Carol Parker Walsh, the owner of Evolve Your Image Consulting, based in Camas, has two steel rods and five screws in her right leg — and three in her shoulder — from when a drunk driver collided with her vehicle.
The end of a lengthy scar from the incident peeks out from underneath a stylish patterned skirt.
The accident and recovery process inspired Walsh, 53, to go on journey to help herself and other women who are struggling with image and identity, something she says is a pervasive struggle because women are often fed mixed messages in society about how to look or what path in life to take. She especially notices it in women who are midlife, in their 40s and 50s, when they’re no longer considered “young,” yet aren’t ready for any sort of retirement.
“Particularly, we live in a very patriarchal society … that tells us we’re too young, we’re too old, we’re too tall, we’re too short, get a job, don’t get a job, stay at home with your kids, no, go to work. It’s crazy-making,” she said. “And we’re constantly trying to chase after some constantly moving target, really a moving mythical target that we can never hit.”
Readers of the Vancouver Business Journal may have caught her byline, where she writes a recurring column called “Dress Code,” that offers advice about building confidence and success for entrepreneurs. In March, she was a featured guest at the International Women’s Festival Northwest at Clark College.
She’s also regularly a keynote speaker at various business events in the region, especially on the topic of female empowerment. She has 15 clients and leads a group to help women discover themselves and better thrive in work environments. Or more often, rediscover themselves after a professional or personal light went out.
But it has taken decades for her to get to this point of self-understanding.
Not long ago, Walsh was a successful practicing attorney in Chicago who was in an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce.
“So I had a failed marriage, I felt like a failure. I was a single mother, and you know all the stigma around being a single mama,” she said. “I had no focus.” She was lying in a hospital bed spending time with her two children when she thought something had to change.
“My kids were at a place where they were asking how they can make me happy, which was devastating to me because that’s my job, not their job for me,” she said.
She changed how she dressed, went back to school to pursue her doctorate degree and “started research and really understanding how women define themselves, how we discover our identity and how we develop self-esteem and confidence.”
She worked her way up in academia, studying human and social systems at Fielding Graduate University in California, later becoming an assistant professor at Oregon Health & Science University. She grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., before moving to Chicago for school. She returned to the West Coast to be near family after her divorce.
“My career started really taking off, but it’s not where I wanted to spend my time. I didn’t want to just research and study these things in an ivory tower. I wanted to work with women one-on-one, and so on the precipice of my 50th birthday, I said ‘You know what, I’m going to launch my business and help women find their center,’ ” she said.
That’s how she found Twila Kaye, 52, of Vancouver and managing director of Portland’s chapter of the eWomenNetwork, an international organization with thousands of members. The two met after Walsh gave a talk for the Women’s Entrepreneur Organization of Southwest Washington, an association of female business owners and executives that meets to network and support one another in business endeavors.
Kaye had previously been excited and happy about her work. She made a transition to a new organization and that light had gone out.
“I was on the roller coaster. I hit the top, and ‘Oh crap, I’m going down now.’ Then it’s going to be the end of the ride,” Kaye said. She felt depressed and confused after enduring a toxic work environment where women tore each other down. These days, she feels better and runs her own business as well, called Twila Kay International, in which she helps businesses build a successful work culture.
She credits Walsh for helping her get back to a point of confidence.
Walsh digs into each client’s identity to figure out what the issues are, how and when they lost themselves, so to speak — and not everyone is the same. A 50-year-old’s struggles are going to be different than that of a 20-year-old’s. Additionally, as a woman of color, she has dealt with issues related to her race, but sometimes that blends into the fact that she’s a woman.
“So from that perspective someone may meet me and only see my race, but then, I have people — because I’ve been in very male-dominated fields — who meet me and only see my gender,” she said, adding that women are always “dancing at an intersection” of various identities.
“You know, a mom. Not a mom. Age, younger or older … so I caution my clients or anyone to say that it’s one thing or the other. If I need to address race and then check that off, and now I need to address gender,” she said. “As women we have to understand ourselves at every place in that intersection so we can bring the totality of ourselves into everything that we do. We’re not meant to be a box. We’re puzzle pieces. You gotta put me together if you want to deal with me.”