Sunday Conversation: CEO Lorna Taylor committed to community service

Lorna Taylor went to London recently for an event honoring the founder of the International Green Belt Movement. The Prince of Wales planted a tree in the founder’s honor.
Lorna Taylor went to London recently for an event honoring the founder of the International Green Belt Movement. The Prince of Wales planted a tree in the founder’s honor.
Published March 29, 2013

As president and CEO of Premier Eye Care, a national managed eye care company based in Tampa, Lorna Taylor is a busy woman. But that's just half of it. Heavily involved in charity work, Taylor devotes the rest of her time to helping others. Just this month, that work has taken her to London, where she met the Prince of Wales, to universities in Dubai and on an art and cultural exchange in Cuba. Times staff writer Shelley Rossetter snagged Taylor, 55, for a few minutes recently to find out more about the causes close to her heart.

Let's start with what you did this week. Why were you in London?

It was for the International Green Belt Movement. I serve on the national board. I had met the founder, Wangari Maathai, maybe eight years ago when we brought her to Tampa to speak at a local university. The more I learned, the more I got excited about this movement.

She was remarkable. She was the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner. She was incredibly brave. I think what is most powerful about her legacy is that she understood the connection between the eradication of poverty, the empowerment of women, conflict resolution, peace, democracy and the environment.

With rampant clear cutting in Kenya years ago, there was erosion of top soil which led to food shortages and increased poverty. Prof. Maathai, we called her Prof, coordinated a widespread tree planting effort. She built a coalition of women, paying each a penny for every tree they planted. The trees took root, the top soil held and food gardens began to grow. With the money they earned, the women started businesses and were able to increase the well being of their families and improve the conditions in their communities. And out of this act of planting one tree at a time, a movement of democracy grew and succeeded in Kenya.

She died a little over a year ago but her legacy has continued with over 51 million trees now planted. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales is very engaged in environmental issues and was a dear friend of hers. On Wednesday, the Green Belt movement had an event at Kew Gardens where Prince Charles gave a very elegant and impassioned speech. After the ceremony we went into the Kew Gardens, where he planted a tree in her honor. We had board and staff from Kenya and Europe present. I and two others represented the U.S. board of directors. It was a very special occasion.

You're involved in a lot of charity work. What other organizations do you spend your time with?

I'm the chair of the foundation for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which raises private funds to support the 42 domestic violence shelters we have in Florida. Shockingly, in this day and age, domestic violence is still a large problem.

I'm also involved with the Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts. It's a fantastic organization that brings together opportunities for businesses to support our local artists. There are a lot of statistics and studies that show most thriving communities also have thriving arts and culture, so we work to bring those together.

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Another one that is really important to me is serving on the board of trustees for the University of Tampa. Just recently I was part of a group that did a cultural exchange with the Abu Dhabi University, where we talked about the opportunity to do exchanges with some of our students. We also went to Zayed University, a mostly women's college. That was just an incredible experience.

What drives you to get behind these various causes?

My father was a minister and my mom was a chaplain and a schoolteacher. The fabric of our lives was to be very engaged in the community.

I work very long hours and my company is very important to me, but I feel like something is missing if I'm not also involved in community service.

I went to divinity school, not to be a minister but just because I wanted to study divinity. There, I learned community service can be a way to live a spiritual life. For me, it's just how I live out my desire to be a global citizen.

You were just honored by the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida as a Woman of Distinction. What does that mean to you?

I've been going to that luncheon for a number of years and the women who are recognized are these remarkable women, like Betty Castor. I was sort of speechless when I found out, I thought they had the wrong person.

I think it's such a wonderful organization. It's very affirming to me because of that, it's also affirming because it was an acknowledgement that the work I'm doing with friends and colleagues is maybe making a difference for young women in our community.

Who inspires you?

That one is pretty easy for me. I mentioned Betty Castor earlier. She was the Florida education commissioner and president of the University of South Florida. She also raised some remarkable daughters, all working very hard both on the federal and state level.

There's also Dr. Juel Smith, the founding director for USF's Woman in Leadership and Philanthropy.

I also have to say my momma. My mom had four daughters and always made it clear that we could do anything. She taught us to be kind, to be good and to have our own money, which was actually pretty good advice.

Mary Scriven is the first African American to serve on a federal court in the state of Florida.

And can I mention a man? Michael Bedke. He brought the Family Justice Center to Tampa and has been very involved in issues surrounding domestic violence and calling men to action in terms of being part of the solution.

How do you manage to be so involved while working full time?

I couldn't do everything I do without the support of my company and the team at my company. My commitment to social responsibility and investment in my community is something that permeates our entire corporate culture at Premier.

It has been one of the things that has created incredible employee engagement at our company. Once people come to work for us, they don't leave. There's a sense of purpose and a sense we are doing good in the world. We are not just taking calls and making claims but we are actually making a difference in our community.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.