I think most people’s goal in life is to just be “happy,” but it’s a tricky little word because it means something different to everyone. My version of happy? A bowl of ice cream and Gossip Girl after a hard day. Personally, I feel happy sometimes—I might even venture to say most of the time—but I wouldn’t describe myself as “happy;” more like content or satisfied. Cecillea Mayo, on the other hand, now she’s the embodiment of a happy person.
Cecillea and I met at the State Capitol on a blazing hot summer afternoon. She showed me around, and I felt pretty special getting to go into the back rooms most people don’t get to see on an average tour. When I finally reached her office, I saw her adorable daughter playing a game. Cecillea apologized and said she was taking her to band camp after our interview—of course there was no reason to apologize; this was just an opportunity for me to witness the “work-life balance” of a successful businesswoman up close and personal.
Name: Cecillea Mayo Location: Little Rock, Arkansas Job Title: Communications Officer for the Arkansas House of Representatives Educational Background: B.A. in Broadcast Journalism, John Brown University
Cecillea’s parents divorced when she was young, and she and her mother moved around just about every year. In the eighth grade, she had to go to three different schools because her family was struggling financially.
She told me about how she was treated for not only being the new girl (which is never easy) but the underprivileged new girl. Before the divorce, she’d lived in a small town where everyone shopped at places like Walmart and it wasn’t a big deal; in fact, it was the norm. But after one of her moves, she found the perfect back-to-school outfit (which she described as “so stinking cute”) from a store called Venture (the equivalent to Target today).
“I went to the new school and one of the cool girls said ‘I like your outfit, where’d you get it?’ and I said ‘Venture!’ and I heard them whisper ‘She got her clothes from Venture,’” Cecillea recalled. “All of a sudden there was this awareness that I didn’t fit in because my family couldn’t afford to shop where their families shopped and I was absolutely powerless over it.”
When she was just 14 years old, Cecillea came to the harsh realization that her economic status was going to dictate how she was treated for years to come.
As a little girl, Cecillea watched TV as a way to escape from the world around her. “Looking at the TV, that’s all I could hope for because I was living in an area where all my surrounding were the same. I think the only outside influences I could see were on TV.”
One night while watching the nightly news, 8-year-old Cecillea fell in love with Barbara Walters. The way she carried herself with grace and poise immediately made Cecillea want to be like her—she seemed like the most ambitious and successful woman in the world to Cecillea. From that day forward, she decided that’s what she was going to become.
Over the years, Cecillea had many influential teachers. She told me they “saw something in [her] that [she] didn’t see in [herself].” They were all insanely encouraging and never stopped reminding her that she was special—and that word “special” really came to mean something to her, especially when she realized how much potential she really had.
Cecillea went on to fulfill the promise she made to her 8-year-old self and dominated in the field of broadcast journalism. What many people don’t know, however, is that behind the scenes of their favorite news channels there’s a different world bubbling with vanity and competition.
After 14 years, her love affair with broadcast journalism came to an end. This was right around the same time she went through a divorce and had a complete priority shift. She decided to dip her toes into other fields and ended up working for the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Here, she met her first positive female influence (that wasn’t Barbara Walters): Terrassa Marx. Terrassa was the HBIC, which was shocking to Cecillea because never had she seen a female leader in a workplace. At Cecillea’s first monthly meeting, she walked into the conference room to see Terrassa sitting at the head of the table, two women seated beside her, and men actually listening to what she had to say.
Cecillea thoughtfully added, “I wish every woman could be at a table like that at least once.” She learned from Terrassa what it looks like to be in a female in a position of power and translated that into her own career as well.
Cecillea currently sits on the Arkansas House of Representatives (which is kind of a big deal!). Looking back from where she started to where she is now is extremely inspiring to young women like myself. She’s now a woman young girls can look up to and think “man, I wanted to be like her when I grow up.”
Cecillea shared with me that she wouldn’t have gotten to where she is today if she hadn’t constantly surrounded herself with strong women in DEQ.
What I Learned From Cecillea
Toward the end of our conversation, Cecillea and I talked about her greatest accomplishment. For years, she struggled with alcoholism, and she described how hard but rewarding getting sober was for her. “It allowed me to be a better mom, to have a better job, and to be a better human being.” Before getting sober, her life was consumed with “working hard and drinking hard,” which limited her relationships and career.
She shared that the major key was learning to turn things over when you can’t control them. Finally, she said that “the one thing that I’ve taken from my sobriety is a willingness to let good things happen to me on a timetable that may not be my own.”
Strength in times of hardship—that’s what I have come to admire most about Cecillea Mayo. As a young adult worrying about what’s to come next in life, I’ve found myself looking for women to model my life after. While my biggest crisis this month might be not getting my graduation dress hemmed in time, I still look to women around me for guidance on behavior and actions.
Cecillea is a giver, an inspirer, a caretaker, a hard worker, and a million other things that make her a strong woman. Her grace and perseverance through everything life has thrown at her gives me comfort in knowing that I can handle what comes my way as well. What doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger!