Your Life, Your Legacy: “I Was Defiant”

Your Life, Your Legacy: “I Was Defiant”

A Conversation with Betty LaMarr

Incorporating all of her many experiences and life journeys, Betty LaMarr founded EmpowHer Institute. The organization’s mission is to empower marginalized girls through education, training, and mentorship to seek fulfilling and productive lives and to design a future that prepares them for tomorrow’s careers. Since its inception in 2003, EmpowHer has served thousands of girls in the Los Angeles area.

It was a time — that time in our collective evolution. She marched during Martin Luther King’s leadership. She marched to desegregate the cafeteria in the capitol building in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“I was defiant.” According to Betty, she was always “that girl.” Rebellious and bold. “I was 13 years old. Living with my grandparents. Out of control. Pregnant at my high school graduation, challenging boundaries and contentious. I was a black woman, with a natural, looking for a career in corporate America at IBM. I dared them not to hire me.”

While an executive in a Fortune 500 corporation, Betty was used to being the first, and sometimes the only, woman and African-American in the room. As community outreach opportunities became available in the company, Betty felt it was her responsibility to be active. She understood these communities better than her colleagues and felt that it was her responsibility to be out there and visible. Betty also knew that part of her work and her responsibility was to make a way for others, so that she was not the only one.

Just by living her life, Betty learned self-sufficiency. As a young teenager, she took take care of herself and her grandparents. She learned resiliency. She was a mother, a wife, and divorced by the time she was 19 years old. She clawed her way through life. As a single mom, she attended junior college and transferred to a four-year university. Her thoughts: “You can let circumstances define you. Or, you can let circumstances elevate you.”  Betty, obviously, chose elevation.

Her success in corporate America didn’t feel sufficient or satisfying. “Is there more?” she thought. “What do I want my legacy to be?” Betty was off to South Africa. “Apartheid had just ended and Nelson Mandela had been elected. I wanted to be part of the hope.”

Despite the jubilation in South Africa, Betty sensed the helplessness and vulnerability from communities. This insight helped define her new mission back in the States: to make sure that girls like her — the girls living in marginalized communities, the defiant ones — have the opportunity to make the best of their lives. The result is EmpowHer Institute, an organization whose mission is to empower marginalized girls through education, training and mentorship. As founder and Executive Director, Betty’s goal is to bring all of her life’s work to inspire and enable these young adult women.

She has successfully recruited a Board and supporters who want to share their skills and knowledge with the organization. Her aim: “I want people to choose how they participate: financially or as a volunteer, sharing their skills.” According to Betty, this is donor engagement for the future.

Recently, Betty was thinking about an exit strategy — “looking for a handoff.” However, with the current political climate, she realized that now is not the time. Her goal now is to recruit an army of women to support these girls and their communities — to help these girls create forceful and powerful lives.

What an incredible journey: a single mom from Arkansas, a corporate executive, a visitor to 47 countries, a CEO, a mentor.

(Photography by Lauren Hurt)