I like to describe the role of a project manager as someone who bridges the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Now, let me be clear, that is a super generalization as there are lots of people, processes, and resources that are “the bridge” between these two states. As a project manager myself, I think one of the most valuable assets that people possess are themselves.
Could you or your organization benefit from working with a Project Management executive who has been a leader in Strategic Management and Business Process Improvement? Meet Renee Overton-Palma of The Palma Project. Her inspiring story highlights the value that personal experience has in leadership and project management even when there are moments defined by survival and overcoming cultural and racial barriers.
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Meet Renee Overton-Palma
Born in the Bronx to an African American mother and Black/Native American father, Renee grew up never feeling “not good enough”. She comes from a very supportive family, especially of strong women, whose childhood homes served as a welcoming place where extended family frequently gathered.
Her neighborhood was a cultural melting pot. Renee recalls Latino families moving into her childhood neighborhood and the friction it caused between neighbors as the neighborhood transformed. She learned early on that the problems of adults did not have to be the problems of the youth. This has helped her to embrace cultural differences in a way many people can not.
Renee’s mother worked especially hard to ensure that her children received a very good education, whatever the cost. This meant moving a lot and commuting by train nearly an hour and a half each way from their neighborhood's to predominantly white schools. “My mother knew that there was something out there beyond poverty,” Renee explained.
“My mother knew that there was something out there beyond poverty”
Renee was one of only three black girls at the boarding school she attended. She remembers calling home when she realized the Ku Klux Clan was marching down the road outside not far from her dorm. Finding a place to fit in took lots of work, but it happened. Since her family could not afford the full price of tuition Renee had to work in the school kitchen to make up the difference. This job was usually considered a punishment for any other student.
Things didn’t come easy, but she wouldn’t have changed any of it. Renee is proud to have grown up as a black girl and told me that if she died and could choose how to come back, she would ALWAYS choose to be a black girl.
Renee studied Communications at the University of Connecticut and began her project management career at Morgan Stanley where she also met her future husband Michael. Michael is a Latino technology professional whose family hails from Central America. Despite their cultural differences, they fell in love. This love was proven a million times over through Renee’s personal experience as a survivor of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th.
Renee’s Story Of Survival - September 11th
Renee worked for Morgan Stanley. She was traveling to their Jersey City location from Building 7 of the World Trade Center complex in the Financial District of Manhattan in New York City. On that fateful morning, after exiting a NYC subway station “I remember thinking, ‘that plane sounds so loud’,” Renee told me. It is not uncommon to hear planes considering the proximity to several major airports, but this was very different. It was too close…
Soon after, she looked up and saw the letters I-C-A-N on a plane piercing one of the Twin Towers. It was the rear body of the American Airlines plane that was hijacked and purposely crashed into the building… “It was surreal - I froze,” Renee recalled, “it started raining desks, chairs, and papers gliding in half circles all around us as they fell.”
“it started raining desks, chairs, and papers gliding in half circles all around us as they fell”
There was chaos and panic, yet through this Renee managed to switch into leader mode to help at least one other woman, frozen with fear, get to safety. “Grown men were pushing and kicking us to get out of the way.” Through a combination of fear and adrenaline, Renee made it to the side of a nearby historic cemetery when her asthma started to catch up with her. A stranger, a nurse, came to her aid to help get her breathing together. As unsettling as life’s challenges can be, humanity is still present.
After making it to a public pay phone Renee called Michael, her then boyfriend and now husband. “Stop crying!” he told her, “I can’t understand what you’re saying!” She told him what happened and that she was heading to Mrs. Fields Cookies for shelter. Not long after the next plane hit! The glass walls of the cookie shop shattered and it was time to leave.
Through the chaos, her boyfriend managed to get a ride to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, but the car couldn’t cross. He began to run across the bridge and through the Financial District until he was able to meet Renee. They made a plan to find one another on the last train leaving Grand Central Station for Connecticut. A welcoming surprise was when the doors opened Renee and Michael were at the same door. That was the moment she knew they’d be together forever.
Relocating To Central Florida
Renee continued to advance in her project management career despite the trauma she endured on September 11th. She credits her husband’s unfailing support as one of the primary reasons she has been able to grow professionally. In 2005, Renee obtained her Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI). She continues to maintain her PMP certification and has picked up a few more along the way.
Renee later joined UnitedHealth Group and rose to the level of IT Director. Here she led significantly large teams made up of both on and off-shore project management and technology professionals on portfolios of projects totaling upwards of $150M. In this role she led in an enterprise-wide Project Management Office (PMO) that was responsible for transforming the way Business & Technology implemented new products, processes and services.
In 2014, Renee’s husband was recruited to work at Kennedy Space Center in Central Florida. In order to take this opportunity, the family would need to relocate. “Florida was never part of the plan,” Renee explained, “but he has always been my biggest advocate as I frequently traveled for my job, so we were moving.” UnitedHealth Group, Renee’s employer at the time, had a policy that employees must live within a certain proximity from one of their offices; the move to Florida would not satisfy this requirement.
Uncertain about her career, she knew it was time to be supportive of her husband’s opportunity in the way he had done for her for so many years. Driving on faith, they made their way down to Florida and closed on their new home mid-trip at a McDonald’s off of Interstate 95. Renee’s executives created as much opportunity to continue while honoring the policy which allowed her to stay a little longer. This gave her the time she needed to lean into her entrepreneurial side and start her own company.
The family’s transition from the North-East to Central Florida didn’t come without its own challenges. Being a biracial family can also lead to questions of self-identity. Renee told me that her daughter used to tell people that her dad was white or manilla even though he is actually Latino. “You don’t owe anyone an explanation,” Renee told her daughter, “and you don’t have to call him anything other than daddy.” Still, the hurtful comments from kids can leave a lasting impression and break hearts.
For Renee, growing a business in Orlando has been difficult. She’s a New Yorker and has always been able to vibe with people of all cultures while in New York and Connecticut. Coming to Florida, however, things were different and she couldn’t connect with people as easily.
Arriving as the second “black” family when they first moved into the neighborhood, they settled in and thrived, and Renee’s home is now much like her mother’s was - a place where everyone comes to be part of this extended family. Renee uses this very same approach for her business. She meets her clients where they are and focuses on making their good greater.
Learn More About The Palma Project
The Palma Project was founded by Technology and Project Management executive Renee Overton-Palma in 2017. They are a boutique-style firm that provides companies support in executing business strategies involving Project Management that will help to increase revenue, along with Management Consulting and Business Process Improvement that helps to improve performance in the workplace while creating operational efficiencies.
Through The Palma Project, Renee helps transform individuals and private/public organizations to leverage and reframe their strength which, like their motto says, “makes your good greater.” The firm continues to give back to surrounding communities as a passion. They have done some incredible work supporting school-age and post-secondary students.
Their training and workshops have helped students gain confidence and put their academic skills to work in encouraging and practical ways. Renee focuses on the skills students need to learn in order to be effective leaders in their communities - what they call the 3C’s: Collaboration, Communication, and Critical Thinking.
While some may think the field of project management is largely only applicable in the construction industry, The Palma Project has helped students learn core PM principles that are applicable in every industry and in many parts of their daily lives. “Building your self-confidence,” Renee says, “starts with being smart enough to make a plan, then willing to change the plan, and lastly daring enough to execute the plan.”
“Building your self-confidence starts with being smart enough to make a plan, then willing to change the plan, and lastly daring enough to execute the plan”
The Palma Project’s work within lower-resourced communities seeks to convey the skills needed to break out of the poverty trap, highlight the importance of leadership, bridge the academic gap, and increase opportunities, confidence, and the desire to succeed, to name a few. This project has helped many students, but these skills are vital to more than just students.
Renee wants to bring her 20+ years of experience as a leader in technology and project management to work for you and your organization. Maybe you know what you need or maybe you need an unbiased third party to review your operation, identify areas of opportunity, then develop and implement a transformation plan.
“Everybody’s good is not the same, nor should it be,” Renee explained. “Just like a project, everyone’s situation is unique.” Renee seeks to help the community in any way she can. When she meets people who need help with their business she will find a way to help them even if it means getting them to someone else. “You don’t know someone else’s struggle,” she says, “the least you can do is use your network to find a way to help them.”