Kathryn Kelly has spent her life defying gender barriers.
She recently earned the 2014 APEX Award for exceptional women in business and while reflecting on her past she credited Florida SouthWestern State College with helping develop the foundation she needed to conquer the world.
In 1972, Kelly graduated from Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers and was determined to be the first member of her family to earn a college degree, back when FSW was called Edison Community College. She was also determined to study science and pursue a career in medicine.
"Girls just didn't do that back then," she laughed.
Throughout her time at FSW, she took every science class the college had to offer: biology, anatomy and physiology, physics, chemistry, and anything else that had open spots. She was also part of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society for students enrolled at two-year colleges.
"Edison was a great stepping stone for me, being born and raised in Fort Myers," she said. "I had no one in my family to assist me so I relied heavily on the counselors. If I had gone straight from high school to the University of Florida, I don't know how I would've navigated that."
Although she later transferred to UF and earned a bachelor's degree in architecture, her time at FSW prepared her for that major transition between grade school and higher education.
After working in the architectural field for 20 years, she launched The Heights Foundation to build self-sufficient families in the Harlem Heights neighborhood through education, opportunity, and enrichment. Today, she serves as president and CEO of the foundation, which recently completed construction on a new 14,000-square-foot community center.
Over the years she has maintained a relationship with FSW. Through The Heights Foundation, she invited FSW financial aid advisors for college nights each year to help families make important decisions for their children's education. One of the children involved with the foundation in its early years is now attending FSW's Collegiate High School, an opportunity the child wouldn't have had without the foundation's help, she said.
Kelly is one of the most successful businesswomen in Southwest Florida, helping other young women in the community. She is serving in Rotary Club, Tiger Bay Club of SWFL, on the Board of Trustees at Canterbury School, and has an active role in the Westminster Presbyterian Church. In her spare time, she pursues her own passion of scuba diving and underwater spear fishing.
With as much as she has achieved in her life and as many fond memories she has collected over the years, she'll never forget her time at FSW.
"I have really great memories of being on campus. It was my first time being on a college campus. I loved being there and it set me up for an appreciation of higher education," she said.
Kelly was awarded the 2014 APEX Award from Women in Business and the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce on September 20, 2014 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa. Nominated by their peers, the award recipients are recognized based on professional excellence, leadership and mentoring, and philanthropy in the community.