“Why don’t you write us a play for the class?” Mrs. Seay asked Olivia. The third-grader had already decided back in the first grade, when she wrote her first story about Sally and her cookie, that English was her favorite subject, so she gladly obliged.

Little did either know that bit of encouragement would be remembered and play a part in her rapid ascent to the helm of Arkansas Business Publishing Group, the state’s leading niche publisher, which currently houses 23 titles, including Little Rock Family, Arkansas Bride and Little Rock Soirée. By 27, about five years after starting as an advertising sales representative/Jill-of-all-trades with a small company that employed four, Olivia Farrell had bought into the company. In 1995, she’d become the largest shareholder of the multi-million-dollar enterprise.

By anyone’s measure, her professional feats are remarkable, but she’s almost nonchalant. “Growing up, I had an inflated sense of what I could accomplish. My parents’ expectations for me were to be a doctor or lawyer. It’s easy to be a big fish in a small town—you see yourself as that because your parents tell you that you can do anything, and you think that you can.”

Of course, not all young girls and women are surrounded by the support and empowerment that Farrell experienced. Even with it, her professional success was and is remarkable because of the blatant barriers that women faced in corporate America only decades ago. Perhaps nothing shone a light on those obstacles so sharply as a 1995 Arkansas Business exposé on the lack of women on corporate boards, which included a quote from a bank president who justified the absence of females on his board by saying no women were qualified.

“It really flew all over me, because that was ridiculous, just ridiculous,” Farrell said. “I decided that the best thing for me to do would be to create a publication featuring 100 women and their complete biographies, their awards, their accomplishments.” Debate followed her idea; some of her employees thought it’d be better to feature the top ten. “I said, ‘No. I’m going to give them a hundred who could serve on any board in this state, from Walmart to First State Bank, and I’m going to send it to every president and put one in every copy of Arkansas Business, and I’m going to do this for five years to make the point that if you are looking for women, here is a fabulous list and everything about them.”

The feedback was massive, and the lists were effective in getting more women on corporate boards. Each year, the women on the list were honored at a luncheon, and at the 1998 event, they were challenged to come up with a way they could collectively make a difference in Arkansas. The idea of improving the educational status of Arkansas women and girls by encouraging them to improve their skills in math, science and technology emerged. Soon after, Pat Lile, the head of the Arkansas Community Foundation, approached Farrell about starting a women’s foundation together.

Just as if she had been asked by Mrs. Seay to write a play, Farrell set out contacting the women on the Top 100 lists, and a touching story began to unfold. More than 150 responded, with 85 of them contributing $1,000 or more as founders. Since its inception, the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas has given almost $200,000 to 79 programs. Early gifts included donations like $720 to the Southeast Arkansas Education Service Cooperation for software to teach presentation skills to 12 women, who then would return to their communities to make presentations and train other women.

Just like the Top 100 Women lists, the foundation seeks to even out a disparity, in this case funding for women’s causes versus men’s causes. “It’s not because anybody’s sexist; it’s because men control more purse strings historically,” Farrell said. And there’s a desperate need for help. A 2004 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research on the status of women in Arkansas was riddled with Ds and Fs in everything from political participation and employment and earnings to educational attainment and health and well-being.

For her part, Farrell has created a company that has women’s needs in mind, making it easy to care for children through flex time and an on-site kids’ room. “We encourage everybody to be a part of their kids’ lives. If you have happy people, you’re going to have a productive workforce. When you’re a woman in a position of authority, you can influence those sorts of things that were unheard of 20 years ago.”

Women who are not in positions of authority akin to Farrell’s can still influence the same sorts of things through the foundation and collective giving. This month, the foundation hosts its main annual fundraiser, Power of the Purse, at the Statehouse Convention Center. This year, the foundation will honor Cathy Cunningham of Helena-West Helena as its 2010 Woman of the Year in Philanthropy. Funds raised at the event are used to provide grants and put on the foundation’s Girls of Promise program in six communities statewide.

Farrell will be there, and the surroundings will be in stark contrast to what she was accustomed to as a young professional. “Throughout my early career, I was often the only woman in the room,” she said. The experience highlighted for her the need to raise the economic viability of women through education. “As women, we’ve got to continually be thoughtful about putting out a hand, and we can do more collectively than we can individually.”

Where is your favorite place to sit?
Someplace out in the woods, in nature, because that’s where God is.

What are your thoughts on the iPad’s effect on publishing?
Right now, the iPad is still primarily used for entertainment purposes, but we’re putting a lot of money into digital media, and I think we’re ahead of the game, certainly within our own industry in developing digital products. Now the challenge for everybody is how to monetize it. But I don’t at all see the death of print.

What are you reading right now?
OF: Dancing With Life, The Elegant  Universe and Skeletons at the Feast.

Where do you get your news?
Arkansas Business, KUAR, TheDailyBeast.com and the people that I work with.

Power of the Purse 2010 Luncheon
Friday, Oct. 15, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Wally Allen Ballroom, Statehouse Convention Center
reservations: $100
info: 244-9740 or visit WomensFoundationArkansas.org