BY AMY SCHERZER
TAMPA — The first University of South Florida graduate to address the USF’s Women in Leadership & Philanthropy supporters, Grace Gealey Byers, class of 2006, centered her speech on her first name, turning it into a verb to share life lessons.
Byers, 33, who plays Anika Calhoun on the FOX TV series Empire, began by crediting her alma mater for directing her career path.
"USF shaped me into the woman I am today," Byers told 900 guests at the Oct. 20 fundraising luncheon at the Hilton Tampa Downtown. One of her first fans and a mentor still, USF School of Theater professor Fanni Green was seated next to Byers’ mother, Cheryl Gealey of Brandon.
"I have a love affair with my name," said Byers, who has a sister named Faith.
Their childhood experiences, growing up in a deaf household in the Cayman Islands, taught her patience and turned her into an advocate against bullying.
"Bullying is all fear-based," she said. When other kids mocked her deaf parents, "they didn’t understand what it means to be hearing- impaired." Byers wrote a children’s book, I Am Enough, to offer some of the affirmations that have helped her.
Ironically, the rising star plays a character that viewers consider a bully on Empire. She relishes the opportunity to star alongside such heralded actors Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard. "It’s a master class on the set every day," she said.
Byers illustrated "finding grace" with three bullet points — professionally, socially and personally — relating encounters she said she had never shared before.
Her acting career seemed to be going nowhere five years ago. Facing eviction from her New York apartment, she attempted to sever ties with her agent. Despite her best efforts, the agency insisted on leaving the contract open.
Three months after moving to Chicago and landing the role in Empire, the agency sought their 10 percent commission.
"I was disrespected," she said, "and should have exercised grace in the moment."
That lesson, "was to own my yes and stand in my no."
Socially, she works on extending grace to other women in competitive situations. Byers told the audience of an awkward elevator interaction she and her husband, Empire co-star Trai Byers, experienced one evening. The uncomfortable conversation had her quoting former first lady Michelle Obama’s adage, "When they go low, we go high."
It made her look up the definition of petty, she said, and was struck by one of the word’s meanings: secondary. Pettiness, she realized, makes us accept secondary versions of ourselves.
As for personal grace, she continued, that’s Acting 101, and the root of her positive, ongoing inner monologue.
"Grace is pardon ... take the time to forgive ourselves," she said. "We are our biggest critics when we make mistakes. The world already does that for us."
"We are enough, we are more than enough. ... Be kind to ourselves.
The way we think becomes the way we speak, it all begins with what we think."
Lastly, Byers concluded, "God’s grace humbles you, grounds you."
The event began with all-female panel discussions on timely topics, from health care to fake news. Two annual leadership awards were presented: for lifetime achievement to Ann McKeel Ross ’74 and for community advocacy to Debbie Sembler.
Currently 130 students receive WLP scholarships, said executive director India Witte, noting that 70 percent are the first in their family to attend college. WLP Scholar Katherine Garcia was chosen to represent them, thanking the organization by explaining the challenges that may have prevented her from attending college, and hopefully, medical school.