Karen Griggsby may be new to GFWC, but her impact is already being felt. Raised in a poor neighborhood by a single mother, Karen determinedly carved a successful career working for IBM and then a Texas oil company-despite not having a college degree-before retiring in 2012 to Plant City, Florida, where she joined the Woman’s Club of Plant City. Her business acumen and commitment to volunteer service have made her a terrific mentor to young area women.
How did you get interested in joining the Plant City Woman’s Club, and GFWC?
I was new to Plant City and it is very different from where I came from. I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and started my career with IBM in Minnesota. I was transferred with IBM to Texas, so I spent a number of years there before retiring in Plant City. I was used to being involved in the community and making a difference, through working and volunteering, but for the first year I went to church, I worked out, and that was it. My friend Esther sold me on the club and it made me feel like I had regained a purpose. I was doing things that I had done in Texas, so I felt it was the right fit for me.
How quickly did you find yourself becoming involved in club projects?
When I joined, it just made me feel like, “oh wow, I’m home. This is where I belong.” And from the very beginning, they were very receptive towards me. Whenever I join an organization, I can’t sit back, I have to give it my all. When I see a need, I make suggestions. I am a worker bee, and I’m very vocal. I don’t take things as they are, and I like to get answers to my questions. I’m not just a sideline person. I have to make a difference no matter what it is.
How did you develop that kind of tenacity and can-do attitude?
I think some of it came naturally. When I went to work for IBM after a career as a flight attendant, I was fortunate enough that they saw I was very comfortable with people and that I innately knew how to get things done. Very early on at IBM, my manager took me to an event. There were about 2,000 people there and he said, “I want you to go introduce yourself and pass out your business cards.” And so that’s what I did and it was just natural for me. I think being a flight attendant helped pave the way for me as far as being comfortable with people and relating to people, and people being very comfortable in my presence. When I came back to my manager, he said, “Karen you were hired as a secretary, but I saw so much more in you. I saw potential in you.” And he immediately transitioned me into public affairs. He saw something in me, and he believed in me, and that’s how I progressed within IBM. People offered me unlimited opportunities to succeed.
And you were able to have a successful career without a college education.
I never had the opportunity right out of high school because there was no money for college. The only African-American kids that went to college were mainly boys, and they went on sports scholarships. It was just never something that I thought of.
And that never inhibited your determination to better your life?
I knew that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. But I must say, not having a college degree, when I went to work for the oil company, there was a pay discrepancy from the person that had done the job before me. She was getting thousands of dollars more because I didn’t have a degree. I spoke up. I demonstrated to the CEO how I’d help put the company on the map and that we were known and respected in the community. They made it right. Even without a degree, I was able to expand. But I know that with a degree I could’ve gone further, I could’ve run a company.
How did growing up poor in Pennsylvania shape your attitude towards giving back?
Without the Salvation Army and different organizations, we would not have had some Christmases and Thanksgivings. My mother stressed education, and she always told me, my brother and my two sisters, “You will not spend the rest of your life like this. You will be successful. You will have careers.” Before she died, we all had professional careers, and she was always so proud of us. And when we got older, we took care of her. There was nothing in the world she ever needed or wanted because we were grateful for the mother that she had been to us.
I am proud to serve my club and this organization. I’m already vice-president of my club and I want to see more women of color ascend to leadership roles because we all have so much to offer.
How do you stress education to the young women and girls you meet in the community?
Education starts at home. If parents aren’t interested, teachers aren’t interested. I try to tell people about my past experiences growing up poor and how my mom always stressed education and being successful. I know that it works because a lot of these young people don’t have anyone encouraging them so I see the difference that I can make.
I met a young lady in a department store, and we were talking and she mentioned that she wanted to start her own business. I asked her if she had a business plan, and I said I’d be happy to take a look at what she’d put together and give some advice, and she was just shocked. No one had offered to help her. Those are the things that I love to do for people.
As a woman of color, what does GFWC’s motto of “Unity In Diversity” mean to you?
I think it’s a great ideal, and I want to see GFWC become even more diverse. I am proud to serve my club and this organization. I’m already vice-president of my club and I want to see more women of color ascend to leadership roles because we all have so much to offer. I think GFWC has to continue to be an inclusive organization. We have to make sure we give everyone an equal opportunity to join a club and make positive contributions.
What types of community work and projects does your club focus on?
We have a middle school that we work with, where we buy and deliver books to. We do some tutoring. We are very involved with women veterans, and hosting events for them. Each Christmas, club members select families-usually single mothers with children-and we buy clothes for them, and toys for the children. At Thanksgiving, we do a food drive for the local food bank. Our president, Nancy Miller and I are co-ambassadors at the Chamber of Commerce, which is a presence we have never had before.
What are you most proud of being a woman volunteer?
When a young lady or woman thanks me for making a difference in their lives when no one else took the time to reach out and help and support them. Because of my background I am thrilled to help a woman who has an idea or dream to start her own business and I can give her a blueprint on how to bring her dreams to life. That is Fantastic!
Success For Survivors Scholarship
Each year, GFWC awards scholarships to help intimate partner abuse survivors obtain a post-secondary education that offers a chance to reshape their future by securing employment and gaining personal independence.
The Rochester Junior Women's Club
The Rochester Junior Women’s Club (Michigan) was established in 1956 with 16 members, and today has over 70 members that always come together to support one another. The club chooses three or four major charities to support and several smaller ones, donating approximately $30,000 each year. In total since its inception, the club has provided more than 1 million hours of community service, and raised more than $928,000 to support their community!