By ELIZABETH KIM, Connecticut Post
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) _ Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, Juanita James had high expectations even when others around her did not.
Although she was convinced she had the highest grades and SAT scores of her class, her guidance counselor at her all-girls Catholic high school tried to discourage her from applying to Ivy League colleges, instead pushing City College as an option.
“I was really annoyed at her,” she recalled recently, adding that in hindsight she thought perhaps the administrator might have simply been trying to shield her from disappointment.
On the surface, the odds seemed stacked against James, a black teenager raised by a single mom who worked as a seamstress.
Her mother emigrated from British Guiana _ now Guyana _ without her husband so that her only child could have better opportunities.
And so when the school announced on its public address system that James had been accepted to Princeton, the entire class cheered.
Arriving on the leafy New Jersey campus in the fall of 1970, she would be a member of only the second class of women the school had ever admitted. Fourteen years later, she would become the university’s first black female trustee.
Today, the 61-year-old Stamford resident is seeking to apply that same trailblazing spirit to the world of philanthropy while serving as president and CEO of the Fairfield County’s Community Foundation. The Norwalk-based nonprofit was formed in 1992 when five smaller foundations in the area merged.
Like community foundations across the country, the nonprofit pools and invests the charitable funds of various donors to generate a steady income for giving.
To date it has awarded more than $180 million in grants across a wide-ranging spectrum of causes, from education and health to arts and culture.
Additionally, the foundation has underwritten research reports on issues like mental health, hunger and the gender gap.
James, who has held high-profile corporate positions at Time Inc. and Pitney Bowes, said she sees her mission as building on the success of her predecessor, Susan Ross.
Under Ross’ 15-year tenure, the foundation’s assets grew from $10 million to $140 million, and its annual grants from approximately $900,000 to more than $11 million.
But James has made her own mark since taking the helm three years ago.
Earlier this month, the foundation announced it was adding an apostrophe to its name, along with a new logo, as part of a rebranding meant to “fine tune” its mission by emphasizing its countywide outreach.
Among the foundation’s major coming initiatives is “Thrive By 25,” which seeks to help individuals reach economic self-sufficiency by age 25.
“How do we remove the barriers that are keeping (young people) from being successful?” James said.
An effusive ambassador, she cited her own life as an example. Despite growing up in a household where money was tight, she had access to critical resources: good nutrition, health care via her mother’s union job, public libraries, parks and the arts.
“We worked hard for them, but they were available,” she said.
At Princeton, she realized she could compete despite having none of the material advantages that her wealthier classmates had.
With the support of her professors, she took chances. After initially intending to be a math major, she switched to the romance language department, having fallen in love with French.
That led to a two-year stint at the New York office of a French electronics firm, where she discovered she had a knack for business.
In 1976, after moving to Washington, D.C., she landed a position at Time Inc.
She climbed the corporate ladder at the media giant for the next two decades, starting as an editorial apprentice at Time-Life Libraries and eventually running the portfolio for the company’s prestigious Book-of-the-Month Club.
“I loved the book business,” she said. “I enjoyed meeting authors and the whole editorial process of trying to bring new ideas and new authors forward into the world.”
It was at Time Inc. where she met fellow employee Dudley Williams. Five years later, a mutual friend reintroduced the two after Williams had moved to New York to work at Simon & Schuster.
There were obvious similarities. He was an African-American from Brooklyn who had attended Columbia. Inwardly, they were “in synch” in terms of their values, she said, adding, “It really just clicked.”
The two were married in 1988. A year later, they moved to Stamford and had their son, Dudley Williams III.
“It’s the best job in the world,” James said. “It has all of the elements of running a complex changing business and all of the social impact of working for a cause where you are really making an impact on your community.
“For someone like me, it’s the best of both worlds.”
Although she had served as a trustee at Princeton University and was a member of the National Urban League, James credits her husband for getting her involved with local nonprofits like the Childcare Learning Center and Ferguson Public Library.
Williams, who comes from a long line of teachers, served nine years on the Stamford Board of Education.
He is now the director of district education strategy at GE Asset Management Group, where he oversees the city school system’s participation in the company’s education grant program.
Because of her longstanding involvement in non-profits, James’ decision to run a philanthropic organization seemed only logical.
During an interview in her office last week, she spoke of having an instinct for when to move on.
In 2010, she decided to retire from Pitney Bowes, where she had worked for 11 years, most recently serving as the company’s chief marketing and communications officer.
The following year, Ross announced she would retire. She encouraged James to apply for her job.