An interview with Betty LaMarr: Founder and President of EmpowHer Institute
by Kara M. Zone
Betty LaMarr, president and founder of the nonprofit organization, EmpowHer Institute, has a rich voice filled with charm, humility, passion, and wisdom. EmpowHer Institute is an incredible mentorship program that helps urban youth get involved in personal success by aligning with their passions.
The business platform comes from a place of strength and understanding, coupled with the inspiration of Betty's ambition to connect with youth on the most fundamental human level. In speaking with her, there is unquestionably little wonder why EmpowHer Institute has achieved success. Not only is Betty pioneering new territory but she also shares her invaluable skills and insights with other organizations like WITI.
Kara Zone (KZ): Tell me about your involvement with WITI.
Betty LaMarr (BL): A few years ago, I was a chair for WITI's "NextGen" division—which was focused on showing teen girls about STEM careers. WITI and EmpowHer teamed up to find sponsors for 25 of our girls.
They then got to connect with women from all over the country. They had role models and mentors for the day; as a result of that experience, they then developed a goal of a STEM career.
The wonderful thing about WITI, for them, was that they were exposed to other women who were living a successful life. [The girls] could see the mentors, practically apply their desires, as opposed to it being imaginary. It was such an emotional experience for the girls, but for the mentors as well.
You could see the connections being created in front of your eyes. Eighty percent of those girls had never been on a plane, the other girls were amazed at the $20 hamburgers, and enjoyed telling the stories to their families.
KZ: What is one of the unique aspects of being a member of WITI.com?
BL: WITI has this amazing quality of attracting extremely smart, successful women who have the drive and such an eagerness to support and motivate. The other WITI members I've met have big hearts.
While they are working their way up through the ranks, they are also willing to harness their spirit, and help others. They want to lift as they climb and that's an important quality.
KZ: How long has EmpowHer been inspiring young women?
BL: It has been in my heart and head my whole life, long before I gave it the name EmpowHer. But we have had the name, and technically we have been in existence since 2003.
KZ: The college path (University of California and Pepperdine) you put yourself on, is quite impressive. Can you tell me a little about why you chose this road, how it helped you discover yourself, and what tools it provided you for your next steps in life?
BL: The education part was a step-by-step process. It was a manifestation with three seminal moments, which influenced the next step to come into being.
I was pregnant at my high school graduation and becoming a teen mom, I got married and then divorced; I did not have the confidence in myself to believe I could follow in a college career, so instead of jumping into a four-year bachelor's program, I started small at a junior college. Once I saw that I could do the workload and be a single mother, I found confidence in myself to continue onward. Then with each step I completed, I knew I could do more.
After college, I worked in technology for IBM. This job unveiled a new world to me, as being a kid from the inner-city myself did not grant many gateways;
And then, I lived in South Africa for four-years.
KZ: Why South Africa?
BL: I left corporate America when I was 45. My son was ready to graduate from Yale and had opportunities to start on his path. As a single woman who could make independent decisions, and who had some fiscal stability, along with career success, I started asking myself if there was more to life than just making money.
My spiritual journey and personal aspiration were fulfilled when I took a job there—I wished to live and work internationally, and after working for a computer company for over two decades, I realized I simply wanted to feel a connection with other human beings. I wanted to make a difference in people's lives.
KZ: What about South Africa inspired you to live out your nonprofit idea?
BL: What was so inspiring to me is that going into a country where people are denied an education, they were still keeping life brilliant and thriving. There was harmony and a sense of community where they were interested in taking care of one another.
As there is no welfare system there, I saw women say let me use my skills and talents to help me provide a life for my family. Just looking at the richness of the community of that country made me start to ask myself some questions.
The first questions I asked: How can I help these women? And in doing so, help them expand who they are so they could be educated with a business mind?
Some people were taking advantage of the fact that women didn't know about business and being the middleman for export, but keeping the profits for themselves. Then I asked—how can I help these women to understand just how much power they did have, so I helped them access the proper agents to create a better business model for themselves.
KZ: How did moving back to the United States change your mentorship path?
BL: When I moved back to the states, I incorporated my inspiration from my South African journey into my nonprofit. Inspired by what I wanted to do in other countries, I started to see how deeply entrenched our problems are in America with inner-city youths.
There is a 50% dropout rate of black and brown teens in 11 major cities. And so, as much as I was interested in helping other countries, I realized how much help was needed right here. I took the entrepreneurial experience from African women and put it into a business model for these girls.
I realized that telling them to go to college, while well-intentioned is quite a large mountain to climb, particularly, if they are already struggling to get through middle school. While education is important, people will only go as fast as they are willing to go . . . and once again, we have the step process.
EmpowHer chose to get children focusing on getting out of high school8212as not everyone is college material—and giving them a choice. The entrepreneurial spirit—motivation is hope. Hope would come from recognizing that they already had skills they could market; I wanted to help them realize they have the necessary skills to take care of themselves, their kids, and their families.
They also have what it takes to work their way through. I did it through a step-by-step process—I too had to build my confidence.
I believe young girls and boys are struggling with confidence because no one is feeding their spirit. Starting in middle school and being there with them through high school can show them the character they truly have. We are giving them the opportunity to know they can make choices.
KZ: What is the best experience you have had working with EmpowHer?
BL: One of the things that excites me the most are the volunteers who want to make a difference in the life of these girls. Bringing volunteers and mentors in their lives, who are interested in whether or not they succeed is significant.
Most of their environments do not hold many encouragements, because the older generations have yet to be because of teen pregnancy, truancy, and dropping out of school is the norm. Mentors get to be cheerleaders, positive light that will make an impact. For the girls to see women who are successful and caring for them gives them (and us) an opportunity to be rewarded on a human level.
KZ: What are your hopes for the future?
BL: We still have less than 10% of the female populace in the technology field. As women, we owe it to the next generation to support, encourage, and mentor women.
It takes a village, and we are all a part of that village. We have to exercise our smarts and take responsibility for holding up the sky. It also means we are going to be the ones to solve the problems; world peace, cancer—we are going to feminize those solutions—and help other women achieve.
Betty LaMarr, author/founder/executive director of EMPOWHER INSTITUTE, is passionate about serving others through coaching and mentoring.
Kara Zone is a professional writer, editor, and graphic designer. She is the managing editor of WITI.com and enjoys working remotely. She is a critical thinker and builds departmental systems for companies to use when structuring organizational systems.