By: Kelli Dugan,

MOBILE, Alabama – When Judy Bonner took the helm of the University of Alabama as its first female president in November 2012, she admits she gave little credence to the milestone so many around her celebrated.

Considering, however, her father placed newspaper clippings about successful women under her pillow when she was a small child growing up in rural Wilcox County, Bonner told a standing-room-only crowd that perhaps it never occurred to her to question what women can accomplish.

Of course, he also made a point to stop in Monroeville to visit Alice Lee, the sister of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee, every time the family passed through en route to the beach, so his daughter could chat with the first woman licensed to practice law in the state of Alabama.

“(My father) wanted me to see that women can be successful in all things,” Bonner told the crowd of more than 140 professional women and men gathered Thursday for the third annual “An Evening of Networking with Business Women of the Mobile Area” in the Region’s Bank Pharr Room of the RSA Battle House Tower in downtown Mobile.

Proceeds from the event, hosted by the Mobile Bar Association’s Women Lawyers, will benefit the Women’s Business Center Inc. that for two decades has sought to promote the economic empowerment of women by assisting them to start and grow successful small businesses.

Bonner said she had no doubt every person in attendance understands the importance of empowering one another to pursue and achieve greatness, and she challenged each one to remember that one person in their own early life that set their own success in motion and emulate that level of support for another.

“Helen Keller once said the only thing worse than being blind is having sight but having no vision,” Bonner said, applauding all in attendance for their commitment to not only seeing what needs to be done but banding together to ensure more women are afforded an even stronger support system.

“If we lift as we climb, we can quickly double our effort to help even more women realize that American dream, whatever it may be,” she said.

And the University of Alabama is no stranger to those climbing efforts, Bonner said.

Consider, for instance, the university welcomed a record 34,852 students, spanning all 67 Alabama counties, all 50 states and the District of Columbia and some 77 foreign countries.

Of that figure, she said, 55 percent are women, compared with only 49 percent of the freshman class 25 years ago and only about 35 percent 50 years ago.

Meanwhile, the quality of the students attracted is increasing as well, Bonner said, with some 42 percent of the 2013 incoming freshmen ranking in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes, compared with only 24 percent in 2003.

Not convinced?

Bonner said the university has also increased the number of incoming freshmen with a perfect4.0 grade point average nearly six fold to 1,768 in the past decade and welcomed the highest number of National Merit finalists of any public university in the national for 2012-13.

Those accomplishments are only possible, she said, because the institution actively reaches back, up and out to help its students connect in meaningful ways to become “part of the University of Alabama family.”

And the Women’s Business Center and its supporters, Bonner said, can play the same role by continuing to empower and strengthen the Mobile area’s entrepreneurial community from the inside out.

In turn, she helped honor the center’s 2013 South Alabama Successful Small Businesses of the Year, or SASSY Award winners:
  • Christine Hubbard, Precision Tool and Grinding Inc. (Mobile-Baldwin Counties)
  • Molly Anderson, Studio 3:19 (Rural Business Initiative, representing Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia, Monroe and Washington counties)
  • Lisa Hirschm Kanundrumz Bakery, the inaugural People’s Choice SASSY Award