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How I Made It

Bernice Ledbetter helps turn women into leaders

Bernice Ledbetter has received $150,000 to start the Center for Women in Leadership at Pepperdine University

The gig: Bernice Ledbetter, 57, is a faculty member at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management. Ledbetter was recently awarded $150,000 to start the university's Center for Women in Leadership, which will open in the fall semester. One of the center's aims is to help prepare female students for successful careers through skills development, mentoring and roundtable discussions with industry leaders. Ledbetter said she intends to call on the approximately 37,000 graduates of the Graziadio school to provide some of that mentoring and business executive expertise.

Learning to think: Ledbetter was born in San Jose and raised in Fresno. She was the first member of her immediate family to go to college, earning a bachelor's degree in liberal studies at Cal State Fresno. She next went to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena for a three-year master's degree in divinity she finished in 1987. "I learned about the classic philosophers. I took my first foreign language, which was Greek, and also Hebrew. I learned how to think there. I learned to look for nuance in everything."

Strong women: Ledbetter's mother, Binnie, was a single parent who worked seven days a week as a waitress at two restaurants to keep the family afloat. "She taught me that hard work was not something to shy away from; it was something to embrace. I do her honor by working hard because that is what she did for me." Grandmother Bernice took care of the daily child care while Binnie was working. "She instilled a sense a duty, that we owe things to certain people, gratitude and obligation," Ledbetter said. "She'd say, 'You have a duty to succeed because of how hard your mom is working for you.'"

Mentor Max: In 1995, Ledbetter was invited to help put together the Max De Pree Center for Leadership in Pasadena. That gave her the opportunity to work directly with De Pree, the former chief executive of Herman Miller Inc., the furniture and design company, and author of books including "Leadership is an Art." "He taught me that every person is special and valuable and unique and equal, whether it's the CFO or the guy who makes sure the lights are turned on," Ledbetter said. "He made sure everyone felt they were valued, and I think that encouraged them to work harder and contribute more."

Leadership niche: Ledbetter stayed on to be director of the De Pree Center but felt she needed a stronger foundation in leadership to do her job. She pursued a doctorate in organizational leadership from Pepperdine University, which she completed in 2005. Her focus was on women in leadership. Ledbetter's doctoral study of female leaders found a running theme. All of them, whether they were business or political leaders, were able to "combine benevolence and achievement. They were able to show compassion and empathy while still being able to achieve organizational results."

Powerful obligation: When Ledbetter talks about the goals of the new Center for Women, she mentions a Chinese student at Pepperdine who asked her, "How can I, as a woman, change my country?" Then there's the Saudi student who began an essay with the statement, "As fate would have it, something terrible happened to me at the beginning of my life, I was born a girl."

Ledbetter said those young women and others convinced her that "we have such a moral obligation to help these women. I can't let them leave here without being fully equipped to lead well."

Advice: Don't worry about the past because every experience helps to lead to the person you have become, Ledbetter said. "I always tell my students who think, 'Oh that was a dumb job' or 'I took too long to finish that' ... [that] no, every single thing you did was needed. I can trace my opportunities to things that happened long ago and see the necessity of that job or that decision instead of wishing I had done things differently."

Get it done: "You'll hear things like, 'I have to work twice as hard as the men,'" Ledbetter said. "Fine, so do it. The more time you spend whining about it, the less time you have to spend getting it done."

Personal: Ledbetter lives in Los Angeles with her husband of more than 10 years, Jim Olson, an independent real estate broker and investor. She has a stepdaughter, Carly, and a baby granddaughter, Rose. In her "little bits of free time," Ledbetter loves to solve Sudoku number puzzles.

She and her husband have also embraced the need to respond to California's drought by getting rid of their lawn and putting in, on their own, 300 plants that require little water.

ronald.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonWLATimes

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