TINA VERCIGLIO SAVAS - SICILIAN/LEBANESE/SOUTHERN AMERICAN, ENTREPRENEUR,
I was born the youngest of four children in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955. My Sicilian father was a painting contractor and my Lebanese mother was a homemaker and part time bookkeeper for my father.
Whenever I think about my early years as a child, I recall the “foreigners’ way of life,” as my parents would say - pleasant yet firm, doing our best no matter what lay ahead. We were taught to depend upon no one but ourselves. I learned very early that my destiny was completely under my control. Work was a way of life and if it wasn’t good enough, it was up to us to change it.
Whatever we wanted out of life, we could get, as long as we worked for it. I never felt like being a girl would stop me from achieving my dreams. Of course, college was a foregone conclusion and the only road to sure success.
I can still visualize my parents going over the books of the family business and bidding on jobs. Sometimes, my father would pack us in his truck to go view a job, usually in the afternoons around dusk. At dinner, he would regale us with tales of his customers and their strange ways of doing business with him. The customer was always right, period. Those are such fond memories for me.
I also saw first-hand that a business could be run with the right set of people using their best resources correctly. That stuck like glue in my mind and would come in handy later in my life.
Our family was close. Large gatherings were the norm, where everyone would be talking at the same time, and the room got louder and louder. Our non-ethnic friends were called “American-eas,” for lack of a better way to distinguish them from foreigners like us.
Early on, I experienced discrimination due to our ethnicity. Some of my best friends were African American. We were forced to live in the same neighborhood and got to know each other well. As a kid, I never dreamed they were different than I, even though I saw them treated differently. I rode buses to school and downtown to go shopping, but no one ever gave me a clear answer as to why whites got to sit up front, or why they drank from a different water fountain. It was just the way it was and “we shouldn’t talk about it, or we would get into trouble too.” My parents and teachers preached that we were all the same in God’s eyes and I believed it, truly. I just didn’t see it in action.
The world may know about Birmingham’s civil rights struggles, but I lived right through it. It was painful to watch and to know that along with African Americans, my family wasn’t welcomed into Birmingham’s society either.
My education began in a Catholic school in downtown Birmingham, with nuns and priests ruling over us every day. Then on to a suburban Catholic school when my parents moved away from our Lebanese and African American community.
I competed in track through President Kennedy’s physical fitness program, becoming the fastest runner in the state of Alabama. I loved running. To this day, I treasure my medals and newspaper clippings. But since this was prior to Title IX, which gave girls their first legal rights in school sporting activities, I had nowhere to channel my talent. So I entered the cheerleading arena and my track days sadly came to an end. Once again I had felt the sting of discrimination. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t run track, yet my brother was able to participate in any sport he pleased. Yes, I’ve always wondered what could have been.
I graduated high school as a member of the National Honor Society, a Homecoming Queen runner-up, cheerleader and class officer, and set out for a small college in Jacksonville, Alabama. After one year, I transferred to the University of Alabama. My mother strongly suggested that I have a job upon graduation, i.e., “you won’t be able to live back home.” With that reality check, I discovered special education virtually guaranteed me a job…and it did. Of course, women were steered into teaching and secretarial positions then. Looking back, I wonder what would have happened if my counselor had presented other options…another what could have been.
Wanting to understand the feminist movement better, I slipped into college courses about women’s issues. There weren’t many, but I did find one that altered my view of women’s roles forever. Titled Women’s Evolution, it was taught by the only college professor I can remember. She had a free spirit, even breastfeeding her baby while teaching. I suppose she was the first true feminist I had ever encountered. College women in Alabama were extremely sheltered from organizations like NOW, the National Organization for Women.
After graduating with honors I packed my life into a 16-ft trailer and moved to Tampa, Florida. I landed a job teaching emotionally disturbed children, then moved to Rhode Island to teach at the first hospital for emotionally disturbed children in the U.S. Continuing this career, I moved back to Birmingham and worked for three years before I was pink-slipped. This was prior to the law that made special education a requirement in education, and special education teachers were always the first to go. A real shame because I was a very good teacher and successfully touched many young lives. But I also realized that I didn’t work well in the educational system. Women were very difficult to work with and my no nonsense style didn’t mesh well with their age-old system of the good girls club.
I ended up producing a newspaper, even though I had little money. However, I had perfect credit, so the bank loaned me $10,000 and off I went to produce the Birmingham Business Journal. For 20 years, I made it my mission to change the face of business in Birmingham. I created the Top 40 Under 40, which many newspapers and magazines have copied. I really should have trademarked it. I started many awards programs, including Top Birmingham Women. I’ve also been awarded many times along the way, and am featured in the book, Italians in the Deep South. My company expanded to other publications: Alabama Construction News, Alabama Health News, shoppers, and the Birmingham Weekly, an alternative newspaper.
As a woman business owner in a city famous for its discrimination and fire hoses and dogs, you can only imagine what it was like for a young ethnic “sweetie” like me. I could count on one hand the number of women business owners when I started my company. We weren’t taken seriously and banks needed our husbands or fathers or any other male to co-sign. (My brother Michael co-signed my $10,000 loan.)
I was not affected by landmark women’s rights cases because, unlike those women, I owned my company. It was easier, but lonelier. No kindred spirit accompanied me…ever. To make matters worse, I was desperate to protect my company and believed that dressing and acting like a man and catering to their wishes would make sense. I hired guest speakers for my events like Vince Lombardi, Jr, Jim Valvano and Joe Theismann…all sports themes and all males. Every now and then, I would sneak in a woman speaker, but only for my designated women’s events, which were not well received by the business community. I was threatened many times by men in power and was always on the brink of a lawsuit. But I stuck to my motto, “Do it for the Reader.” It never failed me.
As the years wore on, I became a student of the women’s movement, wishing I could speak out, but knowing I would lose my readership if I did. And strangely enough, no women in Alabama reached out to me for help, other than the League of Women Voters. I secretly assisted them in any way I could, becoming the first publisher in the state to print our legislators’ voting records for the public to see in plain sight. I vividly recall the secretary of the Alabama Senate physically trying to prevent me from entering the floor during session one day. Of course, I got in anyway, by threatening him with press coverage that would be extremely unflattering for his hallowed group.
Breaking new ground was a common theme for my newspapers and I finally became firmly entrenched in local media. We were the first to print Insider Trading, noting shares bought and sold by company executives and large shareholders. The big banks and insurance companies who shunned me finally came around to the power of the subscriber base. I was vindicated in the end.
Then, two things simultaneously happened. I fell in love, got married and had a baby. And I was threatened by an out-of-town competitor, who went so far as to set up shop in Birmingham and give me a real scare. I felt that I had done so much for Birmingham and perhaps it was a sign for me to sell my company and spend time with my son. For two years, I watched my husband spend a majority of his time with my little son Alex, and I was jealous.
I made up my mind and sold the business journal to a man who had run Dow Jones and owned fifty other business publications in the country. Many days I have wondered if this was the wisest move in my career. But since women business owners didn’t have women mentors, we operated by the seat of our pants. We were so used to being alone in our decisions. There were a couple of women who had been successful and were retired, but they completely disappeared from public view.
After I sold my company and felt the stinging remorse, I took my hard won knowledge and applied it to a new path. In addition to non-profit work and other side business ventures with my husband, Paul, I wrote the book, Women of True Grit, about women across the country who were the first in their fields. I decided their stories needed to be told, about what they went through only “because they were women.”
The time was right for all of us to speak out. I searched for women who had been successful and felt compelled to share their experiences, something none of us could have done during our careers. Countless women declined an interview, in fear of losing government and corporate pensions, or worse, their reputations. Even when I insisted no one would know their names, they still declined, convincing me that since their stories were unique, they would be known. But enough of them felt safe and free to speak out. Over and over, I heard from women everywhere that “it was about time someone did this.” Spurred on by positive encouragement, the book took on a life of its own. What a wonderful journey it has been!
Each woman’s submission is a chapter in the book, told in her own words and edited by me. I tried to keep each special voice intact, but in a way, the book became my personal expression, too. The best part of the writing experience was my liberation through them. Maya Angelou contributed her poem, Phenomenal Woman, to the book and was happy to support us. Some famous women like Phyllis Diller, Joann Carson and Meredith Vieira lent their voices and others, less well-known, who did phenomenal trailblazing. Their stories shock our younger women, who have no idea about their senior sisters’ struggles. Not knowing whose shoulders they stand on or why, they need to know their history and lean on these women as mentors.
I went on the road speaking to educate people about women’s issues and the work yet to be done. The book has been sold all over the world, written up in major newspapers, and blogged about. Most importantly, it has helped many people to understand our past: how women were treated like second class workers or the “delicate sex” who needed a recovery room at work when they had their time of the month. And how women weren’t allowed to eat with the men in the company dining room, or even at a major department store’s cafe in Miami.
The past isn’t always pretty, but it needs to be told. And, as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I’ve had a lot of time to consider the past, observe the present and learn what we can do for a brighter future. We must continue our work to make a difference.
Contact Tina: firstname.lastname@example.org
Comments: Jacqui Ceballos email@example.com