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Nevertheless, They Persisted

How six women conquered some major professional hurdles



Imagine you’re at a high-level meeting—executive or board—where important decisions are on the table. You’ve got a seat at the table, but when it’s weigh-in time, you’re talked over or not given an opportunity to speak. What would you do?

Here’s how Lydia Black, executive director of the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers, once handled such a situation.

“I raised my hand, like a child,” says 39-year-old Black. But she sure didn’t speak like one. We can’t print what she said, but in a nutshell: Black used biologically correct language to point out that while her age and sexual anatomy made her unique at that meeting [she was the lone woman there], those facts shouldn’t preclude her from contributing.

She finally had the room’s attention. As well she should have. Black has a proven track record of success in nonprofit management, led the once-struggling Alliance out of the red, and is an authority on the economic impact of the arts in Southwest Florida. She brings both insight
and experience to the table, but she had to get tough to be heard.

Some degree of inequality, especially in the workplace, is a daily reality for women around the world and Southwest Florida is no different. But there are inspiring success stories all around us, thanks to exceptional women like the six you’re about to meet—women who’ve overcome a range of professional challenges, sometimes the least of which is gender bias. 

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Lydia Black

Age: 39

Alliance for the Arts, Fort Myers Executive Director 

(Photo by Alex Stafford)

Lydia Black used to tell her husband, “I didn’t know I was young and 
I didn’t know I was a woman until I moved to Southwest Florida.”

Black had moved here from Washington, D.C., which was “full of young professionals changing the world,” she says. When she became
 the executive director of Fort Myers’s Alliance for the Arts in her early 30s, she was surprised to be called “sweetie,” “honey” or “young woman” so often.

“All of a sudden I was called ‘young woman,’ not Lydia Black, a nonprofit manager. Even by the media,” she says. “I really felt like I had to prove myself here.”

It wouldn’t take long. Black diversified the nonprofit’s classes and community offerings, which now include yoga, a Saturday green market, compelling theater and gallery exhibits that range from elementary school artists to international painters. She educated local leaders about the economic impact of the arts in Southwest Florida. She helped generate more money in more ways than ever before.

Some might say the proof of her success is in the bottom line: The Alliance is no longer in the red.

“We have learned to become self-sufficient,” Black says. “We make sure that we are sustainable, that our earned income is driving a large portion of
our budget, that we are conservative budgeters.”

But it’s not just about numbers for Black. She’s proud to have gained the confidence of the arts community over time. “I had to prove that despite not being an artist, I could take on the executive director role and be trusted to keep the mission and vision.”

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Shelley Broader 

Age: 52


Chico’s FAS, Fort Myers CEO and President 

(Photo by John Paluzzi, Full Circle Productions)

Not all business challenges are thrown at you. Sometimes you create your own—as Shelley Broader, CEO and president of Chico’s FAS, likes to do. In her case, these challenges involve pushing herself to the next level or the next big thing.

“I started on the finance side [in investment banking] and decided to make the leap to
the supermarket business, learning a brand-new business from scratch,” says Broader, who worked her way up to CEO of Florida’s Sweetbay Supermarket (now Winn-Dixie) before stepping down in 2008.

She then became president of Michaels, the national arts-and-crafts giant. And after that she worked for Wal-Mart, eventually leading retail operations and overseeing business development in Europe, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Canada.

“I’m a lifelong learner and I love the discovery of new opportunities and issues. Once I’ve discovered those and used my best skill set and built the right team, I need to find that next opportunity,” Broader says. For example, international expansion is on the radar for Chico’s. “It’s just a little bit manifest destiny.”

She’s managed to run big companies, live around the country and travel the world for business while still being an active mom and wife. Certainly, she’s a role model for many.

While Broader can’t recall instances of gender bias in her career, she knows that’s not always the case for women. She has this advice for any woman who may feel she’s not being given a fair chance relative to her male colleagues:

“She should quit. She should go work for one of the hundreds of corporations, thousands of corporations, who understand that their top-and bottom-line performance is enhanced by diversity and inclusion,” Broader says.

And don’t let either the idea or reality of a so-called glass ceiling limit career advancement. “Think of it as some awesome blue sky with the occasional glass umbrella. If you find yourself under one, I would get out from underneath that.” 

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Melissa Cofta 

Age: 32

Priority Marketing, Fort Myers Marketing and Public Relations Account Manager 

(Photo by Alex Stafford)

Like any good marketing pro, Melissa Cofta doesn’t hit an off-note when talking about her career.

On professional wins: “It’s hard for me to own a success. I always think of myself as part of a team.”

On difficult personalities: “You have to look for the good in the person and know that you have a common goal as an end result.”

On being a woman in business: “Life is full of the unexpected, and you have to learn to hit the curveballs.”

Cofta, a marketing and public relations account manager at Priority Marketing, is also quick to bring up the “generous spirits, sophistication and work ethic” of her mentors, Gail Markham (also highlighted in this article) and her current boss, Teri Hansen.

But focus on her own accomplishments? She’s not a fan of that—not even when it comes to her role in the success of “Leadership Next.” That’s the networking group she recently co-founded as an offshoot of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. It earned her (and cofounder Kelsey Griffin, whom she praises, naturally) a nomination for the News-Press 2017 Young Professional of the Year.

Grace can be helpful in business, but grit is essential—and Cofta has an abundance of both. They’re qualities that make her one to watch, and that she relies on when life throws her surprises.

She recalls a rough period in 2015, when her collarbone broke in a car accident, her father was dying of lung cancer and she had a leadership role in the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest. “If I wasn’t working on meeting our clients’ needs, I was on the phone with hospice, or I was at the doctor for a checkup to see how my bones were fusing back together,” Cofta says.

Passing the baton at work wasn’t a consideration. Instead she shifted her priorities, focused only on what needed to get done and eliminated the rest—including time-wasters such as unnecessary conversations or gossip. “I’m really proud of how I handled things,” she says. And then, as you might expect: “I’m also really proud of how the whole team at work banded together.”

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Gail Markham 

Age: 66

Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co., Fort Myers, Founding Partner and President

(Photo by Alex Stafford)

Back in the 1970s, Markham was a hardworking CPA at a firm that wasn’t ready for
a strong, female leader-in-the-making. She’d watched colleagues make partner while she did not—though she was often tapped for office chores. In 1979, she’d had enough.

Markham explored her options in Southwest Florida but “didn’t see any alternatives that were suitable or desirable for me,” she says. So she started her own firm offering tax and bookkeeping services.

Some told her she’d never make it. More than 35 years later, Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co. is an icon in the local business community, offering a range of services including accounting, bookkeeping, business consulting, human resources consulting and forensic accounting.

Her secrets to success are many. Ironically, she now cites being a woman as one of them. “The CPA profession is a great one for women because we’re so customer-service oriented. We take such good care of our clients, and they tell their friends about us. Our growth
is more word of mouth than anything else,” Markham says.

She has expanded her areas of expertise over the years, becoming a certified financial planner, family mediator and fraud examiner. “I also got accreditations for business valuation and financial forensics,” Markham says. “I’ve been going to school my entire life so I can be the best at what I do.”

Markham is also dedicated to helping the next generation of women leaders be their best. “I’ve always made a point of mentoring women of all ages. I’ve met so many wonderful women along the way,” she says—including her mentee Melissa Cofta, a marketing and public relations account manager at Priority Marketing.

But Markham says you don’t need to have a formal mentor to make leaps in your knowledge and career. She learned that firsthand.

“I really didn’t have anybody I could talk to, but I observed what my successful clients did,” Markham says. “I quietly had them mentoring me without them even knowing it.” 

***

Sheryl Soukup

Age: 46


Soukup Strategic Solutions, Inc., Naples President 

(Photo by Lane Wilkinson)

Sheryl Soukup leadership roles in area nonprofits for years. But she had a dream to strike out on her own as a consultant for nonprofit organizations, helping them with fundraising, management and other advice. She took the leap in 2012. It was no small risk. She was a single mom of three and the only provider for her family. No bank would give her new business a loan.

While she’d planned and saved for her venture, finding that loan was a priority.
“I kept asking around until I located this place, a nonprofit in Sarasota that provided loans to small businesses,” Soukup says. “They said ‘if we get our funding [to provide a loan to Soukup], we’d like to work with you.’”

She wouldn’t need the assistance after all; Soukup Strategic Solutions quickly took off—thanks to hard work, a goal of exceeding client expectations, and building a strong network of business mentors early on. “I told some very trusted friends that I was planning to do this, and they connected me to [some key leaders] in the business community,” Soukup says. “That gave me a lot of people to bounce business ideas off.”

Today, her company is thriving and growing. “When your clients have tangible results, if you have the outcomes people want, they will come back to you and recommend you,” Soukup says.

Yet despite her success, she has her share of self-doubt at times. And she learned in Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, that so many women leaders do
too. “Knowing that I’m not the only one, and that very successful, unarguably brilliant, talented women also feel this way at times made it better for me,” Soukup says. “Suddenly I recognized it in myself and could do something about it. And what I do is acknowledge it’s there and then quickly move past it.”

***

Gail Williams

Age: 67


Hodges University, Naples Chief Diversity Officer 

(Photo by Craig Hildebrand)

Gail Williams has been a driving force behind diversity efforts at her alma mater, Hodges University. “It involved change in the culture of the university, and any type of change is difficult,” Williams says.

Even when facing tepid political will, she’s never backed off her enthusiasm to promote diversity inclusion within those walls—not when she was a student or volunteer there, and not now as chief diversity officer.

“It took five years to open the Office of Diversity, and it took another four or five years to really get folks to understand and be accepting of change,” she says, referring to initiatives such as diversity training.

One challenge was simply generating interest in diversity. “I had to provide a means to make people interested, get excited about it. It really took baby steps,” she said.

For example, she spearheaded a Hodges diversity festival, which has been going strong for eight years. “There’s education, arts, food, portraiture. We want to get people comfortable being introduced to some- thing outside the world they’re used to on a daily basis,” she says.

Another successful effort: diversity lunch-and-learns. “We’ve talked about women’s issues, LGBT issues, different hot topics that the community is dealing with so we can create open conversation.”

Self-improvement has been as important to her success as bringing people around to recognize the value of diversity and inclusion. Williams became involved in various organizations, including the Florida Diversity Council—and she launched a chapter in Southwest Florida. She also became involved with the Society of Diversity, where she became certified as a diversity expert.

“People need to understand that I’m serious about this and I’m developing myself to be an expert in the field,” Williams says. “I need to be the change that I want to come about.” 

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