I am blessed to count Kim as a treasured friend. Like kismet, we bonded from the first day we met. She is an inspiration to everyone who knows her. An amazing role model for women—she’s a great mom, friend and businesswoman. It’s a pleasure to share her story of courage in the face of tragedy, humility and kindness that knows no bounds.
I know that you grew up in New York. Tell us about your early career.
I graduated from Le Moyne College and struggled with my path a bit. I was always a very hard worker, but not necessarily the best student. I knew I wanted to travel, but I didn’t have the money for it. I thought to myself, what is an industry that’s fun, where I get to meet new people? Back then I liked to put events together, so I thought I could go that route. I moved to Boston and took a position with a recruiting firm, figuring I would see jobs posted in the area. I didn’t know anybody so I thought it would expose me to other industries so I could find an event planning position. One client was Harvard—we were bringing people in for interviews. I noticed a job in data entry that supported the event staff. I applied and got the job. I had to start somewhere, but I hated it—it was truly data entry. All day I processed registration forms, just typing in people’s names and the courses they were taking. I was kicking myself for taking the job, but realized that I had gotten myself into Harvard…it’s such a big institution—once you get a foot in the door you can migrate to other departments. I met a doctor who headed up the Department of Psychiatry and expressed to him that I wanted to learn about events and travel and do other things. He took me under his wing and helped me get a step closer to my goal with a job in event planning for the Harvard Medical School. When I got there, two people ahead of me were leaving, so within a month it was just myself and the accountant—all of a sudden I was running 50 programs. I didn’t think I could do it, but he told me I had the personality and the work ethic, so he could teach me to do it. Those first few years I worked 80 to 90 hours a week. It was so much work and there was a lot to learn, but I loved it—I got to travel and meet people, hear their stories and attend fun events. It opened up a whole new world.
What was the next step for you?
In 2004 my husband and I decided to move to Florida—we came here with a newborn. I quickly found that while I love my child immensely, I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mom. It’s just not my path. I missed the camaraderie of an office, the travelling and using my mind in different ways each day. I started with the Sarasota Film Festival in 2005, offering my assistance with events. That really helped me in the Sarasota market—so many people in the community were behind it, and that led to SRQ Magazine, the Van Wezel and eventually the Gulf Coast CEO Forum, where I’m the executive director.
How long were you a stay-at-home mom?
Just about a year. Harvard wanted me to pick up a project here and there. At the time Jake was 15 months old. He went to daycare and my mother-in-law helped, so that allowed me the chance to get my feet wet in Sarasota and Bradenton.
How was it, juggling both a blossoming career and kids?
Hard—Maximus was four weeks old when I had a huge event scheduled that I had to attend. I felt such guilt leaving my baby. But he was well taken care of. My mother-in-law and my husband were there. I was gone for six days, but he was fine. He had no idea I was even gone! I think we put so much pressure on ourselves, that we have to do everything. But it takes a village. When I was younger, my grandparents and my aunt were a big part of my childhood. We have to realize that not one person can do it all. I think women try to take on too much. Being a single mom now, I sometimes feel guilty for taking any time for myself. It’s hard to be selfish; it’s not in our makeup. But once in a while I need a break from the kids and from work. I have to take care of me and be true to me because I come back even better and healthier. Now that I’m the only parent left, I really need to stay healthy and be there long term for my kids.
You mentioned being a single mom, let’s go back to that. Your husband passed away at a young age.
Yes, Mike passed away in July 2014 very suddenly. I was talking to him that morning and he said he had a headache and a stomachache. He was going to drop Maximus off at daycare and asked his mom to pick him up so he could lay down or go to the doctor. He collapsed that afternoon from a gastric burst, like a blood clot. He was diabetic and had high blood pressure. He didn’t take care of himself the way he should have. He was 44 and I was 43. One son had just turned four and the other had just turned 10 . Mike wasn’t sick; he was just here yesterday and now he isn’t here. It was so surreal. You are in a fog at first to try to get through the day. In my head all I could think about were these two little boys…it broke my heart that their dad isn’t here. But I also realized that he is here in many ways, and he’s part of these boys. That goes back to the importance of taking care of yourself. You can’t wallow in pity, but you can have your moments. My kids have seen me grieve; but they also have to see that you need to get up and live each day to the fullest. My boys ask me if I’m going to die, and I am honest with them, that I could die tomorrow…I don’t know what life’s going to bring us. But if something happens to me, we have a plan in place. We’ve had conversations you’d never imagine needing to have with kids. You have to move on. “In every tragedy,” as Buddha says, “there are blessings.” And I have found so many blessings. I miss Mike and would turn back the clock in a heartbeat, but I have learned that I am stronger than I thought. I have an amazing community behind me of family and friends. At times we think we are alone in this world, and we’re really not. At times we have to say, “ hey, I need help.” I am friends with a group of women aged 50 and under who have all lost their husbands. We have a private Facebook page. I wouldn’t have met these women if I were in a different place in my life. Since we all went through the same tragedy, we are there for each other and we get it. We had a vision of our life that’s now different. Our kids have become friends because they understand—they’re all going through the same thing. One thing I feel strongly about is that you can’t bury your grief. You have to work through it. I’ll never be “over” it, but you adapt, change and learn from it. You do have to keep going. As time goes on, you have better days. The first year you’re completely lost. But it does get easier. You don’t ever forget, but I find that I’m smiling more now when I think of Mike. I used to cry so much. You have to find outlets to deal with your grief, don’t just bottle it up. We all experience death, and we all have to work on how we’re going to handle that. Some handle it better than others.
Let’s talk about the CEO Forum. It’s a great organization—tell us about it.
It was founded five years ago. We have a sister company, the CEO Council of Tampa Bay, and a lot of local CEOs were going up there for meetings with other CEOs. We realized we needed an organization down here for like-minded people at the top of their companies. We started with 16 members, and now we have over 100. We’re all about relationships, ideas, solutions. We invite speakers and hold social or special events to keep members growing as people individually, but also to help their businesses. I think it’s valuable to the community that all these leaders get together who are so passionate about Sarasota and Manatee. They want to keep learning and also give back to the community.
Of your 100 members, how many are women?
We have 12 women, but we are still growing and hoping to get more. Our guidelines are that you have 10 or more employees and $1.5 million in sales. It was an all-male board when I first started. But I said, “This isn’t an old boys club—we need to get some women invited and get them on our board.” They’ve listened. Now we have three women on a board of 16. We’re growing , but it’s still not a fair ratio. That’s one of my initiatives, reaching out to more women.
Are you planning to stay in Sarasota?
I had an opportunity to go to Boston to a wonderful job after Mike passed away, but I felt that this is a different community in Sarasota, Bradenton and Manatee…there are people from all over here, but it’s such a strong community. I want to see it grow in a positive way. In the bigger cities you don’t have that, so it’s exciting for me to be here.
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Written by Jules Lewis Gibson, founder and editor in chief of GRAVITAS Magazine
Follow Jules @SeasideJules