It’s as though her name were crafted precisely for her mission at hand. As executive director of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, Ruby Bright is indeed seeking new light — in all its shapes, forms, and meanings — for Memphians in need, most particularly women and children. For 17 years, Bright has steered the nonprofit organization toward meaningful impact as measured, she insists, one woman at a time.
“I believe in developing people,” says Bright, “because I was developed. When you help a woman, she receives a sense of giving back. But nothing comes without working hard.”
The second of eight siblings, Bright grew up in Byhalia, Mississippi, with the twin pillars of academics and faith stabilizing her youth. (To this day, she attends the same church she did as a child, St. Paul Missionary Baptist.) Her parents, Ferl and Annie Saulsberry, emphasized a bigger world to explore, encouraging Bright’s creative thinking and the notion of ideas followed by action. When, during high school, Bright noticed a park where black children weren’t allowed to play, her dad listened to the complaint and said, “Build a park. Make it happen.” Bright organized a group of fund-raisers a few years later and saw that park built.
“I had ideas,” says Bright. “I wanted to create things that were different. My father wanted us to strive to be the best. He pushed us to take responsibility, to understand the importance of community. My mother was a very nurturing parent. She wanted us to know that our spiritual being is important. They were very strict, very protective. We only did things that they considered age-appropriate.”
Bright graduated from Byhalia High School, having been transferred there (from Henry High School) for her final semester in 1970 when the school first integrated. She took her first job at a nursing home where her mom worked, but gained career traction in the late Seventies at Dave Williams Printing, under the guidance of the company’s owner, Mary Lou Frye. Bright was first tasked with teaching other employees how to run a printing press — “I wasn’t afraid of machines,” she says — and gradually rose to a position of authority.
“Mary Lou saw my potential,” says Bright. “She taught me all she knew about the company. In three years, I became executive manager of the company.” Frye fit the model of mentor established by Bright’s parents, only from a different background. “She wanted me to reach my full potential,” notes Bright. “I had a big responsibility. She taught me about customer
service, marketing, how to communicate with people. She understood I’d be challenged as an African-American woman, because she’d been challenged as a white woman.”
Frye died of cancer in 1985, but a board membership she held with Junior Achievement proved to be a transitional bridge for Bright’s continued rise. Bright had volunteered with the organization, helping children better understand business, free enterprise, and — echoing Frye’s influence on her — the impact they could make as future professionals. “I learned how to raise money,” says Bright.
Fund-raising is a form of leadership unto itself, a skill Bright has now cultivated for more than 30 years. “It’s relational,” emphasizes Bright. “You’ve got to believe in what you’re asking for. Be able to connect. If you believe in it, I trust you with my money and resources. It’s not easy. You have to be able to hear ‘no,’ but also understand what ‘no’ means. ‘No’ means ‘not now.’ I’ve never asked for money [for a cause] that I didn’t give first. It’s connecting a cause to people’s passion.”
Bright took a marketing job with Junior Achievement shortly after Frye’s death and served 15 years with the organization, including four years (1996-2000) as president and CEO of Junior Achievement Kansas City. When the youngest of Bright’s three children graduated from high school in 1996, she established a goal of becoming a chief executive. She traveled to Washington, D.C., to interview for the top job at that city’s Junior Achievement affiliate. And it didn’t go well. Bright collected herself, sharpened the scope of her goal, and told herself she would leave her next interview proud of herself and her presentation. After a series of interviews in Kansas City, she landed that executive position.
Her years in the City of Fountains opened Bright’s eyes to the arts and culture, and not just in western Missouri. “There’s more money in Kansas City, but I came to appreciate Memphis so much more, for what it has in the arts,” says Bright. “I’d never been to a ballet or symphony; you have to have a social network as well as a business network.”
The Women’s Foundation — founded in 1995 by a group led by Mertie Buckman — cast a nationwide net for a new director in 2000, and Bright answered what amounts to a call home. Seventeen years later, she smiles when asked how much has changed, a woman having won the popular vote for president, but sexual assault still a too-frequent news item. “The mission has remained the same,” says Bright, “helping low-income women become self-sufficient, breaking the cycle of poverty. Engaging women, lifting leadership. I’m really proud of establishing the Legends Award [in 2009], which recognizes women who have made major contributions.”
Bright traveled back to D.C. in 2015, this time to meet with President Barack Obama (no interview required this time). The gathering was in support of the White House Council on Women and Girls and afforded Bright the opportunity to share — in the Oval Office — her perspective on empowering women. Among the women she considers most influential are civil rights leaders Dr. Dorothy Height and Maxine Smith.
“I got to sit in a room and listen to [Dr. Height], and that was an enormous impact on me,” says Bright. “She was a self-confident woman, very thoughtful. Nobility was the word I associate with her. She loved her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. She had vision.
“Maxine had courage that I haven’t developed. She was an advocate for community and she spoke up and spoke out. I got to see her as a negotiator; she wanted everybody in the room to win. I admired that. She connected with a diverse group of people. She gained respect without having to demand it.”
When it comes to her own leadership style, Bright describes herself as a “tough but fair manager.” The Women’s Foundation has a small staff (nine full-time employees), and Bright expects those she hires to bring vision beyond their current jobs. “I have high standards,” she notes. “I push people to be creative. ‘What do you want to become?’ I look for potential and expertise, people who are energetic. And their interest must be beyond money.”
Bright and her husband, Al, have been married more than 40 years. They have grandchildren exploring their futures, choosing leaders to follow, and measuring a larger world to explore. “I want to help people fulfill their potential,” says Bright. “A leader has to be able to make a decision at a critical moment, and take responsibility for their team. Leadership can be developed. The energy when we bring women together is still amazing to me.”