Beverly Morrow aspired to be a chemical engineer.
That aspiration came to pass -- for a time. She earned an education at a prestigious school for left-brainers; served as a "hidden figure" in the oil industry; and devoted herself to motherhood for a time before returning to work.
But then she moved to a Southern state that was miles away -- distance and culture-wise -- from her birthplace to become a successful McDonald's franchise owner whose positive influence touched many, and a community volunteer with a heart for children.
Morrow has started many a young person onto the road to gainful employment with a simple formula for success.
"I always [told] my employees, 'We don't work for McDonald's; we work with these customers. We need to be making sure we're pleasing these customers, because these are the people ... that pay your check ... Believe me, McDonald's does not pay your check.'"
Because of Morrow's commitment of time, talent and treasure to her community, she's been named the recipient of the 2021 Woman of the Year in Philanthropy award from the Women's Foundation of Arkansas -- one of three that will be presented at the WFA's Power of the Purse luncheon, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday in-person at the Statehouse Convention Center, as well as virtual.
Founded in 1998, the Women's Foundation "focuses on ensuring economic security for Arkansas women and girls through focused philanthropic investment in their education and economic well-being," according to its website.
The foundation, Morrow feels, has come full circle, having this year established the Tjuana Byrd Summer Internship Program, named for a local lawyer who served as WFA's first Black board president. The program provides an opportunity for college-age women of color pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields to gain real-world experience and build professional relationships.
The 2021 summer pilot program involved 14 Arkansas college students. Participating companies each took in several interns for the 10-week program.
"When you think of an internship, it's just a job, it's an opportunity to work a job," Morrow says. "They gave them more than just a job. It was an experience ... The women that they chose were really outstanding. These women are gonna do some really good things.
"And then to go a little further than just the college graduates or the college students is that the Women's Foundation is doing a [Women's Economic Mobility Hub] for ... women to help build support, and hopefully get their businesses moving in the right direction." It began in the summer.
The philanthropy award is given to a woman who's committed to empowering and inspiring women and girls. When Morrow found out she'd be receiving it this year, "I was like, shocked," she says. "Totally shocked."
Those who know her were not.
Sarah Catherine Gutierrez, chief executive officer of Aptus Financial, has known Morrow for about four years through the International Women's Forum, of which Morrow is a past president.
"Beverly is the person in a room who has the best laugh, tells the best stories and clearly gets so much joy out of being present and in the moment with you," Gutierrez says. "She is the first person to recognize everyone else for their accomplishments. ... She has been a successful business owner, been integral in development and programming for local organizations and raised four incredibly successful kids."
And, Gutierrez adds, "she is incredibly humble."
A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN
A hesitant transplant from the North, Morrow, 70, harbors happy memories of family time while growing up in Brooklyn.
When she was young, she wanted to be a doctor -- "but that wouldn't work, because I'm scared of blood," she says. "So I figured that wouldn't be a good choice." But she'd always liked math and science; as early as elementary school, she'd participate in math contests.
"People say I'm a daddy's girl. And my dad was very, very much so into math and science education overall." Her father helped her with her homework in the evenings.
After her graduation from Erasmus Hall High School, a school that boasted strong math and science programs, Morrow headed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study chemical engineering. Her class, she says, "was the largest Black class at that time" -- a class of 57, seven of whom were women.
When Morrow went to college, marriage was the last thing on her mind. But life had other plans. She met her husband, Curtis, at MIT; they began dating the second semester of freshman year and were married the day after graduation.
After earning that degree in 1973, Morrow went to work in the oil industry, starting out designing refinery equipment at Standard Oil in California. "One of my first things was to make a tank, a C3/C4 tank." She also worked on skimmers, which clean the oil after an oil spill.
Later, Morrow moved with her husband to Chicago, where her life took a turn. The move took place six weeks after Achilia, the first of the Morrows' four children, was born. While Curtis Morrow -- holding a new master of business administration degree from Stanford University in California -- was headed to work for Continental Bank, his wife was going to work for Amoco, doing refinery work once again. She found a sitter about a week before her first day on the job.
But then, "I was like, 'I can't leave my child. When I get up in the morning, she'll be asleep and then when I come home, it'd be just time to feed her and put her to bed.' And I just said, 'I just can't do it.' You won't believe how many phone calls I got from people saying, 'You went to MIT! How are you just going to stay at home?'
"The day that I went to work, I literally was boo-hooing -- not crying; I was literally boo-hooing. By the time I got to work, my eyes were red."
Morrow went to her boss and said she couldn't take the job. "And they decided to let me work part time." Once Achilia was about 2, Morrow resumed working full time.
The family grew with the addition of their second daughter, Kiisha. When Morrow became pregnant with her third child, son Chane, she completed a master's degree from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. In 1984, six months before Chane was due to enter kindergarten, Morrow took a job with Autodynamics Inc., programming simulation processes for hydrocrackers.
THEN CAME McDONALD'S
Becoming a McDonald's franchise owner "was totally a Curtis thing," Morrow says of her husband. "Curtis ... always said he wanted a McDonald's."
A chance meeting at a convention in California brought that dream to reality. "The treasurer for McDonald's was there," Morrow says. "They began a conversation and the gentleman was saying that they really were trying to get more Black owner-operators -- which just was up Curtis's alley. So he went through the program, and trained and became an approved owner-operator."
Curtis Morrow didn't want any old McDonald's franchise; he wanted a new store. When a new-store opportunity did arise, it arose in Pine Bluff. The Morrows moved there and opened their McDonald's on March 25, 1987.
Beverly Morrow felt God was sending her down South, a place she'd never lived before, for a reason: The McDonald's would be a springboard for her to serve her community.
"But when I got there," she admits, "I cried for five years."
The Morrows owned single, then multiple McDonald's restaurants under their company TLM (The Lord's McDonald's) Management. They started out with the one in Pine Bluff, and remained single-store owners for 10 years.
"I was a very much hands-on owner-operator," Morrow says. She not only worked at the restaurant, she did everything, even down to cleaning baseboards and toilets alongside her employees and even watching their children.
"I work with low-income families who many times need that extra boost or a door to be opened and I could always depend on Mrs. Morrow," says Jeannie H. Epperson, executive director of the Housing Authority of the city of Pine Bluff. "Over the years, she has helped so many of our young people with their very first jobs. All I had to do was pick up the phone and explain the situation and she would tell me to send them to her. I could always count on her to provide lunch for any of my youth groups or summer programs, especially if we got in a crunch or someone failed to do what they agreed to do."
It was by God's grace, Morrow believes, that she was able to be of such help.
"I love to see people prosper, so I tried to be there for my employees, until they were a little more than employees. They were really like a family."
'TALK TO THE FRIES'
But the challenges were there, too. Operating the restaurant taught her patience and that "you have to lead by example," Morrow says. "I always told the employees, 'We don't have the right to get mad at a customer. Customers aren't always right, but we don't have the right to retaliate or be mean to a customer.' That was my speech all the time to my employees. I used to say, 'If you have to say something about a customer ... and it's not appropriate, go in that freezer and talk to the fries. Believe me, they won't tell anybody, and nobody will hear you. Go talk to the fries." She recalls having to take her own advice once after being called an ugly name by an angry customer.
A number of former Morrow employees went on to do well and become notable members of society. They include Detria Russell, executive director of the Martin Luther King Sr. Community Resources Collaborative in Atlanta, who admires Morrow's "unapologetic expectation of excellence as well as her ability to see the beauty in her own flaws."
Russell, who worked for Morrow while in high school, remembers her former employer's high expectations. Standard procedure was to use an ice scoop with a handle to fill a cup with ice. One day, Russell took a shortcut and scooped the cup in the ice bin. Morrow, she says, "immediately grabbed my hand and gave me the most loving yet firm [rebuke]. I learned that the right way is the only way."
Over the years, the Morrows went on to own two to five McDonald's restaurants at a time in southeast and Central Arkansas. Their last lineup stretched from Otter Creek to Haskell; in the meantime, they'd moved to Little Rock.
RISING IN THE RANKS
At the beginning of Morrow's career at McDonald's, she really didn't do much with the McDonald's organization because being a mom and working in her stores took all her time.
But once her youngest child, Asha, was in high school, Morrow became a little more active in McDonald's organizational matters -- including membership in the McDonald's Women Owner Network. Her personal philosophy and best practices contributed to her successful leadership of her restaurants and with the network. She won multiple awards.
"I started doing training sessions for the people in our region, just because I liked to do it and I like to learn," Morrow says. When there was a reorganization in the network, Morrow was asked to be the profit lead. She received an award for her efforts, as well as an award for revamping the network in her region.
Morrow's extensive volunteer work culminated in her nomination for the Top 100 Women of Arkansas, back in the mid-1990s. These women made up what is now known as the Women's Foundation of Arkansas.
Morrow went on to serve on the foundation board; during her stint, Power of the Purse was born. "It's just thrilling just to see the things that they're doing, and that they're focusing on equity," Morrow says of the organization.
Morrow's volunteer roles also include her role as a Stephen minister through her church, St. Mark Baptist. (Stephen Ministries is described as a Christian education organization that produces training and resources on various ministry-related topics, according to its website, stephenministries.org. Stephen ministers are a team of congregation members in the church equipped "to provide high-quality, one-to-one, Christ-centered care to people in the congregation and the community experiencing life difficulties.")
Having built up an extensive board membership resume, she currently serves as the first Black board chairwoman for Arkansas Children's Hospital. She especially believes in working with kids because "that's our future."
"Everybody thinks that you have to grow up in a certain household with certain surroundings in order to be successful. And I think it's really important for young people to see that you can come out of the ghetto. I grew up in the ghetto. You can come out of the ghetto and make something of yourself ... But sometimes what [kids are] missing is somebody doing that watch. My parents did a watch over me, so I knew to do a watch over my kids."
That watch, which included educating her children herself when they were small, paid off. Achilia and Asha are physicians. Kiisha is an equity and inclusion professional. Chane, now in Atlanta, made his name in Arkansas as rapper Epipany, aka "Big Piph," and is also an educator.
November 1 will make five years that Morrow and her husband have been retired as McDonald's owners. She has more time for exercising, reading and traveling with her family in addition to serving organizations like the Women's Foundation, which she hopes will go even further in encouraging girls to take on a STEM education like she did.
"In elementary school, girls tend to do a lot better than boys in math," Morrow says. "Then I think it becomes a social thing, why girls tend to come out of STEM, because it's not the popular thing to do. It's definitely not the coolest thing to do.
"We want to give these children the opportunity presented to them. Unfortunately, too many kids don't have the exposure."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 25, 1951, Brooklyn, N.Y.
• THE BIGGEST THING BROOKLYN AND LITTLE ROCK HAVE IN COMMON: People. People are people, wherever you go.
• YOU CAN TAKE THE WOMAN OUT OF BROOKLYN, BUT THE BROOKLYN "TRAIT" YOU CAN'T TAKE OUT OF THIS WOMAN IS: My accent and love for the city.
• BESIDES MY PARENTS, MY BIGGEST MENTORS/INFLUENCERS WERE: My ninth-grade teacher, Ms. Simms. She became a very close family friend and passed a year ago in July.
• THE THING ABOUT McDONALD'S THAT THE COMMERCIALS DON'T REVEAL: It's hard work. It's a great place to learn business and hospitality skills.
• MY FAVORITE NUGGET OF ADVICE TO PASS ALONG TO YOUNG PEOPLE, ASPIRING BUSINESS OWNERS, MINORITY STEM STUDENTS, NEW MCDONALD'S EMPLOYEES: No matter what you want to do in life, learn all that you can, stay focused, don't let anyone kill your dream, and most importantly keep your faith and trust in God.
• BOY, WOULD PEOPLE BE SURPRISED TO KNOW THAT: I used to play piano and have played at Carnegie Hall.
• FANTASY DINNER GUEST: Harriet Tubman. She was the only Black woman I was taught about when I was younger, and I admired her strength and courage.
• IF YOU DON'T READ ANY OTHER BOOK, SEE ANY OTHER MOVIE OR SEE ANY OTHER TV SHOW THIS YEAR, BE SURE TO CATCH: I recently watched "Modern Love" on Amazon Prime TV; it's a series of short stories about relationships [and] very lovely. My all-time favorite movie is "Shawshank Redemption." Book to read: "The Book of Lost Friends" by Lisa Wingate.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: My children say "mommy," "generous" and "special." I just say blessed.