Commitments are important to Brenda Newberry ’79. She learned as a child that you don’t make promises you can’t keep, even if they are only with yourself. This simple yet powerful principle helped Brenda navigate her way from Air Force Airman to successful CEO. Along the way, she also made time for family, two college degrees, and volunteer work.
“If you make a commitment, you adhere to it,” says the Webster graduate. “That’s how I was brought up. In my family, the only excuse for not being at work or school was if you were in the hospital or dead.”
There were no excuses, but there were plenty of unexpected twists and turns in Brenda’s journey from enlisted to entrepreneur.
After graduating from high school, Brenda enrolled at Purdue University, where her high school sweetheart, Maurice Newberry, was already a sophomore. A year later, after it became clear tuition would be a struggle once married, they returned to their hometown in Indiana, where they married and took jobs.
Maurice decided to join the Air Force to complete his education and travel. When he told his wife about his decision, her response didn’t surprise him.
“There’s no challenge that goes unnoticed to her,” Maurice laughs. “She said, ‘Can I join?’ We saw the recruiter the next day, and he said, ‘Wow, I get two for one!’”
The military sent the duo to Texas for basic training, Colorado for tech training, Arizona and then to Spain, where they attended remote campuses of the University of Maryland. Taking classes during lunch breaks and after work, each quickly earned a bachelor’s degree in business with an emphasis in computer science.
It was a proud time for the couple. Each had made a promise to finish—Maurice to himself and Brenda to her grandmother. In fact, both were the first in their families to graduate college.
“We were engrained with the understanding that nothing was more important than education,” Brenda says. “You should use every opportunity put before you, and the military encouraged people to continue their education. It was more like why wouldn’t we earn our degrees than why did we?”
They asked themselves the same question when they were re-stationed at Scott Air Force Base shortly before the end of their enlistment. With a Webster branch on site, there was no reason not to pursue their master’s degrees. Plus, the main campus was nearby should they leave the military before finishing their degrees, and it offered locations around the world if they were transferred.
There were also no excuses when Brenda became pregnant just before their service ended, and shortly after their master’s programs began. She was so committed to earning her graduate degree that Brenda once convinced a professor to bring an exam to the hospital after her daughter was born.
“I wanted to have the information fresh in my mind and not wait,” Brenda says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m a very strong supporter of Webster. The professors really care and go above and beyond.”
Her positive experience continued after the couple left the military and transferred to the main campus to finish their degrees. When Brenda had to take her baby to class, her professor understood. “It’s very hard to find everything in one school—quality, flexibility, and caring—but we found it at Webster,” she says.
Throughout their education, the Newberrys leaned on and pushed each other. They took the same classes, shared textbooks, and studied together.
“It meant no one was resentful because we were in it together,” Brenda says. “There was very little time to do anything but work, school, and study.”
In fact, the couple has done almost everything together since their teen years. First the military, then education, and eventually career. Maurice landed a job at McDonnell Douglas after graduation, and Brenda joined him about six months later.
Eventually, Brenda moved on to MasterCard. Maurice continued to work as a software programmer, but picked up the slack at home as Brenda worked her way through the ranks to Vice President.
“We had already worked through working together as a couple to accomplish our goals, that it just made sense,” Brenda says.
After a few years, however, Brenda realized it was time to make a big change. She left MasterCard and spent time with her young daughters while calculating her next move. In 1996, at age 43, she struck out on her own and started The Newberry Group, a technology consulting company.
“I truly believe that God brought me to that crossroad in life and gave me a path,” Brenda says. “Once you’re on that path, if you give it your all you will be fine. It’s only if you try to take shortcuts that you’ll will run into trouble.”
Not surprisingly, Maurice joined The Newberry Group as COO five years later. It’s clear that each half of this couple is stronger when they are together. When asked why, Brenda and Maurice agreed it’s because they perfectly complement each other. While Brenda is a big-picture person, Maurice focuses on details. She loves interacting with customers, while he’s happy doing day-to-day tasks.
Where they overlap, they say, are on the fundamentals. Both are driven, goal oriented, and have strong work ethics.
“Once we verbalize it and visualize it, we go after it,” Maurice says.
By the time the couple transitioned their company to a wholly employee-owned corporation in 2008, they had grown it to 150 employees and nearly $20 million in revenues. Brenda hired a new CEO and left her role as board chair in 2010.
Closing the book on The Newberry Group wasn't easy, but Brenda knew the time had come when she wasn’t feeling well. After two years, she discovered she had Stage 4 tongue cancer. In her typical Type A fashion, Brenda made a commitment to beat the disease.
After chemotherapy, radiation, and removal of about one-quarter of her tongue, Brenda kept her promise. She’s been cancer-free for three years.
A cancer battle and retirement would be enough to slow most people down, but not Brenda. She works with many nonprofits, including Webster University. She was the first alumna, first woman, and first minority to chair Webster’s Board of Trustees. After three three-year terms, she now serves as chair emeritus.
“You don’t think about being the only woman or the only minority to do x, y, and z,” Brenda says. “You just do the best that you can to the best of your abilities.”
Brenda’s can-do spirit embodies the values of Webster, now celebrating its centennial year.
The Sisters of Loretto founded Webster to bring education to those who didn’t otherwise have access. Their goal is alive and well today. Webster ranks first among traditional nonprofit universities in total minority and African American master’s degrees, all disciplines combined.
One way Webster reaches a diverse population is by offering education on military bases. G.I. Jobs Magazine has recognized Webster as a military-friendly school.
“Knowing that Webster supported the military so greatly meant a lot to us,” Brenda says. “Webster embraces diversity, that’s why it has campuses all over the world.”
Brenda not only supports Webster in an advisory role, she also was thrilled when her daughter attended the university. Cherie Coppage continued the family legacy of attending Webster for a graduate degree. She earned her master’s in teaching arts from Webster in 2008, attending through a Teach for America program.
“I loved the school and the teachers,” Coppage says. “I was able to take night classes so I could work full time. It’s also convenient that there are several locations.”
College was never an option for Coppage. She says her parents taught her that a degree was the key to open any door. It’s that type of wisdom that Brenda hopes to share with others in her book, “Navigating Your Landscape,” out this fall. The self-published book includes a forward by Webster University supporter and life trustee Ambassador George H. Walker III.
“It’s important to have goals; it’s important to move toward them,” Brenda says. “You don’t have to understand how you are going to get there; you just have to have the goal and work toward it.”
There’s no one better to share that message than Brenda, says her husband of 43 years. She tackles any challenge head on, he says, and never makes excuses. She accepts failures and gives praise to others for successes.
“I’m pretty lucky to have known her,” Maurice says. “She’s changed my life tremendously. She’s shown me how to have faith in things, to act on your faith and not hold back. Now, if I come up with a crazy idea, there’s never a second thought about pursuing it.”