Fellows Grad Renee White Adds Purpose to Numbers

ANNA TRAVERSE, Special to the Daily News

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At the end of her third-grade year, Renee White’s elementary school switched math books. Why does White – now chief financial officer of Oak Hall – remember a textbook being retired 20 years ago?

“I could take the old book home – I did math problems all summer,” she recalls, perched on a patio bench in a trellised garden outside Oak Hall’s East Memphis flagship store.

Numbers are like dogs: Some people back into a corner at first sight, while others approach them with comfort and confidence. White recalls always feeling comfortable around numbers.

Photos by Ziggy Mack

“There’s no gray area,” she says, “whereas everything else is open to somebody else’s interpretation.”

She moved to Memphis 14 years ago from Nashville to begin undergraduate work at the University of Memphis. Although numbers played a role in her decision to matriculate at U of M, what has kept her in Memphis are the people. As numbers-conscious as she is, White’s major life decisions have more to do with human figures than with numerical ones.

A deep appreciation of the people around her brought her to the role she occupies now at Oak Hall. After graduating from U of M, White worked for five years in the audit department of Deloitte & Touche, a multinational professional services firm with offices in Memphis. The job required fierce competition, and White was up for the challenge: “I was on the partner track – it was cutthroat, but I loved my job.”

But then a friend mentioned the opening at Oak Hall. The company’s financial controller was relocating, while their CFO was edging closer to retirement. Wrenching as it was to walk away from her path at Deloitte – she was months away from a major promotion – “the family [the Levys, longtime owners of Oak Hall] sold me. The people sold me.” She started as controller in 2013, and was promoted to CFO the following year.

A locally based, family-owned upscale clothing retailer, Oak Hall’s legacy stretches back to 1859, when it was founded in Downtown Memphis by Solomon Halle. The company now boasts five stores in three cities in the region.

Much has remained consistent at Oak Hall through the decades – including commitments to customer service, and to giving back to the community. White found at Oak Hall an environment receptive to her dedication to giving back. Her eyes shine when she speaks of hours spent tutoring two second-grade students at Southpark Elementary through Memphis’ ARISE2Read program.

“Oak Hall has strong roots here,” White says, “whereas I’m still a Memphian by choice.”

When she was offered the position at Oak Hall, White – a woman with a streak of wanderlust – laughs recalling her first thought: “Ooh, this is really going to keep me in Memphis.”

She intentionally finds time for worldwide adventures, but White’s own Memphis roots are stronger than ever. Unflagging in her curiosity, she’s helped to envision the next steps in Oak Hall’s long story, from expanding the company’s online presence to opening a new store in Nashville. She brings her curiosity, too, to helping maneuver the company online, open new locations and welcome more Memphians – including younger, more diverse faces – into Oak Hall’s doors.

Not so far removed from that third-grade girl who brought home a math book for summer exploration, this young executive is grateful for the chance to “experience growing pains, and learn from them. We all have a place and a purpose, and my thought process is: live it now – do it now.”

Renee White is a graduate of New Memphis Fellows, the premiere community-wide leadership development experience for mid-career leaders in Memphis. Learn more about New Memphis Fellows