North Tampa Bay Chamber chair Karen Tillman-Gosselin and president & CEO  Hope Allen, give outgoing USF president Judy Genshaft a Distinguished Woman’s Leadership Award at PHSC’s Porter Campus on March 27.

When it came to celebrating Women’s History Month, the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce (NTBC) not only wanted to create an event centered around a discussion about women’s issues, but wanted to honor a woman leader who has made a significant impact in the community.

It didn’t need to look any further than the University of South Florida campus.

On March 27, at the NTBC’S inaugural Women Making Strides breakfast at the Pasco Hernando State College Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, outgoing USF president Judy Genshaft was presented the Distinguished Women’s Leadership Award. That was followed by a discussion between Alex Sink — the former president of Bank of America (1993-2000) and Florida’s first Chief Financial Officer (2007-11), who also ran for governor in 2010 – and Poynter Institute President Emeritus (and part-time PHSC professor) Karen Dunlap on topics like women in technology, balancing work and family and the rise in powerful female leadership across the country in politics.

Genshaft was honored, according to NTBC president and CEO Hope Allen, for her impact on and leadership of USF during her 19 years as the university’s president. She announced late last year she would be stepping down in July of this year.

“Leave when you’re on top, I mean that,” Genshaft told the crowd, drawing laughter. “Don’t wait until years from now, after people start asking, “will she ever step down?’” I did go through some emotional trauma trying to decide what to do, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Genshaft, 70, replaced Betty Castor in 2000 and has helped raise USF’s stature significantly in areas such as research, innovation and fundraising, where she spearheaded a $1 billion fund-raising campaign.

Last year, USF earned the designation of “Preeminent State Research University” from the Florida Board of Governors, joining the University of Florida and Florida State University.

“I always felt the minute I stepped foot on the campus of the University of South Florida that it really could become something very, very, very special,” Genshaft said.

Genshaft gave a nod to girl power when describing her leadership style, to the delight of the sold-out audience of a mostly-female crowd of roughly 100, which included more than a dozen PHSC students. 

“When things are really rough, they call women in to help,” Genshaft said. “We work as a team. I believe in collaboration, consensus, and if not…I’ll make the decision.”

While the Women Making Strides breakfast highlighted the achievements of women, there was an underlying theme about the work still to be done, something Genshaft touched on.

“When I started as president of the University of South Florida, there were only 20 percent of women leading research university institutions, out of the 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the country,” she said. “As I step down…there are still 20 percent. So, as we keep striving to move forward, for now, we’re still at a level we were before. But, we are making such a difference across America.”

USF recently announced that Steven Currall, the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, was selected to replace Genshaft, who says she plans to remain active in the community.

“I can promise you, I’m not going to be at home vacuuming,” she said.

Genshaft’s message was similar to the event’s tagline — “We Can Do It” —with an emphasis on continuing to move forward, which was stressed by Sink and Dunlap in their conversation.

Both accomplished women emphasized fighting for what you want, and once you get it, don’t shrink into the background. They focused on advancements made in almost every field, including politics, where a record number of women ran for governor, U.S. House and U.S. Senate seats, with the U.S. House of Representatives electing nearly 100 women.

“Is it the golden era of women in power?” Sink asked afterwards. “Not yet, but I think we are definitely at some tipping point. Surely, I think history will write about (this era) to the extent that women feel more empowered, not only about sexual aggression, but about anything. That’s my hope, that it means ‘I’m in this board room, and I might be outnumbered but I’m going to speak up because I have something of value to say.’ I don’t know whether that turns into a golden era, but it could.”

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