Susan D. Leath, a one-time foster child who rose to become the only African-American female publisher of a general-circulation newspaper in the United States, delivered the keynote speech at the New Castle Chamber of Commerce’s 25th annual Entrepreneurial & Business Women’s Expo on Nov. 10.
Leath, publisher of The News Journal, told the crowd of 850 that her family circumstances presented many challenges, but she decided at an early age to fight through them and embrace the opportunities that life presented.
“We all have our drivers — what makes us get out of bed in the morning. For some it is necessity, some money, some status, you name it. For me, growing up in foster care, it was about breaking the cycle and making a positive impact,” Leath said.
After graduating from high school, she packed up everything she owned, got on a Greyhound bus and left Mobile, Ala., headed for a relative’s home in California. She attended a community college there, then earned a four-year degree in advertising at the University of Alabama. “I made sure I never took for granted the value of my education and that my degree was not an automatic guarantee to success, just the starting point.”
The New York Times hired Leath for a management-training program in Florida, where she met her husband Randall. One woman let out a loud “ooooh” and others smiled when Leath asked her husband to stand up and said, “He is my biggest champion, and I simply would not be me without him.”
Leath said there were not many female or African-American role models in media advertising when she entered the business. “I was blessed to have several inspiring male mentors,” she said.
One of them was Florida publisher John Fitzwater, who introduced Leath to level-five leadership — the term author Jim Collins uses for humble leaders who put the interests of the organization before their own. She said he is still a go-to guy when she needs career advice. Leath said she once told Fitzwater she felt she had made a major professional mistake, but he said, “I don’t care what you did. I care about what you do next.”
Leath said another inspiration was her grandmother, who worked as a fitting-room attendant before the Civil Rights Act, when African-American women were not allowed to be sales assistants. Management asked her to move up to a sales role but warned her that, if any of the white women complain, she would have to return to the fitting room. Her grandmother eventually became a manager. “Her strength, dignity and love lives on in me and my message today,” she said.
Looking around the Chase Center on the Riverfront at all the women gathered for the expo, Leath said, “I can remember the old ad slogan, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’ But we need to go further.”
Sharing statistics on the small numbers of women who head Fortune 500 companies or work in the C-suites, she said, “We’re on the right path, but we need to collectively raise our voices to create more opportunities to empower and inspire women in business — acting as role models and mentors to those around us, and never shying away from the difficult path to making a positive impact.”
Mark Kleinschmidt, chamber president, said the expo drew 120 exhibitors.
“The 125th annual WXPO was a great success, as it provided a full day for business women and entrepreneurial women to network, develop new skills and celebrate success,” he said.