No one knows the value of an education like someone who’s forged a career without it. “If I could just rewind and have those building blocks, that would be nice,” sighs Brenda Tate. The founder and CEO of the Southwest Florida Women’s Foundation (SFWF) in Bonita Springs is thinking back to her younger days in which she dropped out of college to get married and give birth to two daughters—only to find herself divorced several years later and attempting to enter the workforce as a single mom, “Starting with zero,” she says.
Getting on her feet meant assembling what she refers to now as her first personal board of directors, an assortment of savvy friends who guided her through buying a home, finding child care and securing a job as a ticket agent for now-defunct Eastern Air Lines on the night shift. The experience made her keenly aware of her vulnerability and determined to shed it by enlightening herself—she considers Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements a seminal life text, one whose tenets she returns to even today. It also explains the pride she exudes when talking about SFWF’s Earn to Learn program, launched in 2016, which teaches young women and men how to save money for college, and provides them with additional funding so they can complete their degrees uninterrupted. “It’s personal,” says Tate. “I know the importance of coming out and being workforce-ready.”
During her tumultuous young adulthood, Tate managed to open her own insurance business—her first foray into entrepreneurship— and guide her daughters through their own, essential, educations. When she remarried and moved with her new husband to Southwest Florida—“kicking and screaming!” she laughs—it didn’t take long for her to identify an area of need for women in the region. “Resources for women and girls were passing Southwest Florida by,” she says, because “there was no viable women’s organization to act as a magnet for those resources.” So, she created one with SWSF, which got up and running in 2011.
Research yielded some shocking statistics: Fewer than one woman in five over the age of 25 in the area had earned a bachelor’s degree, and only 30 percent of the region’s integral small businesses were women-owned. “That really jumped out at me,” Tate says. In addition to the Earn to Learn program, the foundation in March added to its roster Business Building Blocks for Women, which will offer an online course in entrepreneurship. “To create ways for women to take their ideas and see them prosper speaks to me,” Tate says.
Even now, Tate turns to a personal board of directors for help: “Everyone needs to have a group of people with varying degrees of expertise to give them advice and guidance,” she says.
Lately, this comes from her four grandchildren, who range in age from 11 to 16. “It’s fascinating to hear from them because they’re plugged in and aware and concerned,” says Tate. “A few years ago we talked about discrimination against women, and it was so interesting to hear that they’re coming of age in a time when they do not expect men to be dominant and women to be subservient. It gives me so much encouragement to think that, finally, women will learn to stand up for their value.”