As the gas sales and public affairs manager for Clearwater Gas System, Kristi Cheatham exudes strength and confidence from her 6-foot-2 frame.
So people are often startled to learn that for years, the businesswoman by day was a battered wife by night.
Successful at work, she said she was called "ugly" and "stupid" at home. When she was left bruised by beatings, she would tell co-workers she had fallen in the shower.
Ten years later, Cheatham, 42, of St. Pete Beach, can pinpoint the instant she knew she had been beaten for the last time.
Her parents had driven three hours in the dark to watch as emergency room doctors worked to repair her punctured lung, cracked ribs and cut face.
"The sorrow in my mom's eyes — that's the moment I knew," Cheatham said.
"A lot of women say 'Kristi, you're so tall and strong and confident, how could you let someone do that to you and beat you down?' It was the emotional damage,'' Cheatham said. But, she said, "I knew if I didn't leave him I would be dead."
Cheatham was among 11 female executives and entrepreneurs who talked Wednesday at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater about the personal and professional hurdles they had to overcome during their careers. All are founders of AchieveHERs, a group created last year in response to female members of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce who craved a means of networking, learning skills and gaining support.
The founders and presenters were Ernestine Bean, president and CEO of the Morton Plant Mease Foundation; Sheryl Conrad, executive vice president of HUB International Florida; Doreen DiPolito, owner of D-Mar Contracting; Carol Hague, chief operating officer of the law firm Johnson, Pope, Boker, Ruppel and Burns; Karla Jo Helms, CEO of Jo-To PR; Tina Tenret, vice president of ProVise Management Group; Stephanie Schlageter, owner and founder of Radiance MedSpa; Diane Stein, president of Jo-To PR; Kathy Rabon, chief development officer of Ruth Eckerd Hall; Suzy Sofer, owner of Cody's Original Roadhouse; and Cheatham.
"What we've found from business women is that we want to learn from each other's success stories but also where we've fallen down, gone through personal tragedies, setbacks at work, when you take risks and fail," said group chairwoman Tina Tenret. "Because it's really easy to hear from uber-successful businesswomen who say, 'It's always been this way.' But it's really empowering to hear when you've gotten over mistakes."
At 29, Tenret was a television news reporter who had worked with CNN and with Katie Couric on NBC's Today show. Then, at age 56 her mother committed suicide. The stay-at-home mom had divorced and faced intensified fear over her financial future Tenret, now 39, turned the pain over her mother's death into power.
She returned to school to become a certified financial planner. Today, she is vice president of ProVise Management Group, a financial planning firm in Clearwater where she specializes in helping divorced or widowed women.
"No matter how affluent," everyone has the same questions about their children's college fund, life insurance and more, Tenret said Wednesday. "It's really heartwarming to be able to answer those questions and put those fears to rest."
Belleair Bluffs City Commissioner Suzy Sofer, 48, spoke about how she was the first female franchise owner of a Cody's Original Roadhouse restaurant and "really had to fight for my opportunity to speak" in her male-dominated industry.
Other women touched on how they overcame abusive childhoods, left the corporate world for entrepreneurship, weathered the recession or successfully balanced both work and home.
Attendees said the stories made the women seem more relatable and their successes more attainable.
"We're products of our environment," said audience member Dawn Easter, community relations coordinator at Goodwill, "and they are who they are because of what they've been through."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.