along the value of education to her children.

Her son, Charles, attended the Naval Academy and serves as an aviator in the Navy. Her daughter, Chrystal, attended has degrees from Purdue and IU and is the principal of a local charter school. Charlotte is happily remarried to David Renfrow, and she’s a proud grandmother to seven.

Teaching Indiana

In her appointment as an IU Bicentennial Professor, Charlotte plans to focus the outreach she will do throughout Indiana on understanding cultural competency.

“Negotiations tactics that are successful in attracting a 55-year-old female business owner in a small town of 450 people may not work the same for attracting a 28-year-old startup entrepreneur in the center of Indianapolis,” she explained. “This is why it’s critical to consider cultural competency."

Through all her education and instruction, Charlotte says teaching and learning create a symbiotic relationship that she values input from her students. When someone betters themselves through education, it’s the moment of teaching that makes it all worth it to her.

When people learn, they change the way they analyze things, what they value. When they leave higher education, they take what they know into the workplace and you see them change whole systems.

Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow