Tenacity of persistent women led way for women leaders of today

Thanks to the dogged tenacity of generations of persistent women, the future is bright for business women in the 21st century; generations of women who shaped my journey as an entrepreneur in the present, and who inspire my dreams for the future.  

I was born and raised some 8,500 miles away from the bright lights of Time Square, in the Philippines.  I was named after my grandmother, Salud, a Spanish word meaning, “good health.”

Good health seems to have been her only advantage in life.  Salud was orphaned at age six and never finished high school. To survive, she worked as a maid making the princely sum of $1 per day. She dreamt of a better life and woke up each dawn, driven to work hard and save every peso in order to eventually build her own rice milling business.
She became an entrepreneur and a working mom with seven children. Through the money earned from her business, she was able to pay for her kids’ college and graduate school educations.

I remember eating dinner with my grandmother and being harshly reprimanded when I left grains of rice uneaten on my plate.  

She said, “Every minuscule grain of rice is the product of my blood, sweat and tears; don’t ever waste it.”

Growing up, I ate the rice from my grandmother’s mill.  In doing so, I was being fed the lessons from her drive, hard work, grit and determination to build a business and a family.  These seeds were the beginning of my journey as an entrepreneur.

When I was three years old, our house burned down from a terrible gas explosion. At the time, I was helping my mom bake a cake when our gas stove exploded. Thankfully, my mom and I suffered only third-degree burns on both legs and arms, but sadly my grandfather succumbed from complications of the burns.  I don’t have memories of the accident itself, but I vividly remember being made fun of in school because my legs were scarred. I cried the first time kids pointed and laughed at me.

When I got home, my mother taught me to tell those kids “I can walk, run and dance like everybody else.”

The scars are still on my legs and, every day, I am reminded of two things: I survived that fire, and I am different, but no less than anyone else. I would persist.

My mother was a fierce single mother who worked full-time while attending graduate school at night. To earn extra money, my mother always had a side hustle selling all sorts of things — from Tupperware to underwear — and, as her sidekick, selling became my after-school activity.  My mother also taught me the value of education. She believed if I could go to school in the United States, I would have a brighter future than our family before me.  So, I did just that.

I immigrated to the United States as a teenager, leaving my friends and my familiar, albeit humble, beginnings to start a new life. Again, I stuck out like a sore thumb. At first, I wore all the wrong clothes and had an awkward way of speaking to my new American classmates.  Yet, even as an outsider trying to find my way in a whole new world, I worked hard to graduate at the top of my class in college and went on to an Ivy League business school.  I was given an opportunity that none of my family before me had, and I dared not waste it.

My grandmother and mother were both breadwinners. They tirelessly hustled, working day and night; they made the most of whatever talents they had and overcame whatever obstacles were in their way — through sheer grit and unstoppable persistence. As a young girl, that was all I knew.
Then, it was my turn.

My first job out of college, at the age of 21, was managing my family’s home healthcare business.  I faced the pressure and sobering responsibility of making payroll for employees who had families and who were more than twice my age. I knew those people were depending on me, like my grandmother once depended on her employers.
Later, I worked at several other healthcare startups where my role was limited only by how fast I could learn, so I learned quickly. I did not always meet success. There were layoffs and failures but, undeterred, I kept moving forward.

Wanting to understand how health care is paid for, I joined one of the largest insurance companies in the country. I spent eight years building everything I could. I built insurance products for millions of people, I built my expertise. I built my network, and I built my passion for the people the healthcare system serves.  It was a great job. I loved the work. I had a nice office. I had an even nicer paycheck.

At age 40, I gave birth to my second daughter. Not long afterwards, I had a crystal-clear moment and heard my calling; it was the time for my next act, it was time to start a new company. As a product person, I know that one should never, ever launch two big products at the same time; in this case, my new daughter and a new startup. It was time to persevere. 
Now at home, I am the mother of two daughters; a teenager and kindergartener.   It is a challenge to balance family and business, but I believe I am a better entrepreneur because I’m a parent, because I’m a mom.  I have earned a Ph.D. in multi-tasking, managing chaos and improvising — all critical skills in successful entrepreneurship.
Now, it is my turn to instill in my daughters and the future what was instilled in me. Our adventures in the playground are the first steps towards business and life success. Kids fall down, so that they can pick themselves up and dust themselves off. I encourage them to climb a taller slide than they are used to and remind them it is okay to color outside the lines.  My children learn it is okay to take chances, try new things and to push the envelope.

These are also my daily reminders in leadership.

Learning can also be a two-way-street. From my teenage daughter, I am learning the humbling lessons that, apparently, moms don’t know very much. I get giddy when she teaches me a thing or two about technology in the same way my youngest team members at work come up with bright new ideas for very old problems.
Clearly, in an ever-changing world, I must change. I must embrace the new. I must persist.

Most days, I still eat rice.  When I do, I remember that I am from a lineage of women made of steel at their core, that only I have control over how hard I hustle with the gifts I have been given. I am passing on the legacy of the older women before me to the young daughters at home, and colleagues at work. I naturally get asked “What’s it like to be a       female entrepreneur?” as there are so few of us in my field of digital health. The numbers speak for themselves. There simply are not enough women CEOs in healthcare, technology, business and government. The bias, discrimination, and harassment that women face is real and is painful. I have encountered my share of bias in my life. I’m the kid with burn scars on her legs, the immigrant teen who talked funny, and the minority woman health founder and CEO. None of that even slowed me down, much less stopped me.  I persisted.

Sally Poblete, CEO of Wellthie, is an Asian immigrant, mother of two and successful entrepreneur.

Mary Benton newly appointed press secretary

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner recently appointed Mary Benton as his press secretary. The appointment came just two months after Benton stepped into the job on an interim basis.

“To no one’s surprise, Mary adapted well to the demanding job since the very first day and has already demonstrated her integrity, dedication and the benefits of her experience,” Turner said. “As a key addition to my communications staff, she will ensure we effectively use every available pathway to keep the public informed about my agenda and what the city is doing for all of its residents.”

Benton, a seasoned communicator, was a news reporter for KPRC Channel 2 for 20 years before joining Harris County government in 2014.

She has managed media relations and public affairs at the  Harris County Toll Road Authority, worked in the precinct offices of two Harris County commissioners and served as a communications, education and public engagement coordinator at the Harris County Public Health Department.

Benton is a member of the Houston chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, a board member of Undies For Everyone, a member of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, a member of the Gulf Coast Apollo Chapter of Links, Inc. and a member of the Texas Association of Municipal Information Officers.

Benton earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The University of Texas at Austin. She is now a Texas Exes Life Member.

Benton said, “I am thrilled to join Mayor Sylvester Turner’s communications team as press secretary, and the work has been nonstop since day one. After a busy day of meetings at city hall, the mayor is committed to attending various community events in the evening to meet and listen to Houstonians throughout our diverse and welcoming city. He is focused on improving the quality of life for all citizens. My job is to make sure the public and media understand his priorities, which include building a stronger Houston after Hurricane Harvey flooding, restoring the city’s financial health, public safety, economic development and much more.”

Doerr Institute redefining how leaders are trained

Rice University is using a $50 million gift from John and Ann Doerr to redefine how leaders are made. The Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders opened last July, with retired Army Brigadier General Tom Kolditz as executive director. Kolditz, a genuinely chipper guy with an engaging, outgoing personality, is an internationally recognized expert on crisis leadership and leadership in extreme contexts. He has more than 25 years in leadership roles, including positions at West Point and Yale University, where he was a professor in the practice of leadership and management.

Kolditz quickly developed a professionally executed leader-development experience with a scope and scale unprecedented among major universities. The program revolves around three broad initiatives with initiatives within each – initiatives aimed not just at students, but at faculty and the very fiber of Rice University.
Individual leadership training will be available – for free – to all 6,200 graduate and undergraduate students and will occur in environments the students are already in, rather than relying on extracurricular “leadership events.” For example, a student athlete is going to get coached in the context of his athletic team; the youngster who runs the student-led coffee shop is going to get coached in that role; an engineering student is going to get coached in the context of an engineering project team.
“We’re not a little program that takes 50 or 100 or 200 students and does workshops,” Kolditz said. “We are really responsible for every student at Rice who wants leader development.
“This is unheard of, to basically tell students who are coming to a good-sized research university that if they want to have a leadership coach while they’re here, it will be provided free of charge. It’s an incredible benefit to Rice students.”
Participation is voluntary for students, Kolditz said.
“People come here ’cause it’s a great research institute,” said Lillie Besozzi, the institute’s associate director for operations. “The idea of taking these fantastic minds and great researchers and then giving them these additional resources is really exciting. I geek out over it.”
Two Early Programs
During the fall and spring semesters, the institute, which is housed in McNair Hall, ran a small pilot program, which  provided a one-on-one, elbow-to-elbow leadership coach from the Houston business community and International Coach Federation to 278 sophomores, 52 percent of which were women. Those sophomores are the coaches’ clients, and the coaches, who are paid by the institute, are required to work around their schedules, Kolditz said. 
“Our coaches never judge them or grade them,” he said. “They put them in the driver’s seat and just coach them in better and higher levels of performance. 
“This is something that usually doesn’t happen until you’re a senior vice president in a company, but we’re doing it on a grand scale with these young people. Frankly, you can have more impact doing this with young people than you can with senior executives, because those executives already have habits that are almost impossible to break.”
Three to five sessions with a professional coach can change a student’s future trajectory forever, Kolditz said.
The institute also has an ongoing coach certification course taught by the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies that is open to the entire Houston community. The first class had 10 undergraduate students and 12 members of the community, including some Rice faculty.
Measurable Results 
The institute does not do anything that doesn’t have a measurable impact on a person’s capacity to lead, and a four-person “metrics team” measures those impacts, Kolditz said. They use a full range of research measures –   including surveys, interviews, focus groups and 360 assessments – to gauge impact. 
Measurements from the coaching pilot show greater self-awareness, more assertiveness, more open-mindedness and improved framework for open-ended problem-solving among participants. 
The institute focuses on a flat, non-hierarchical concept of leadership – the kind of models used by Facebook, Google and tech companies, where there are a lot of bright, creative people.
“This is already happening in the business world,” Kolditz said. “We saw this initially with businesses going to matrixed organizations as opposed to the classic hierarchies. Even the military has gone to a more matrixed format, especially in the special operations forces. There are times when you’re part of team when, based on your expertise, you need to be the leader. Then, there are other times when you have to follow, and our students have to be able to pass in and out of that role comfortably. We’re not trying to produce a bunch of pinnacle leaders, CEOs and so forth; that’s not what we’re about. We’re about getting the best version of our students out there.”
While the leadership coaching pilot had 278 students – 12 in the fall and 266 in the spring – Kolditz estimates the program will have about 600 sophomores enrolled in the fall, putting it around 50 percent of the Class of 2019.
The institute has grown to 14 full- and part-time employees and, in the fall, former Houston Mayor Annise Parker will join as a fellow.
“You can see how, across the university, this is going to impact every student here in some way,” Kolditz said. “We want to change the nature of a Rice degree.
“It will still be one of the best research and educational college degree on the globe. But, we want people to understand we’re graduating some fabulously trained leaders, as well. Leaders who go out in the world with their degrees and are much better able to be good stewards of their professions. It enables someone not only to be a creative genius but a creative genius who has some idea about how to move forward by developing teams and making things happen.”
Dave Schafer is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

Buffalo Bayou Cistern now open for public viewing


Buffalo Bayou Partnership debuted the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, a renovated architectural relic, on May 13. The Cistern, reminiscent of the ancient Roman cisterns under Istanbul, is a cavernous space the size of 1.5 football fields. It  features 221 tall, slender concrete columns, each measuring 25 feet high. 
Visitors can make online reservations to tour this unique space at Admission is $2 per person for a 30-minute, docent-led tour.
The 87,500-square-foot underground drinking water reservoir was built in 1926 for the City of Houston. It supported the municipal water system’s goals of fire suppression (water pressure) and drinking water storage. After operating for decades, an irrepairable leak was discovered in the mid-2000s, and the reservoir was later decommissioned.
BBP re-discovered the site in 2011 when it was developing the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park project. Realizing the historical and architectural significance of the highly unusual space, the organization — along with the City of Houston — worked to take over management of the site. With research, 3-D modeling of the interior by SmartGeoMetrics and community input, BBP developed a plan to repurpose the Cistern into a magnificent public space that could house temporary, environmental art installations. BBP secured grants of over $1.7 million from The Brown Foundation, Inc. to bring the space up to code, make it accessible to the public and, ultimately, house art installations. 
Architecture and engineering firm, Page, was charged with designing a ground-level entry structure to help transition visitors from the outside world to the Cistern and making improvements to the shelf on the perimeter of the space to create a six-foot-wide walkway with guardrails.
“Buffalo Bayou Partnership is excited to be opening The Cistern to the public. We have had incredible interest and, now, we will be able to share the site’s beauty and uniqueness with Houstonians and visitors to our city. We think it will attract attention from throughout the country and abroad,” said BBP President Anne Olson.
As the architect for the cistern improvements, Page Senior Principal Larry Speck said, “Descending into The Cistern the first time was like discovering some ancient ruin. It was so strange and exotic in the setting and clearly ‘lost’ to people’s consciousness. That vast field of columns, the reflective layer of water on the floor and the tiny bits of light creeping in from above were really beautiful.”
The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern will be open on Thursdays and Fridays from 3 to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $2 per person for a 30-minute docent-led tour, with free admission on Thursdays.
Another aspect of experiencing The Cistern will be through New York artist Donald Lipski’s Down Periscope, which was also unveiled. The installation, commissioned by Houston Arts Alliance in partnership with the City of Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering, sits atop The Cistern on The Brown Foundation Lawn and allows park and online visitors (www. to peer into the periscope and view the Cistern. 
To purchase tour tickets to view The Cistern, please visit

Eileen Morris: 'Making art is like making gumbo'


The Ensemble Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and Eileen Morris, its artistic director, has been involved since 1982 –– almost from the beginning. 
After earning a degree in theater arts from Northern Illinois University and getting married, Morris came to Houston, occasionally, “to get away from the cold” and to visit family. It was her sister, Nia Becnel, a professor of architecture at the University of Houston, who introduced her to The Ensemble Theatre’s founder, the late George Hawkins. 
Hawkins launched The Ensemble Theatre in 1976 to create a place where artists of color could practice and perfect their craft.
According to Morris, “He wanted to give the community a view of the richer breadth of the African American experience –not just roles depicting maids and butlers and slaves.” 
When she moved to Houston permanently in the early 1980s, Morris volunteered as The                 Ensemble Theatre’s stage manager. Later, when Hawkins received a grant from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, he was able to hire Morris as managing director. 
Morris has since produced more than 78 productions. Under her leadership, the company has been recognized for excellence and won numerous awards, including the 2013 Best Season Theater Award from The Houston Press, and the 2008 Best of Houston Theater Award from The Houston Chronicle
“Making art is like making gumbo,” Morris said, “but most people who enjoy eating gumbo don’t really understand the process. There’s the shopping, the prep work and the actual cooking —  all of which takes a long time. Because the flavors need to blend and settle, it’s actually better the next day. That’s also what happens in the theatre, where all the behind-the-scenes work happens months before a play is ready for the audience.”
Morris makes the initial selection of possible plays to produce. Then, they are discussed and, finally, chosen by The Ensemble Theatre’s  program committee — comprised of board members, staff and artists.
 “When you gather human beings who come from different walks of life and different experiences, and you put them together to create art, you don’t know what you're going to get,” she said. “You have to believe in the recipe.”
While she has acted, directed and produced –– all the elements for good theatrical gumbo –– Morris has not yet tried her hand at writing a full two- or three-act play. She has, however, assemble the elements for a one-woman show and a medley of playwright August Wilson’s female characters. 
“Everybody has a story to tell because our lives are so rich and full of challenges. Of course, I have a story to tell, too, but I don’t feel like I have the time to sit down and write it,” she said. 
Of playwrights, Morris said, “They are great human beings. They often report that another voice or unplanned character will come into the play, interrupt the process, and take it in a different direction. This inspiration may come from the Heavenly Father, a higher power in the universe or just the energy from the ebb and flow of living and breathing, but magic does take over.” 
She added, “When I’m able to create, it’s because I’ve taken a walk or been near water, or I             release myself from the four walls. Maybe I’m watching children play in the park. Sometimes, I’m at the movies, and it happens, or I’m driving. When the mind is able to drift and release the things we deal with day-to-day, the creative energies get an opportunity to awaken themselves.”  
Morris commented, “Although George passed away in 1990, not a day passes that I don’t hear his voice in my head, giving me guidance. 
“His voice comes to me at times –– ‘Ok, now we’re here,  and we’ve got to maintain and keep deserving to be here.’ 
“So, when I’m choosing plays, I’m doing so for our artists and for the needs of the institution. At the same time, I try to make sure the community is enriched, that it understands what The Ensemble Theatre’s mission is and why we do what we do,” she said. “George Hawkins set the pace for us to be able do that.”
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.
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