Brenda Newberry began taking classes at what was then Webster College while serving at Scott Air Force Base in the late 1970s.
“There were some things that I learned that were related to business and related to life that I took with me and carry to this very day,” Newberry said.
By the time she transferred to the main campus, she was pregnant with her first child. When she was admitted to the hospital to deliver her daughter, a professor dropped her final exam off to the hospital for her to take.
“That was very special for me,” Newberry said.
The gesture was one of many that solidified Newberry’s bond with the institution. And 40 years after she received her MA in Business Management from Webster University, Newberry will walk across the stage to receive an honorary doctorate degree as part of the university’s 100th Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 11 at The Muny.
“It was a diverse university, even back in the seventies,” Newberry said. “I never felt out of place. I never had anyone look at my husband and myself like, ‘What are you doing here?’ Some of the work was done in teamwork, and we always felt part of the group.”
She credits the collaborative spirit of Webster with giving her and her husband Maurice Newberry, both natives of Gary, Indiana who served their country in the U.S. Air Force, some of the tools to successfully transition from military to civilian life.
“In the military, you do what you’re told,” Newberry said. “And if you are the superior, people do what you tell them. In that transition period, it’s important to understand how to be more collaborative, even when you are supervising.”
Those collaborative tools proved useful in her success at what was then McDonnell-Douglas and as a corporate executive at MasterCard – and especially in 1996 when she and her husband started The Newberry Group, a technology infrastructure, networking and cyber security firm.
Not long after they started The Newberry Group, Newberry was approached by the school that had given her so much with an opportunity to give back .
“Once I had grown the business, I was asked by Webster if I would serve on the board,” Newberry said. “It was an honor that I never expected to happen. Most people go to college and you finish – and you might be involved in some sort of alumni activities, but other than that you don’t really expect anything.”
She ended up serving three terms as the chair – as the first African-American chair of the Board of Trustees. She also was the first female chair, and the first chair who was a military veteran.
“When I became a part of the board, I was really excited to work with Webster because of its relationship with the military – as well as having campuses in other countries,” Newberry said. “As we become less separated in the world, it’s important that people understand how to work with and respect different cultures.”
In 2008, the Newberrys decided to transition their company to an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP). At the time they had 150 employees and roughly $20 million in annual revenue.
Brenda was 55 years old at the time. Her mother had passed at the age of 53. Her father passed away shortly after her mother. Both died from cancer. She had a colonoscopy, which revealed polyps. Facing her own mortality – and with their two daughters expressing to their parents that they didn’t feel they had the backgrounds to move the company forward – the Newberrys decided to move forward with transitioning the business into the hands of their employees.
“I felt God had blessed me,” Newberry said, “and I felt I had to ensure that those he had put under my responsibility would be properly taken care of.”
Two years after the transition was complete, she discovered she had stage four tongue cancer. “God works in mysterious ways,” she said. “God put it in our hearts to do the transition, because it would have been very difficult to run a company while going through cancer treatment.”
She underwent chemotherapy, radiation and surgery – including the removal of one-third of her tongue. She and her husband have since retired to Florida.
“It was a wonderful place for healing,” Brenda said. “I’m still alive seven years later – and it was stage four cancer.”
Webster University’s 100th Commencement Ceremony will take place at 9 a.m. Saturday, May 11 at the Muny.