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Professionals to inspire at Womens Leadership Colloquium
Emmie Howard

Women’s Leadership Colloquium

When: 1:30-4:30 p.m. Friday, March 18, with a reception following

Where: Hosch Auditorium in the John S. Burd Center for the Performing Arts, 429 Academy Street Gainesville

Cost: Free but registration required

More info:

As a young girl growing up on a farm near the banks of the Mississippi River in Ripley, Tenn., Emmie Henderson Howard watched her grandfather sow and reap the land during the week. But on Sundays, her grandfather shed his blue jeans and work shirts and donned a seersucker suit complete with bow tie.

“I always admired and loved what my grandfather wore,” she said from her office in Atlanta. “There’s nothing more quintessential than a Southern man wearing a seersucker suit and a bow tie.”

This single image would stick with Howard and ultimately shape her future.

For Khalilah Johnson, the image that influenced her career path happened when she was in middle school in Monroe, which is situated between urban Atlanta and the college town of Athens.

Her dad experienced a sudden stroke, which affected his vision and memory, Johnson said. Her father, who was the associate superintendent of schools and managed a multitude of tasks, now had trouble dressing himself and preparing simple foods.

But then an occupational therapist, or OT, helped her father adapt.

“I was really sort of intrigued in the way that he was treated,” she said during a phone interview from her North Carolina home. “They didn’t come in and say ‘I’m going to fix you.’ They said ‘I’m going to help you live.’ And I hadn’t seen that before.”

These scenes laid the foundation of both women’s futures. Johnson is an occupational therapist working on her doctorate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Howard is the founder and owner of Southern Proper, a clothing and accessory line for men and women.


Both will share their stories as well as advice at the upcoming Women’s Leadership Colloquium on Friday, March 18, in Hosch Auditorium, at 429 Academy St., in Gainesville.

Debra Dobkins, organizer of the colloquium and dean of the Women’s College at Brenau, asked Johnson and Howard to be among the panel because they are “passionate” about their careers.

“My overriding criteria is to invite leaders who are passionate about what she’s doing and all of these women bring that,” she said. “Their energy is amazing.”

Dobkins also wanted to have speakers from diverse backgrounds and employed in different fields since they will speak to audience members ranging from Brenau faculty, staff and students to community and local leaders.

The different sectors of the speakers include health care (Johnson and Carol Burrell, chief executive officer of Northeast Georgia Health System), fashion (Howard), media (Charlotte Atkins, publisher of The Times in Gainesville) and marketing and advertising (Amanda Slavin, founder and chief executive officer of CatalystCreativ).

“They can give us the lessons they learned in their industries and give advice,” Dobkins said. “They can describe what’s worked for them as women in leadership positions and what’s challenging about those roles as they share their personal success stories.”

Each woman on the panel has a different story to tell. But Howard and Johnson share the common thread of being Brenau University alumnae.


Howard was recruited by the Newell Rubbermaid Corporation after graduation. She worked in product development and trend marketing, but had the desire to run her own business.

Therefore, with her sorority sister, Reagan Hardy, and a personal loan from family members, she founded Southern Proper in 2005.

The clothing company started out as a men’s line focusing on neckties and bow ties. It expanded to boxers, belts, hats, oxfords, polo golf attire and shorts, according to the Southern Proper website (

“Now we dress men from head to toe,” Howard said. “And just three weeks ago, we added a women’s line.”

Howard chose the preppy style, because it’s her personal taste.

“I’ve dressed the same since I was little,” she said. “I would wear a collared shirt with a sweater tied around my neck or over my shirt. Then I would have fun, colorful pants and little loafers. I was a little loafer lady and that still holds true today.”

The style is also inspired by the men in her life, including her grandfather and brother.

“I can remember my grandfather dressed for every occasion,” she said. “For the Fourth of July, he would wear his bright red pants and blue shirt.”

But it was her husband who agreed to be her guinea pig when she first started.

“Before we got technical with our projects ... he was a test model,” she said. “He’d tell me how certain pants fit and see how a certain fabric felt.”

Tommy Howard, who works at The Norton Agency in Gainesville, did not mind helping. In fact, he was supportive when she told him she wanted to start a business only a year after they were married.

“I said ‘Let’s do it,’” he said, noting he always knew his wife was ambitious. “There was no question that she wanted to do more and achieve more ... And if she put her mind to it, I knew she would be a success.”

And the success is obvious. Howard started the business more than 10 years ago with only herself and Hardy. Now she employs 10 full-time and a few part-time staff.

“And the company is predominately woman run,” she said.


Showing women can prosper in the business world is one example Dobkins hopes to achieve with the women’s colloquium. Revealing other women can flourish in male-dominated industries such as health care is another.

Dobkins points to Burrell and Johnson, as prime examples.

“(Johnson) is finishing up her doctorate,” she said. “Hers is a powerful example for students to see, but also for other women in her field.”

However, becoming an occupational therapist wasn’t Johnson’s first choice. She originally saw herself as a musician.

“I wanted to go to school and major in clarinet performance,” she said.

But her love of math and science as well as learning medical professionals could work in communities, schools and businesses altered her course. She then shadowed an occupational therapist, which cemented her career path.

“It’s the best decision I made,” she said. “I really enjoy being an OT and I’ve worked in three different settings.”

Johnson said her first assignment was in acute care and in-patient rehabilitation at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Then she moved to home health care.

“In the hospital, I was doing guesswork,” Johnson said, explaining she was trying to determine what techniques to teach her patients to allow them to function in their own home. “So, I thought why not just work with them at home.”

Now she is pursuing her doctorate degree, which she plans to finish this summer.

“I think understanding that within the health care industry, women in particular have a hard time reaching levels of upper management,” she said, pointing to Burrell as the exception rather than the rule. “Health care is really run by big business and big science, which is a boys’ club. To infiltrate the system requires a lot. When you don’t fit the model, it can be a challenge.”

Therefore, she plans to share with the women at the colloquium one piece of advice.

“To just be fearless and to be unapologetic,” she said. “Your gender or race doesn’t stop you.”

Dobkins believes the message from these women and others will be loud and clear.

“Everyone should walk out feeling motivated, inspired and empowered,” she said. 

For more information on the other women on the panel of the colloquium, click here.

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