When Mimi San Pedro walked into Maria Haley’s office at the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission in 1984, she was “scared to death.” Her parents had arranged the meeting with the “tiny and mighty” woman in charge of the state’s overseas trade and investments to give San Pedro advice on finding her footing in the business world.

As director of marketing, Haley was a prominent official at a time when women had just begun breaking down barriers to the upper echelons of government and the business world. She was also well known in the Philippines, the island nation from which San Pedro and her family had immigrated to Arkansas in 1972.

“I was thinking, ‘I don’t even know what to say to her,’” San Pedro recalls. But she managed to find her voice and when Haley asked her what she wanted to do with her life, she heard herself answering, “I want to be you.”

Haley spent more than an hour talking with then 23-year-old San Pedro. “She told me not to let anything get in my way, to be proud of the ideals instilled in me by my Filipino parents and to use that as my strength and uniqueness to stand out. She said my mom was correct to always push me.”

In sending San Pedro to Haley, her parents were trying to ensure she had every opportunity to succeed. That’s also why they used all their resources to move the family to Arkansas, which they truly believed to be “the land of opportunity,” as the state’s slogan proclaimed at the time. “The reasons for moving here were so we could have endless opportunities. In countries like the Philippines, there’s a lot of talent but not a lot of opportunities.”

Haley became San Pedro’s professional mentor while parents Nonie and Cristen San Pedro provided encouragement on the family front. Today, San Pedro is chief operating and marketing officer for P. Allen Smith’s media production firm Hortus Ltd., where her job is to promote the gardening guru and his many projects as a “total lifestyle brand.” She joined Hortus in 2009 after three years as Acxiom Corp.’s vice president of global marketing, five years as president of Contour Med Inc. and 14 years at advertising agency Stone Ward.

A savvy marketing executive, 52-year-old San Pedro is now the tiny and mighty woman to whom others look for guidance. She’s a mentor to her 15-year-old niece and other young people, sharing her parents’ mantra: “Education is the key.” It’s a message she also conveys through her involvement on the board of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, a nonprofit dedicated to providing educational opportunities to girls through philanthropy.

The foundation was created in 1998 when Olivia Farrell, chief executive officer of Arkansas Business Publishing Group, and Pat Lile, then president of the Arkansas Community Foundation, led a group of prominent women leaders in creating an endowment to be invested in helping women improve their lives through education and philanthropy. More than 150 women each donated at least $1,000 to begin the endowment, from which the foundation annually awards grants to programs that instill confidence in young women, provide tools to keep women in school or help them complete post-secondary education, and provide training so women can increase their earning power.

Each October, the foundation reaffirms its mission and raises money to grow its endowment through Power of the Purse, a luncheon at which it announces its annual grant recipients and honors women for leadership and achievements in philanthropy and business.

Data compiled in 2009 revealed that while 56.5 percent of Arkansas women were attending college, only 19 percent of all Arkansas women had a college education of four years or more. Since having a college degree can mean greater earning potential, the foundation strives to not only help women enter college and training programs, but also to ensure they complete them, says foundation executive director Lynnette Watts. To that end, WFA has awarded about $300,000 in grants since 1998.

The foundation primarily supports established programs throughout the state, but also reaches out to eighth-grade girls with its annual Girls of Promise conferences. The one-day conferences, which were held at six college campuses this year, give eighth-grade girls information about careers related to economics, science, technology, engineering and math. Girls of Promise also empowers the girls by introducing them to professional women like San Pedro and helping them realize women’s opportunities are unlimited.

San Pedro strives to inspire girls and women to not let anything stand in their way, including themselves. She does so by telling them how she began her advertising and marketing career. After graduating from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a degree in computer science, she toyed with the idea of law school, but a family friend thought she had the skills to go into advertising. San Pedro was skeptical: “I said I can’t draw and I can’t write.” But she landed a job with the advertising firm Mangan, Holcomb & Partners, where she discovered that advertising isn’t just about writing and drawing.

The point of the story isn’t that she changed fields: “It’s about perception.” San Pedro’s friend empowered her by letting her know she could push beyond her limited perception of her abilities.

“People often put you in little boxes. And we put ourselves in boxes. But what if you have the skills to make a difference, skills that are outside a job description?”

San Pedro, who chairs the WFA communications committee, now wants to broaden public perception about the foundation. While it’s known for Girls of Promise and Power of the Purse, WFA also functions as a clearinghouse for information related to women, education and economics. The foundation has created a policy and research committee and recruited students from the Clinton School of Public Service to bolster its research efforts.

The foundation’s website, WomensFoundationArkansas.org, has a burgeoning database with links to women’s organizations, women-owned businesses, and service groups. There’s also data and research about women’s economic status, demographic trends and more.

We really want you to understand that we are affecting lives,” San Pedro says. “That’s the big picture.”

POWER OF THE PURSE  
When: 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., Friday, Oct. 25
Where: Wally Allen Ballroom, Statehouse Convention Center
Tickets: $100, purchased online
Info: WomensFoundationArkansas.org, Facebook.com/WomensFoundationArkansas

Keynote speaker:
Neale Godfrey, chair of the Children’s Financial Network

Honorees:
Dorothy Morris of Hot Springs, 2013 Woman of the Year in Philanthropy
Kathy Webb of Little Rock, Brownie Ledbetter Civic Engagement Award