April 13, 2024
When Teachable Moments Become Business Advantages

Photo: Mark Wemple

Over the course of her 35-plus-year-career, Bridgette Heller says the best-performing teams she's worked with have been diverse ones.

Women in Leadership

When Teachable Moments Become Business Advantages

St. Petersburg native Bridgette Heller served in the C-suite and on the boards of some of the world's best-known companies, finding power in diversity and diplomacy along the way.

Michael Fechter | 11/13/2023

Bridgette Heller laughs as she talks about the first time someone asked her to sit on a company’s board of directors.

The 62-year-old St. Petersburg native was a rising young executive when a wealthy acquaintance invited her to join the Photo Corporation of America’s board.

“I said, ‘well, what do they do?’” The owner thought the response was hilarious, Heller remembers. But she wasn’t kidding.

It’s better, she says, to ask “what other people would call the dumb question. I will ask when I don’t know. I just feel like it’s dumber to sit there and pretend you know.”

In this case, “you’re not the executive team, you’re not running it,” she remembers asking, “so you know, why are you there?”

Rather than second-guess the invitation, company owner Joe Reich took the time to explain it. Heller “learned a ton” in the next few years, including what happens to a board member when a company is sold: “I watched as this money came into my bank account. It was only after that experience that I said, ‘Oh, this board thing could be interesting as a retirement strategy.’”

It became much more than that.

Heller went on to run divisions and businesses for national and international corporations like Kraft Foods, Johnson & Johnson, Danone and Merck. She has served on boards of directors for Aramark, Newman’s Own, Novartis, Numerator and Clearwater-founded Tech Data (now TD Synnex).

Heller, who earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, is aware of Florida’s low ranking when it comes to adding women to corporate boards. It likely results from people having limited professional networks, she says, but also because companies — especially smaller ones — don’t think about potential board candidates until a vacancy stares them in the face.

Then, the instinct is to find someone “just like the person we lost” rather than use the opportunity to assess what skills and perspectives the board needs most. The search should aim for the people best able to fill those gaps, she says. Finding women directors may not be the most comfortable move, “and it may take longer than relying on the friendship circles,” she says, so it is better to think ahead rather than have to choose under time constraints.

In business, she says, familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt. It can limit creative thinking.

“My best-performing team was incredibly diverse, with about 50% women and a true mix of geographic and cultural diversity. We drove significant value creation in a short, three-year time period by listening and pushing each other beyond our relative comfort zones.”

But sometimes men still overlook her or don’t recognize why a Black woman might be in the boardroom. One recent example involved a junior executive who came into a conference room before an executive committee meeting and greeted the two white men present without acknowledging Heller. He then referred to a young woman carrying large binders who accompanied him as “my girl.”

Heller politely introduced herself to both, walking past him toward the assistant and offering to help distribute the books she was lugging. Later, she made it clear to the junior executive why it was bad to refer to his grown professional colleague as “my girl,” and why it was also bad to ignore a board member. The man apologized, but Heller thought it was more because “he knew it was not good for him from a career perspective.”

Such episodes might be offensive, but Heller, who was mentored to always consider the business aspect of a situation, sees them as opportunities.

“My advice is to smile, don’t take it personally, and know that the person has made a huge mistake,” she says. “He or she has given you an advantage and opportunity. If you focus on the slight or take it personally, you will waste it.”

She has seen this quiet form of bigotry working in Chicago, New York and elsewhere. But Heller, who attended segregated elementary schools, believes growing up in the South has proven to be a benefit.

A boardroom slight is never going to be “the worst thing anybody’s ever done. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Being called the Black female executive committee member is definitely not the worst thing I have been called,” she says.

A visceral reaction “never drives great business results. So you try to move through that as quickly as possible.”

Giving Back

Bridgette Heller’s mother, Shirley Proctor Puller, taught at St. Petersburg’s Northeast High School for 35 years. When Heller was applying to universities, she knew two things: She wanted to go to school far from home, and she did not want to be a teacher.

“I always admired them,” she says, “but felt they were underappreciated, underpaid, under-everything I was interested in being.”

Now retired from executive life, Heller is back in St. Petersburg and devoting her time to educating young people. She and her father, William Puller, created the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation after her mother’s 2013 death.

The first job was “looking for the way in.” She tapped her marketing skills talk with as many people in the community as she could about what the foundation could do.

She knew Pinellas County Schools were not serving poor Black children well. And she knew that more than 40% of Black children in St. Petersburg live in poverty.

Then, in 2015, the Tampa Bay Times published a Pulitzer- Prize winning series, “Failure Factories,” which showed how schools in her city had reverted to the unequal, segregated institutions Heller grew up in.

This was her way in. The foundation won a Juvenile Welfare Board grant aimed at helping kids read at grade level.

The problem and the possible solution both involved summer vacation. For well-to-do kids, summer activities include some kind of educational element. But programs for poor kids focused on physical activities like swimming and basketball. As a result, poor kids lost two months of learning each year.

The foundation created a summer program in 2016 aimed at stopping that slide. Over the next three years, more than 80% stopped regressing, Heller says, and many showed gains.

The Math-Art-Science-Technology-Reading (M.A.S.T.R.) program involves activities such as building model airplanes. To do this, the kids need to read about how things work, building their vocabulary and critical thinking skills.

Summer education programs used to carry a stigma — that it was almost a form of punishment to have to spend time learning when school was out. Now, more than 200 elementary and middle schoolers are excited about after-school and summer programs run by the foundation

Heller hopes to expand it to serve 500 kids.

“One of the most beautiful things we discovered is that when you put it in context of something you love to do,” Heller says, “they’ll do it all the time.”

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