Jo Newell on What it’s Like to Have a Seat at the Table
Some origin stories don’t start the way you expect them to. For Jo Newell, it all starts with several packs of brightly colored pens and a loosely defined business plan.
“We were in fourth grade,” Newell recalled of her days at her private elementary school in her home state of California, “and all we were allowed to use in class were pencils or black pens.” So Newell, who already knew she wanted to be a businesswoman when she grew up, asked her mom to go to a local market where value packs of multicolored pens caught her eye. “I started selling these pens to my classmates. And then I started making a profit,” she laughed, “so the principal shut that down pretty quickly.”
Since then, Newell has honed that natural business savvy into a fruitful career that today has her serving as vice president of corporate engagement at the Orlando Economic Partnership. While still in California, Newell earned a degree in human development with a concentration in education from California Baptist University before relocating to Central Florida in 2008. It was here, in the middle of one of the worst recessions in recent memory, that Newell made the bold decision to pivot, starting in the for-profit business sector and remaining there for nearly 10 years.
In her free time, Newell pursued her other passion: giving back. It was while volunteering at From Outside In, a nonprofit that provides free clothes to underserved youth in need, that she first felt that calling.
“When I first started volunteering, they weren’t even a 501(c)(3) yet,” Newell said. “They were still in their baby stages. I watched them go from a storage unit to a storefront and mobile boutique. But seeing that joy on the kids’ faces each time, that’s when I realized that giving back like this brings me so much joy.”
Soon she was introduced to the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, now represented by the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, which frequently worked with partner organizations of From Outside In. She began working with the Commission on Homelessness in 2017.
“That was my first real work in the nonprofit world outside of volunteering, and it allowed me to see how they operate and fall in love with the community aspect,” she said. “Through my work there, I started to engage with people at the Partnership.”
Since joining the Orlando Economic Partnership in 2019, she has continued to advocate for nonprofits and businesses, always inspired by the Partnership’s mission, which includes the trademarked phrase Broad-based Prosperity: “To advance Broad-based Prosperity throughout the region.”
“I might have been the first at breaking this glass ceiling, but there are so many other glass ceilings to break,” Newell said.
“The world is ready to see women and women of color be in positions that historically might not have been held by us. I think representation matters so much to show young girls and women of color that they deserve a seat at the table and they can have it, that their hard work will be rewarded, that times have changed and women of color are being recognized for their skills and talents.”
Effective October 1, the work of the chamber was completely integrated into the Partnership, and in the transition Newell’s role expanded to one that oversees and serves the same functions for business and economic development as she did with the chamber.
“Jo’s dedication, ambition, intelligence and accomplishments exemplify that of a true leader and an individual who has a passion for her work and creating meaningful community-level change,” said Tim Giuliani, president and CEO of the Partnership. “Jo recognized the disproportionate impact the pandemic was having on women in business and has seen great success in unifying the region’s support organizations and community resources into a strategically coordinated campaign to propel women forward.”
Uplifting other women is a hallmark of Newell’s work, something especially evident in her creation of All Women Empowered (AWE). A campaign and coalition comprised of women and men from private, public and nonprofit partners, AWE works to propel women forward by bringing together community resources.
“When I first got to the Partnership in 2019, it was before George Floyd’s case, before social and racial injustice was a topic of conversation in the mainstream,” Newell said. “We were already talking about diversity and inclusion. Part of that meant looking at women.”
Newell and her team surveyed women in the region and came away with the premise for their new venture: “There are so many amazing women here, and there are programs and resources, but the information about them was not all together in any one place. It seemed to be in these silos, so we wanted to bring it together strategically.”
On the AWE web page, which can be found on the Partnership’s Programs, Initiatives and Events page, users can find resources from health care and wellness, to awards and recognition opportunities, to learning programs and beyond, as well as a list of women-owned businesses in the region.
AWE’s first meeting was held in February 2020, and getting it off the ground in the middle of a year full of uncertainty because of the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t without its challenges, Newell said. But the timing also served as a vital reminder of the importance of the mission.
“With these shutdowns, women suddenly found themselves called on to be full-time employee, plus tutor, plus schoolteacher, plus caregiver for parents, while others were choosing to leave the workforce or actually being forced to. And we were seeing that a lot of the jobs that got furloughed belonged to women. It was obvious to us that this was very relevant.”
Newell still spends much of her time devoted to nonprofits, most recently in her work with Tech Sassy Girlz, which empowers middle and high school girls to pursue STEM. For those girls, and the countless others she serves in her work, she leads by example.
It’s all a part of building the community she is so passionate about, the reason she was drawn to her role from the beginning.
Partnership board member Wendy Kurtz, founder and president of Elizabeth Charles & Associates, praised Newell as a community leader: “Jo Newell is a true rock star when it comes to helping businesses succeed. She doesn’t just get things done; she makes things happen! Whether connecting potential partners, researching options to overcome a business challenge, or pursuing opportunities to engage others, you can count on Jo.”
Newell maintains unwavering focus on the vision of the Partnership and her role in the organization.
“Our mission is about building a better, more equitable region for everybody,” she said. “It’s building this brilliant region where everybody gets a seat at the table.”