For our second annual Women’s edition of TAMPA Magazines, we are celebrating powerhouse women produced by the University of South Florida (USF) – the fastest-rising university in America, according to U.S. News and World Report’s 2022 Best Colleges ranking. While USF is relatively young, founded in 1956, the list of successful female leaders it has produced is lengthy, and many have given back to their alma mater and the community in substantial ways.
Colleges may have started out as old boys clubs nearly two centuries ago, but many became coed in the 1900s and grew to have more females than males in attendance today. USF opened without gender restrictions, embracing diversity from the get-go, and has had female students outnumber males for many years.
“Everyone who started here felt comfortable here and had an equal opportunity to succeed,” says Bill McCausland, USF Alumni Association executive director. “When you create this type of culture, it sets the stage for high-achieving individuals and is conducive to success regardless of who you are or where you’re from.”
USF has launched several initiatives to ensure that its female students soar, such as the Women and Leadership Initiative in the business college, the Women in STEM committee, and the Stampede for Women Supporting USF Women’s Athletics. In addition, USF has a Women in Engineering Chapter and an Oceanography Camp for Girls. In 2005, Women in Leadership and Philanthropy (WLP) was created as the first of its kind in the region. In 2016, WLP partnered with Valley Bank to enhance student leadership programming by forming the Women Who Ignite Student Engagement (WISE) Advisory Council. Clearly, this is a school that cares about helping women realize their full potential.
She’s Got the Power
Melissa Seixas credits her education and relationships at USF for helping her rise to state president of Duke Energy Corporation, serving 1.9 million electric customers in Florida. Seixas earned her master’s in American history from USF in 1996 while working part-time at Duke Energy’s legacy company, Florida Power Corporation.
“The hands-on experience of working in distribution engineering as a draftsperson, married with the overall engagement in a liberal arts program, gave me the foundation and skills I continue to use today to interpret, communicate, analyze, strategize and plan,” Seixas says.
Energy may be male dominated, but Seixas has always felt supported in her 35 years climbing the ranks at Duke Energy. Her predecessor, the CEO and half of her direct reports are females, and she encourages women to consider promotions.
“When I look at my circle of friends, mentors and people I look up to, several of them I met at USF and they have remained as important relationships in my life,” Seixas says. “How the connections have carried through the decades illustrates how special the environment was.”
She stays extremely involved with her alma mater, serving on USF’s Board of Trustees, plus as the chair of the St. Petersburg Campus Advisory Board. In 2019, she received the USFSP Regional Chancellor Award for Civic Leadership.
“USF is making incredible strides,” Seixas says. “Our job is to make sure the rest of the world knows how valuable USF is.”
Seixas also finds impactful ways to give back. As Duke’s government community relations manager, she has worked with USF on charitable giving. Her community engagement includes previously serving on the boards of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Pinellas County Urban League, and as the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership’s first female chair.
Top Of The Class
You can’t tell this story without celebrating Rhea Law, who made history this spring as the university’s first alum president. Of eight total presidents, Law became USF’s third female. She is defying odds, as only about one-third of U.S. college and university presidents are women, according to the American Council on Education.
“I’m very proud and humbled to have the confidence of the board of trustees and governors to take on the leadership of this university,” she says. “If there ever was an example that you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it and have the support around you to make it happen, it’s me – and it is incumbent upon me and this university that we pass that along to others.”
Law chose USF because it offered its employees six hours of free classes per semester. For nearly a decade, she worked as a research project administrator in the Office of Sponsored Research during the day and took courses at night. She graduated from USF in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree and cashed in her vested retirement with the university to pay for law school elsewhere.
“I came into the university with a lot of hopes and dreams, but maybe not the confidence to carry them out,” Law says. “The faculty and staff that I interacted with every day were encouraging. It was an atmosphere of support and they made me believe that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to.”
She went on to become president and CEO of Florida law firm Fowler White Boggs while continuing to serve on USF’s Research Foundation Board. She was tapped for two USF presidential search committees, and was selected to USF’s inaugural Board of Trustees, eventually becoming the first and only female chair. This year, Law was surprised to be asked to step into the role of interim president and then president.
“This institution has meant so much to me,” she says. “Being close to an institution like this is so exhilarating, fulfilling and important, specifically a research university of such high stature in the country. When they called my name to help, it was never on my radar, but I couldn’t say no.”
She has big plans to move the university forward, and having been involved so intimately with USF for over five decades has surely prepared her to thrive at the helm.
Elizabeth Krystyn is another Bull who has made a name for herself. Krystyn earned her bachelor’s in finance at USF in 1987. She chose USF for its strong reputation and value as a Florida resident.
“It was a large school, but living on campus, it felt like a small community,” says Krystyn, who still keeps up with her USF friends. “It really prepared me well for life in the workplace and made me interested in insurance as a career.”
Krystyn started her career with DavisBaldwin Insurance and Risk Management and then rose to senior vice president of Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) Insurance Services. In 2006, she co-founded Baldwin Krystyn Sherman (BKS) Partners, employing over 2,500 people today; followed by co-founding Baldwin Risk Partners in 2012, which went public in 2019.
USF recognized BKS Partners multiple times as a Fast 56 award recipient, among the fastest Bull-led businesses in the world. In fact, her team won numerous local and national awards. About five years ago, Krystyn joined USF’s Women In Leadership and Philanthropy (WLP) and is sponsoring an endowed scholarship.
“Through WLP, I can make meaningful connections with young women in need and give back,” she says. “My pride in being a Bull has grown exponentially.”
Her generosity continues as a trustee for Tampa Preparatory School and Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a member of The Junior League of Tampa and LifePath Hospice Women of Philanthropy, and a leader in her Presbyterian church.
For Health’s Sake
At 32, Marlene Joannie Bewa has already racked up a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments as a physician, researcher, consultant and global advocate for women’s reproductive health. Bewa has been appointed as a United Nations Young Leader, invited by Canada’s prime minister as a panelist and featured on Melinda Gates’s list of influential women.
As a Fulbright Scholarship recipient, she earned her medical degree in Benin, West Africa, and her master’s in public health from USF in 2018. She is completing her Ph.D. in public health at USF, impressed with its diversity and medical reputation. USF recognized her with its 2020 Outstanding Young Alumni Award, as well as its highest student honor, a Golden Bull Award.
“USF played a key role in propelling my career,” Bewa says. “It reinforced that I belonged through all the opportunities I was offered, and it brought an addition to my skills, expertise and network.”
The Benin native founded the Young Beninese Leaders Association in 2010 to focus on health, youth leadership and gender equality. In 2020, the World Health Organization invited her to its reproductive health expert advisory group. At USF, she led the Public Health Student Association and helped lead the aforementioned WISE group.
“I want to continue to do more public health and women’s reproductive health research and policy work, but also to use my expertise to help organizations and institutions succeed, specifically using my leadership experiences to help them build a diverse pipeline of leaders,” she shares.
Alumni Association President McCausland is in awe of Seixas, Law, Krystyn and Bewa.
“All of them are not just accomplished in their careers, but also in their communities,” he says. “They have given back so much to the Tampa Bay region, USF and the state of Florida. I think that’s what makes us so proud is that we are graduating people having an impact on society and the world who are extremely accomplished in different sectors and stages of their careers. I’m proud to be a Bull because of what they’ve done and how they represent USF.”
Not only do these incredible women make USF proud; they make the entire Tampa community shine even brighter, as will many more to come.
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