As first deaf employee at Altria, VCU Business alum embodies company’s push for diversity
The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business has long enjoyed a unique symbiotic relationship with the Richmond business community. Over the years, the school’s graduates have headed some of the area’s industry juggernauts, from Universal Corp. to the Luck Cos. Executives from Fortune 500 companies such as Performance Food Group, Altria Group and Markel Corp. serve on the VCU School of Business Foundation’s board of trustees.
In turn, these companies have partnered with the school to sponsor events, provide experiential learning opportunities and hire graduates who they’ve seen firsthand receiving stellar business educations.
So last spring, when School of Business graduate Cristina Childers was looking for a new job, she contacted an accounting professor at her alma mater to ask if he knew of any openings. He suggested that Altria might have something, and within a month, Childers had her first interview.
Childers started as an associate financial analyst for accounts payable at the tobacco company in April. She also has the distinction of being the company’s first deaf employee in its 36-year history.
Childers, 43, was born in Bucharest, Romania. When she was about a year old, she developed a high fever that left her deaf in both ears. While most toddlers are learning to speak, Childers was learning to read lips.
“Throughout school in Romania, I was forced to lip read and communicate without using sign language,” she said. “The use of sign language is not recognized as an official language in Romania as it is here in the United States.”
In 1999, Childers moved to Washington at the behest of her father.
“I never signed when I was a kid, I only read lips,” she said. “My father really wanted me to learn the American Sign Language so that I would have a good opportunity for education, job, hospital, etc. He knew communication is very important.”
She received a certificate in ASL from Gallaudet University before moving to Richmond in 2000. In 2014, she completed her associate of science degree in business administration at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, graduating magna cum laude. She then enrolled at VCU, where she received her bachelor’s degree in accounting in May 2020.
“VCU provides the best education, and it was a great opportunity for me to expand my knowledge, skills, confidence and experience to help me get a job,” she said.
At Altria, Childers performs audits and analyzes financial data.
“Altria has never had the interpreting services for deaf and hard-of-hearing employees,” Childers said. “I spoke with them about my communication needs in detail and requested interpreting services. Clear communication with people is so important.”
So is diversity in the workforce. Since becoming CEO of Altria last year, William F. “Billy” Gifford Jr. — another VCU graduate — has pushed to increase diversity at the company. He sits on the board of Catalyst, the global nonprofit dedicated to advancing women in the workplace, and is a Catalyst CEO Champion for Change.
“We are very excited that Cristina [Childers] chose to work at Altria,” Gifford said. “She has already exhibited strong leadership and passion and has helped me to grow. I look forward to fostering a long relationship with Cristina as a colleague and friend.”
Altria also strongly emphasizes team collaboration, Childers said, which makes her own values a good fit for the company’s culture.
“My dream is to become a director and Altria supports that by providing mentorship and opportunities for growth in my career to help me attain that goal,” she said.