Gail Williams is chief diversity officer at Hodges University, a position that she began preparing for—albeit unwittingly—as a child growing up in Baltimore. She recalls how her mother and father graciously invited friends, relatives and neighbors of all cultures into their home, whether it was to socialize or to help those in need. “My parents were excellent role models,” says Williams, 62, who is also Hodges’ director of student accounts. “They appreciated differences and followed the Golden Rule. One thing we had was love, and that carried over.”

Eventually the family, which included three sisters and a brother, moved to a white neighborhood where they were only the fourth African-American household. “It was a great opportunity to meet people from all walks of life,” she says. Those days also were marked by the civil rights movement, which focused Williams’ view of the world. “I hope it made me a more, well-rounded individual,” she says. “I have history and experience that helps me be empathetic as a woman and a black woman.”

Williams eventually made her way to Naples, where she started working at NCH in the coffee shop, “flipping burgers.” She then moved into Accounts Payable and later became supervisor, working in that department for 20 years. But Williams, who had higher aspirations, followed the advice of former NCH CEO Edward Morton, who encouraged her to attend college. As a single mom, she felt the timing was right. Plus she would be the first member of her family to seek higher education

She enrolled at Hodges when it was known as International College, and in 2001 she graduated with honors, earning a Master of Business Administration degree. While she was attending the school, she was offered a job in the business office, and she ultimately became student accounts manager.

Williams joined the Hodges University Diversity Committee in 2005 when it was conceived. For several years, she has led the diversity committee and annual Diversity Festival, and will do so again this year. She also reaches out to various organizations, including the Council of Hispanic Business Professionals; the Lee and Collier County branches of the NAACP; and the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce.

So when Hodges created the position of chief diversity director, it didn’t have to look far for the perfect candidate. Last summer she was offered the position. “When I’m working with students, I’m with them. I understand the struggle they go through especially if it’s the first time they are in a diverse environment,” she says. “Problems exist when people don’t understand one another. We need to work on developing mutual respect.”