My hungry soul:
An interview with Charlene SanJenko
August 15, 2023
I had the great pleasure of working with Charlene in 2019 on 500 Days in the Wild, a documentary by indie filmmaker Dianne Whelan. As Dianne traversed the 24,000-kilometre-long Great Trail, Charlene was behind the scenes doing what she does best: making the sorts of connections that amplify the voices of women and empower them to tell their stories authentically.
Since then, Charlene has launched reGEN media: the first and only Indigenous-owned and female-led regenerative media studio designed to allow filmmakers to prioritize human impact and transformation at every stage of the filmmaking process without the concerns of commercial profitability. You can learn more about the reGEN theory of change here.
Eden Friesen, Associate Editor
Charlene SanJenko is a social impact entrepreneur with two decades as an impact producer under her belt. An Indigenous storyteller and media visionary, she was born in the Splatsin Band of the Shuswap Nation. Charlene believes in creating from a place of collective genius, celebrating cohesive partnerships that bring stories of hope and possibility alive. She leads a team at reGEN media that is introducing a new approach to align progressive creative projects with strong brands with the intent of striking partnerships and integrated capital investments to propel lasting success for all involved. She holds a longstanding reputation in the social impact space, with a former corporate background in investment services, marketing and communications, and impact production.
Charlene’s strengths-based, solutions-focused approach to her work in inclusive innovation explores the elevation of the human condition, utilizing the power of storytelling and the vehicle of regenerative media to shift mindsets and belief systems by providing nourishing experiences that heal, inspire, and transform.
How did your childhood shape your ideas about what work looked like and what was possible for you?
Charlene SanJenko: I had a wicked imagination in my childhood. Not uncommon to a lot of children, but my imagination tended to come alive visually. I was up before my parents colouring, and not just colouring — I was at it! I was on it, in it, at it, and by the time my parents woke up in the morning — they’d kinda stumble into the kitchen around seven to get coffee — I would be so proud to show them my project-of-the-day, what I had done.
When I look back on that now, I can see how important being able to see, to create and actually be able to see it, was to me. And not only that, but to be able to show it to someone else. To say, “See what I’ve done, mom? Can you see this? Isn’t it awesome?”
It’s so funny, because in my work now, I’m this incredibly visual person. My team laughs at me — I have such a hard time with being linear, with writing in a document. I have to see everything in a snapshot. I have journals and journals and journals of these snapshot brain dumps, my visions: for my life, for my leadership, for my entrepreneurship, for my impact.
I would say my childhood was framed, at least in that respect, by just being allowed — encouraged, I guess — and never discouraged from that practice of seeing to create. And I still do that! I get up every morning, earlier than most people, do my thing, and then move on with my day.
Fast-forward to today. How did the path to what you’re doing now unfold?
CSJ: It certainly wasn’t a straight line! It’s funny: I’d always heard, ever since I was a younger woman, “You’ll be able to look back,” and “just trust!” But when you’re in it — when you’re twenty and twenty-five, and thirty and thirty-five, and forty and forty-five, you’re very much like, “What is this?!”
You just gotta keep walking and trusting and walking and trusting, and then you hit fifty, and you go, “I’m at the midway point.” [laughs] And I look back, and now I can see the thread — I can see the thread of how one step led to the next. One opportunity prepared me for the next as I was ready for it. So that’s what I always try to share with younger women: your job is to walk, to faith-walk. And that is the experience of life. That is actually why we’re here. It’s to experience that faith-walk.
What led me here, if I connect the dots, is a combination of being a tomboy, a crazy sports fan and lover of athletics. Really. I understand now that my love for sport and athletics was because I could see possibility. I could feel the potential available. I could use it in my own learning: that was the place where I could really see people reaching for their potential, really reaching. And so I started to connect the dots, that it wasn’t just sport for the sake of sport that I was interested in — I’m actually super curious about human performance and potential, and the barriers and access to, and inclusion of, the frameworks to encourage and support it, and the innovation around it. Those are what I’m keenly interested in.
And so I played in it and with it through my own physicality, through my own body, for a while, because I had to experience it. Here was a stretch of time when I was competing in natural bodybuilding, and I was training other women to compete, because it was the closest thing I could test — our ability to set a vision and physically experience the manifestation of that vision step-by-step. I learned some valuable lessons from that over a decade, some kinds of principles and techniques. ’Cause that’s the other thing: I’m not an academic. I’m a living, learning, breathing laboratory. I have to test it, do it myself, try it.
And then I started to push into leadership because in the early 90s, it was the closest conversation I could find around how best to bring human performance into everyday living. If some of these things are working, like in the gym, and with people’s bodies and performance within set periods of time — I could train someone for sixteen to eighteen weeks and totally transform their body, and bring them on stage for a competition. So how does that translate into other areas of life that really matter? Like leadership, like building stronger communities — things that mattered deeply to me. I started playing in the social impact and social innovation space. But always with a foundation of curiosity in human performance and potential, and in how to best enrich our human experience and why we’re here. What is it all in the highest purpose of? So I played in that space of performance leadership and social impact for, again, probably a couple of decades.
It was interesting to play in that space — there wasn’t a name for it at the time. I’ll never forget quitting a corporate position, a national management position in the financial services industry, at an investment firm, and literally walking away not being able to explain to them what I wanted to go and do. There weren’t words like social impact, social innovation, social enterprise. I had to walk out of this amazing position and say, “I’m not sure what I’m going to do, I can’t really explain it right now, but I think to start with I’m going to be a personal trainer.” And they looked at me like I was going to Mars because I was quitting this exceptional position to become a personal trainer! It just did not compute for these poor men.
Now, I think you can look back and see what I’ve done over the last twenty years and go, “Okay, I can see she was hungry for purpose-driven values alignment, humanity betterment, life enrichment, and it wasn’t all about financial portfolios.” Which, you know, obviously is also very important, but my soul was super hungry for more.
That’s kinda the journey — a creative childhood, and a pioneering journey in the human performance space that led me here, playing into regenerative media, making new terminology. It’s new now, but so was social impact twenty years ago, so it’s all good. You know, I truly believe that media is the most powerful changemaking tool of our generation. So of course that’s the space that I want to play in!
Did you have any mentors along the way?
CSJ: It’s so fascinating, because I guess I had what I would call the dream mentors. Because, with me, and dreaming of infinite possibility, of course I’d shoot for 100%. And so who would the dream mentors be? I’d look for those living and breathing and just-out-of-my-fingertips mentors who were like — I’d always joke — just five miles ahead of me, or just on the next chapter.
On the dream mentor side, I was looking for folks who were really living into the conversations around human performance and enrichment of our lives, or digging for a deeper understanding. And of course growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Oprah was a huge influence in my life for a lot of reasons. But lesser known — or maybe not lesser known! — Eileen Fisher is a sustainable fashion designer who I always admired in so many ways — not only from how she was building her business and walking the walk as an entrepreneur with integrity, but also in how she treats her people, and just the class and the grace that I would experience listening to podcasts or videos or conversations with her.
On the “just five miles ahead” or the “next chapter” mentorship, that was really the context under which I created my first company, which is PowHERhouse, looking for those women whom I admired and wanted to surround myself with. PowHERhouse was built to champion women leaders and changemakers. Since 2013, we’ve supported them on their ‘epic impact creation’ journeys since I believe that imagination activates greatness. PowHERhouse celebrates 10 years of changemaking this fall, continuing her work in utilizing the art of expression and impact amplification to actively encourage individuals and organizations to more deeply inhale and step into all of why they exist.
I understand now, after reconnecting with my Indigenous culture over the last eight years, that it’s really the Aunties mentality. It’s really that matriarchal energy of the Auntie value system and that mentality that I was craving. It’s so interesting to look back at that now and realize that I created a whole company — PowHERhouse — basically because I was craving to surround myself with positive and proactive and strong and wonderfully wise Aunties. So yes, there were many of those. I’ve had many in my job! I search them out, I seek them out. You certainly know one of them — Dianne Whelan: a filmmaker, a creator, an advocate for Mother Earth and for Indigenous people. She’s just… [gestures expansively]. But there’s been literally hundreds over the last decade.
How would you describe what you do to a general audience?
CSJ: Well, I guess I’ll start with why I do what I do. I’m 53, and you kinda come to this place where you’re like, “Oh, right: I’m in the third act of my career now. This is my big play. Everything that I’ve been working on has led me to this point.”
My Indigenous teacher Wenecwtsin — former Chief Wayne Christian — he taught me an almost kinda challenge. He said, “You know, Charlene, we can heal our family in three generations if we choose to keep this a sacred priority.” I was like wow, we can heal ourselves and our families in three generations?! And I really started to see myself as that link between the generations in my bloodline, in the generations that have come before me, and in the generations that are coming after me. And how pivotally key that role is.
Editor’s note: As part of a recent collaboration, Charlene and Wenecwtsin co-created the short film Coming Home for the Children.
So I said, “OK, that’s my job.” That’s my job — to help my family heal from what’s come before me, and to not allow any intergenerational trauma to be passed on. The buck stops here for me. And to be able to help as many other families as possible, also. Because I believe that if and as we heal, at our roots, the crisis and chaos that surrounds us will also heal. It has to start here [points to herself]. It’s much easier to focus on the external crisis and chaos, but we have to remember that we caused it. I believe that we just have to heal ourselves, heal our families, heal our communities, heal our nation, and Mother Earth will regenerate to heal. That’s the regenerative ripple of impact.
So how is that gonna happen? What’s the fastest, most effective way forward? And it wasn’t very hard for me to land on “Where is our greatest influence coming from right now? Where are we digesting the most this very moment?” And what are we digesting the most of when we’re scrolling and streaming? That is absolutely what is affecting our moment-to-moment decisions and our perspectives and beliefs on who we think we are and how we think our world is around us. So you change — this is a bodybuilding lesson — change the input and the output will change. Change your eating and your exercise for four weeks, and guess what! There will be change. It’s not rocket science. Change what we’re taking in in a day by changing our attention and our intention, and we will change what we output: how we behave, how we talk, how we respond, how we react, and what we decide.
There seems to be this gap where people think that how we heal our world, how we move forward in our relationships, is separate from the decisions that we make. It’s not! It’s absolutely the same thing. We were given the power of choice as human beings — that’s one of the amazing gifts we were given. So how do we ensure that people are making better decisions? That is really what led me to “whatever I can do to ensure more regenerative media” — more positive messaging, more transformative stories, more inspiring and uplifting content. I call it “media that heals.” Whatever I can do to ensure more of this is happening, that is where I want to put my energy in this last act of my life.
And that is the goal of reGEN. It’s what we call an alternative wraparound ecosystem for regenerative media: how can we rethink the finance, the distribution, the marketing, the support, the monetization of it all so artists can just do what they do. Here’s my sports analogy playing into it again, but no one ever asks an athlete to be anything other than an athlete — anything other than to train and to play and to master the game and be on the field. And then I look at these amazing filmmakers and artists, and they’re out there slogging and trying to find funding, pitching their projects and trying to market their film and I’m like… “OMG! Just play the game! Just frickin’ create! You have this amazing gift that could literally transform the world — just get on the field and play the game!” Their field is just being allowed to create.
But again, we’re not putting two and two together. The most powerful transformation tool of our time is what we’re ingesting in a day. And yet, we have our artists and our creators and our storytellers and our media-makers jumping through never-ending hoops. Most independent artists don’t make a film more than once every five to ten years. That’s ludicrous. If you compare that to athletes? If you were trying to get someone to the Olympics, and that was their track record — that you could practice or compete once every, you know? [Gestures]. But we want you to get to the Olympics? That just doesn’t make any sense. We’re creating a new model, where it does make sense. And these stories are going to come to light, in a really good way.
Eden Friesen: I don’t know that that captured what you actually do! [Both laugh]
CSJ: In really clear, bricks-and-mortar language, we are the first and only Indigenous-owned and female-led regenerative media studio, and we’re working to create alternative systems to finance, monetize, and distribute regenerative media. This new approach focuses on integrated capital that includes relational philanthropy like our Mothers of Film program, where women actually help us raise funds for these films in exchange for a charitable tax receipt. It includes shifting and shaping how advertising dollars are used, and really leaning on brands to make different decisions with those dollars, and seeing these projects as very, very viable opportunities. Let’s take brand advertising to brand allyship! We are also working towards an impact investment fund for regenerative media, so both individual and institutional impact investors as well as foundations who want to actively invest in those kinds of upstream, perspective-changing behaviours can then proactively affect the decisions and actions rather than just investing in how we’re trying to reactively fix what’s wrong right now. Let’s get upstream and make sure it doesn’t keep happening.
So that’s kind of the plumbing of the ecosystem around how reGEN does what we do. And we work with cohorts of filmmakers — we’re starting with a team of six, and we’ll be up to thirty-six regenerative filmmakers by 2030. Each of those filmmakers, it’s our goal that they’ll get to work on three projects over the next nine years as the network of filmmakers grows. That’s 108 regenerative films, not to mention the ripple of peripheral projects surrounding us and following our lead.
What was one of the first big aha moments of your career?
CSJ: You know, I think a big “aha!” for me was that, in this world that we live in, money does make the world go ’round, and that’s not a bad thing. For a while, I think I turned my back on that, and now the “aha!” is that money is medicine. Money can be used for good, and it really is how to create the momentum and energy. The “aha!” for me, as someone who is very, very interested in impact and the potential for social good, is that money is our best tracker of if and how and when priorities are changing. Money indicates where our priorities lie. If we want to see if the world is changing, check where money is being invested.
So again, for training an athlete, you would have them step on a scale and you would have them look at pictures, look in the mirror, to assess how ready they are for competition. That is your tracking mechanism. Now, my tracking system is, “I believe we can shift and elevate humanity, that we can heal our families. But what are our markers or indicators tracking?” My markers are better decisions. How do you track better decisions? You track where people’s priorities are. How do you track that? You track where they’re putting their dollars — where they’re investing their time, energy, attention, resources.
The “aha!” for me is to follow the dollars to evidence the impact. To watch, “Can we shift the trajectory? Are we shifting it? Yes, we are — what does that shift feel like?” And watching those dollars enterprising through investment, through progressive philanthropy projects. My “aha!” was, “Huh! This is why I worked in the brokerage industry.” Early in my career, back in the ’90s — this is why I worked on the stock market, where I understood the flow of dollars. Isn’t that something? 20-some-odd years later, here I am: still fascinated by the flow of money as medicine to track a shift in humanity that I’m hungry for.
What task(s) do you start your day with?
CSJ: I start my day with a term that I heard and has really stuck: ‘morning priming’ — warming yourself up for the day, almost like a tune-up for an instrument. For me, that always starts with mindset, movement, and meditation. I usually spend a good 30 minutes making sure that I’m right for the day. I journal, but I journal probably differently than most people do. I journal the exact same thing every day. I write my vision out every morning, my North Star.
I always keep my eyes, my heart, my soul, connected to my North Star of where I’m going and what that will look and feel like today. I think sometimes we forget what we say we want, so I journal my vision. If someone found my journal, they’d think there was something kind of off-kilter [laughs], because it’s the same thing every day. But then my journal actually does end with — and this is something that we’ve taught women we work with — my journal ends with four initials at the bottom, and those are M G C N. They stand for Move, Ground, Co-create, and Nourish. Those are my initials; yours might be different. If nothing else happened today, and I wanted to look back on my day and feel absolutely fulfilled, what four things would have happened?
Move: What am I doing to move my body today? Because I know that’s what activates and integrates my energy. Ground: How am I grounding? How am I grounding into gratitude to open to the world of interconnected abundance all around me? For me, it’s usually on a horse. For you, it might be in your garden, or a beach walk. Co-creating: Where am I connecting into the opportunities to co-create? Weaving in with others to reimagine even bigger possibilities? And I choose — language is important! — I choose to say “co-create” rather than “work,” or “What’s my focus in work today?”, because every day it’s the opportunity to co-create. I really don’t use the word ‘work’ a lot.
EF: It’s not work for you, is it?
CSJ: It just doesn’t fire me up! So why use it? And N is for Nourish: how am I nourishing and fuelling my body today? That might be foods, or it might be a massage, or it might just be something that fires me up or charges up my fun meter. Usually it’s a reminder to drink my water, or drink my greens. [laughs]
So it’s that thirty minutes of intentional priming before I step into my day, and also just having a quick glance at my schedule for the day, and playing through in my mind to envision how I want my day to go. It only takes sixty seconds — it’s almost like an intentional highlights reel of how I want my day going. “Oh! I’m going to glide from this to that to this,” whereas most people have a look at their day and go, “Ugh, my day.” Nope! It’s about how I’m going to dance through my day. Who am I energetically touching? How am I weaving? And it’s all going to come together with ease.
Time stretches. Time is a constraint. I’m calling in all my ancestors today. I’ve got compound energy to get through these six meetings, or whatever it is. It might sound funny, but I live like an athlete. And that’s exactly how they would think about it in their context, right?
EF: You have taken that athlete mentality to its logical extreme! I have to ask — you’re an intensely competitive person, aren’t you?
CSJ: I am! I am! But now it’s mostly with myself. And for the fun of it. Everything is a game to me! If it’s not a game, it’s not fun. So yeah, I am intensely competitive, but in a really expansive way, because it keeps it fun for me.
Outside of your work, what’s something you feel you’ve thought about a lot more deeply than most other people?
CSJ: I will honestly say that I’m sure I’ve thought about horses and my connection to my horse more deeply than most people probably ever have. My time on horseback or with my horse is my most direct connection to Spirit. I have had some incredible interactions that are hard to put into words, but the more time you spend with a horse, the more full and whole your heart is.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen or experienced even a video about working with a horse in a ring — lunging a horse. Very few people have experienced being able to project your energy onto a huge living being without physically touching them, and for that living being to respond to your energy without touching them. And so if you ever want to understand if energy is important and how important it really is, it’s an amazing process to witness. To have an 1,100-pound living being respond only to your energy is absolutely mind blowing. And then you think, “Huh, is energy that important in my interactions with my day?” Uh, yeah! It’s incredible. Just incredible.
What question(s) are you currently wrestling with?
CSJ: The first question was, “Am I really ready, and do I want to be a start-up founder for the second time over 50? Or do I really just want to coast now, and ride my horse?” I didn’t wonder about that for too long, though, because I was absolutely called to do this work. I did not have a choice. My ancestors are literally pulling me by my ponytail going, “No, no, no, no — over here. Get on with it.” [laughs]
In terms of wrestling, I think that any time you’re walking your growth edge, you’re truly in that space of what I call inclusive innovation. It’s a faith-walk, and you always have to be prepared for folks to not quite understand you, or not quite get you. You’re on that growth edge. You’re pioneering, bush-whacking, leading towards a different — and better — way… It’s an uncomfortable challenge sometimes, but a challenge in a good way. I’m where I know I need to be if I’m constantly leaning into that. I think any time there has been a movement or an invention or an innovation that has shifted society, it’s been by folks who have played into walking that growth edge. They’ve bravely embraced their faith-walk.
What book have you most often gifted to others?
CSJ: That’s a hard question! I haven’t honestly gifted many books. What I more often gift are journals. I’d rather encourage people to express themselves than consume what someone else has written.
I’ve definitely gifted Audible credits, since I mostly listen to books now. I don’t know if that’s common practice, but I mostly listen more than read. Listening to a voice connects me to the spirit of a message or story in a way that I don’t feel when reading words on a page. I find that with being online so much, my eyes actually need a break, so I listen. I walk and I listen.
What advice would you give to someone who was just starting out in your field?
CSJ: I’ve always tried to encourage women and newer entrepreneurs (especially entrepreneurs!) to pursue an extremely values-focused way — to consider with curiosity that their entrepreneurship, their business, and their profession is nothing more and nothing less than the vehicle they’re driving to experience the life that they want to experience. That is what work is, and no one ever teaches us that.
I have driven the vehicle of PowHERhouse for a decade, and it was such a fun ride. It was such a fun vehicle. And now I’m co-driving the vehicle of reGEN, and it feels very different — it’s a different energy, it’s a different vehicle. PowHERhouse is still in my ‘garage’ of course [smiles] — she’s my baby!
I think that, with how much of our focus goes into what we do in our livelihoods and our working world, it’s really important for it to be aligned with the experience that we’re most looking to create for ourselves. And that’s where I think the alignment and the integrity and the integration really come together. It comes back to that vision — your North Star.
When you think of women who have inspired or influenced you, who comes to mind?
CSJ: There have been many, but I’m going to pay a bit of tribute to a woman by the name of Suzanne West.
I really, really admired this woman. Initially, I admired her because she single-handedly raised 300 million dollars for her company, and her company was positively changing its industry in a very big way. I followed her for a while — she really inspired me, she took the time to meet with me, and we had this incredibly intimate conversation. I’ve never experienced presence from someone like I did from her.
I thought I was going to learn about fundraising — I was so excited to pick her brain. Nope! She turned the whole thing upside down, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Tell me what you’re afraid of.” It was like she was speaking to my soul. I started crying! She said to me, “Charlene, if you were not called, you wouldn’t be compelled.” At that moment in time, that’s what I needed to hear. It has stuck with me to this very day. I actually could feel that in my body.
Five months after that meeting, she left this physical world. She was just a few months older than me, and it shook me and her city and her industry. She was at the top of her game. I feel so fortunate to have met her and to have spent even a little bit of time with her. She made a huge impact on my life in just one meeting. I hope I can do the same with others.
Every time I have an opportunity, I like to bring tribute to her. Her energy and her intention live on in the world, through many people.
Where do you feel the most scarcity in your life? Where do you feel the most abundance?
CSJ: Scarcity is definitely not a word that I use a lot, or that I even think about a lot! But I must say that I’m quite protective of my energy.
The body is an amazing teaching tool. I suffered from a bout of low iron for a number of years, which a lot of women do in their thirties and forties, and no one ever told us about that. Please regularly check your iron. I started to really proactively watch my energy — who and what was taking my energy, who and what was giving me energy. It’s the practice of reciprocity.
Where do I feel the most abundance? Oh — so many places. I think I feel the most abundance in this adventure of my life. I’m lucky enough to have a husband and a partner and creative collaborators around that breathe into that, and it’s fun. It’s really fun!
What keeps you going?
CSJ: I would say that I hold a deep sense of responsibility. I think I was born with it! Even as that young girl colouring, there was something I was up to.
I think it’s also related to my background — adopted out of foster care, grew up in a privileged home, knowing what the other options were. I have a deep sense of responsibility that fuels me every day. It really does! And not in a negative way, but it’s definitely a fire in my belly.
How do you show kindness to the people you care about?
CSJ: I’m pretty affectionate. I really am. I’m a kinaesthetic person, so COVID was tough on me. I’m a hugger — I like to touch people! — but the second best thing is kind words, kind gestures, little notes, small gifts.
I think kindness grows with the consistency of the act. It’s the little touches. I probably tell my husband a hundred times a day, “Love you!” rather than one big fancy gift or event — it’s little touches, love. You know?
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
CSJ: Oh, great question. I really hope — gosh, there’s so many.
I would say that regenerative media becomes its own sector, much like impact investment has. That really is what I’m up to. So that my work towards humanity healing will fully take shape, take form. I know that it’s a huge goal, a dream that’s not going to happen in my lifetime. But if I can establish it foundationally and really see lift-off in the next decade, I’ll be happy.
Is there a project, initiative, or cause you’d like to highlight?
CSJ: Yes! Thank you. I’d like to bring awareness to Mothers of Film. It’s a relational philanthropy program, and it’s piloting a model that will fuel filmmakers so that they can really master the art and the return of the sacred art of storytelling in a way that hasn’t been possible.
We’re lucky enough to work with a foundation that will allow us to provide charitable tax receipts, but it’s a program that I think provides accessibility for folks who want to be part of this in some big or small way. The flip side is that it is a systems-changing tool that will allow a storyteller to focus on the impact of a story rather than “how will this story make money?” and “where is it going to go?” and “how am I going to get it off the ground?” We’re just going to allow them to focus on “what is the most important story to tell right now?” and “what is the story that’s coming through you?” and “where does the story need to go, and to whom, for it to have the biggest impact in the world?”
We are also very excited to launch an Impact Allyship Cohort this fall for progressive brands, marketers, and agencies. I believe it’s the first of its kind. One-piece exploratory co-learning and one-piece sponsorship opportunities that will allow us to seed inclusively innovative experiments in regenerative media and measure their impact with shared analyses and amplification opportunities. Impact allyship is the future of advertising, and we’re looking for 10 pioneers to join us on this year-long journey who are interested in shaping a better future.
Where can our readers find you?
CSJ: The best place to find us is at regenimpactmedia.com.
Charlene and I spoke over Zoom at the beginning of June. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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