A 78-year-old woman raised in a one-schoolroom town in Germany, who wore wooden shoes as a child and emigrated here with $30, and who later started and sold a successful surgical instrument company, is now the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's top benefactor.
The university announced Thursday that it has received a $10 million gift to name its business school the Kate Tiedemann College of Business, effective immediately. The gift is by far the largest in USF St. Pete's 49-year history and binds a successful entrepreneur and Pinellas County resident to a business college gaining national attention for its entrepreneur studies.
"Ms. Tiedemann's personal story of overcoming challenges to fulfill her dreams and to give back to the community is a true inspiration for us all," USF System president Judy Genshaft said.
"This is truly a momentous day for USF St. Petersburg," regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska said, describing an immediate personal connection with Tiedemann. "Given our backgrounds and immigrant families, we share deep appreciation for the opportunities America afforded us in education and business."
The announcement drew two standing ovations at the school's student center, where USF's Board of Trustees was meeting. About a dozen students stood behind Tiedemann (pronounced TEE-de-man), wearing green T-shirts that bore the new name of the business college.
In an interview, Tiedemann displayed an easy sense of humor, a slight German accent and a strong regard for putting the rewards of her business success to work in the Pinellas education and health care communities. In 2010, she provided a large gift to the Doyle Women's Health Initiative at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater.
Why give such a heady sum to USF St. Petersburg? To leave a "legacy," Tiedemann acknowledged. She has often wondered what more she might have achieved with a formal education. The gift, she added, is mostly "to give young people an opportunity to learn what they have to do for business and do it a lot faster than I did."
Is it impressive to have a woman's name on a college of business? "I think it's absolutely terrific," Tiedemann said, beaming.
Across the country, only a few business schools are named for women, including the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, named in 1998 after a $25 million donation by Wall Street financier and USC graduate Darla Moore.
Tiedemann's rise to business success is a classic American tale of a young immigrant who — eager to leave Germany's harsh post-World War II economy — arrives with little, works hard, takes risks and succeeds.
Landing by steamship in New York in 1955 at 18, she spoke no English and without formal education soon found herself seeking work as a house maid in Manhattan. When the job interview ended, she asked the interpreter what happened. Tiedemann had gotten the job — working, to her surprise, for former New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.
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She later learned typing and shorthand and was hired as a "Girl Friday" at a New York business that sold surgical instruments. After years of learning the business and working for several surgical instrument companies in increasingly responsible roles, Tiedemann decided to pursue her own business.
In 1975, Katena Products (short for Kate North America) was founded in her New Jersey basement. Tiedemann worked with ophthalmic surgeons around the world to design and develop instruments for eye surgery. She then had fine craftsmen hand-make the instruments, with Katena having the sole rights to sell them, which Tiedemann did by relentless travel to medical shows and conferences.
Her passion for her work remains. "I loved the eye instrument business and there was never a day I did not look forward to going to work," she said.
Five years ago this month, Tiedemann sold Katena, which now markets 1,400 products to more than 7,000 surgeons, to a private equity firm. She's finalizing the sale of her house in Denville, N.J., and is a full-time Floridian after years of living here part-time in condos and, finally, a waterfront home south of Clearwater.
Tiedemann's choice of Pinellas was serendipity. While in Orlando at a conference years ago, a New York friend with a Boca Ciega condo near the Pinellas beaches invited her to visit. Tiedemann got to know the area over time, later living in several condos of her own before deciding to build. She spoke lovingly of her waterfront sunsets, watching dolphins, and her obvious Gulf Coast bias.
"I would not go to the east coast of Florida if you paid me," she said with a laugh.
Tiedemann's gift came about through a network of influential professional women in Pinellas County.
Holly Duncan, who formerly served as CEO of the Morton Plant Mease Foundation, had facilitated Tiedemann's 2010 gift to the hospital. Later consulting for USF, Duncan helped introduce Tiedemann to USF St. Pete campus board member Judy Mitchell, and finally to the university's regional vice chancellor, Helen Levine, and Wisniewska.
They all quickly hit it off. "I decided maybe this is the place to leave my legacy," Tiedemann explained. "We talked and I said 'Let's do it.' "
The $10 million gift will be split, with $6 million devoted to an endowment to provide long-term income to support the College of Business. The remaining $4 million will be committed to upgrade academic content, with feedback from the faculty.
Wisniewska, who heads USF St. Pete, also sees the $10 million gift as a strong incentive to attract a high-level College of Business dean, a position that is now open. "The perception and prestige this carries is significant," she said.
None of Tiedemann's gift will go to financing the new College of Business building, slated to break ground in March and be completed by fall 2016. State funds totaling $15 million so far have been secured by the university to start construction. Another $15 million or so will be required to finish the facility. USF St. Pete still hopes it can separately sell the naming rights to the new business building.
The business school for years had leased space in a building adjacent to the university but eventually gave up those quarters. After years without a formal base of its own on campus, the stars may be aligning for USF St. Pete's College of Business.
Contact Robert Trigaux at email@example.com or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.