Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau looked out into the intimate crowd gathered at the Central Library and shared a piece of advice, “You have to bite off more than you can chew — and chew it.”
She spoke at a panel discussion, “Texas Women of Influence,” Thursday evening in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Pamerleau, who was elected the first female sheriff of Bexar County in 2012, sat with four other prominent San Antonio women including City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Alamo Travel Group CEO Patricia Pliego Stout, Accion Texas CEO Janie Barrera and St. Philip’s College President Adena Williams Loston.
Like Pamerleau, each of the panelists offered advice for women striving for professional success.
“I always went where women weren’t expected,” Sculley said.
“If you manage your income, you will be successful,” Stout said.
“Never turn business away,” Loston said.
“The greatest trait of a leader is to listen,” Barrera said. “And stay away from people with negative energy who don’t get what you do.”
Texas Public Radio Reporter Eileen Pace served as the moderator and asked each woman to explain what inspired her. One common thread among them was an empowering education and influential family upbringing. Each woman stressed the importance of unwavering hard work, even in the face of gender inequality.
Barrera founded Accion Texas, the nation’s largest micro-lending nonprofit, and she recalled learning finance while working at her parent’s small Corpus Christi Mexican restaurant. While her parents’ business was successful, they retired with no savings. Barrera said she learned finance from their bad habits.
“I used to think capitalism was terrible. But now I think of it as a good thing,” she said.
Her nonprofit work aims to empower low-income entrepreneurs by providing small loans. It was her parents’ misfortune that inspired Barrera to empower families in similar situations.
“At the end of the day, everyone is treated the same. That’s how we break the cycle of poverty,” she said.
Loston, now the successful president of a higher education institution, discussed the disadvantage of growing up in 1950s segregated Mississippi.
“My vision was a big as my big sister,” Loston said. She recalled hearing of a master’s degree and not fully understanding what that meant – only knowing that she wanted to be a master.
“I was always the first black or the only black,” she said.
Loston attended her first racially integrated school when pursuing her master’s degree and later earned a Doctorate from Bowling Green State University and an Honorary Doctorate from Wiley College. The self-described trailblazer received supportive applause from her audience when she discussed overcoming racial adversity.
Pamerleau, who grew up as a preacher’s daughter, was inspired by her work in the U.S. Military, which led her to develop and grow professionally, she said. When she first entered the military in 1968, there was a cap on how many women could enlist. That did nothing to stop her from rising through the ranks to become a Major General.
“Don’t look at barriers as obstacles,” she said. “Barriers help us learn and make better decisions. Barriers have been broken because women stuck with it.”
She later went on to serve as the senior vice president of USAA before running for public office.
Sculley was inspired to take on a position of leadership during her early childhood role as the oldest sister of seven siblings. Serving the City of San Antonio, Sculley is one of only five female city managers in a city with more than 50,000 residents.
Since coming to San Antonio, the City has received a AAA bond rating from Standard and Poor, among others. While serving as the 2013 United Way Campaign Chair, Sculley help raise more than $52.5 million for the community.
“Both men and women told me that I set my goals too high,” Sculley said. “That only made me want to work harder.”
Stout serves as the chair of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce when she is not working as the CEO of Alamo Travel Group.
“I just love to count money,” Stout said, recalling an early childhood affinity for arithmetic. She attributes her financial prowess to her grandmother, who taught her to save.
Born in Mexico City and raised in a traditional Mexican family, Stout married early in life and began a successful business with her then husband.
“We made a lot of money and therefore the marriage went sour,” Stout said to a crowd of laughing women.
“I was alone for the first time and it frightened me.” A single mother with no money, Stout maxed-out her credit card to begin her new business because, “nobody would lend money to a Latina.”
The successful businesswoman has been featured in publications such as Reader’s Digest and was ranked as a top 100 Latina by Hispanic Magazine in 2003.
The panel discussion ended with each of the panelists being presented with a book of art by Dale Chihuly whose art installations decorate the downtown library.
*Featured/top photo: Texas Women of Influence Panel at the Central Library. From left, Accion Texas CEO Janie Barrera, St. Philip’s College President Adena Williams Loston, Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Alamo Travel Group CEO Patricia Pliego Stout. Photo by Sarah Gibbens.