Sally Gambrell Bridgford Finds Harmony in Life, in Yoga And in Leading Her Foundation
The walls of Sally Gambrell Bridgford’s office are lined with dry-erase boards that are covered with notes, articles and quotes. Some are humorous, others inspiring, hanging passively in the background, large enough to read but not overwhelm. There’s no obvious pattern to the distribution of the various thoughts, but they work together in harmony to provide balance and inspiration and motivation for the office’s chief occupant.
Gambrell Bridgford is a business person and an artist and a yogi and a philanthropist, to name four things. She is also a mother and a daughter and a student and an artist and a sexual assault survivor. Like the walls of her office, the tapestry of her life is woven from various elements that might not seem to have an obvious pattern but that work together in harmony to provide balance and inspiration and motivation.
As president of The Gambrell Foundation – a Charlotte-based philanthropic institution launched by her mother in 1988 – Sally is using that harmony to steer her organization toward addressing some of Charlotte’s most pressing societal needs. Recently she and The Gambrell Foundation partnered with Foundation For The Carolinas to fund projects that foster economic opportunity, upward mobility and social capital, particularly for those at the bottom of Charlotte’s economic ladder.
Bridgford discusses philanthropy with Foundation For The Carolinas President & CEO Michael Marsicano
“She has a very unique way of thinking about the world and the mark she wants to make,” said Brian Collier, FFTC Executive Vice President who oversees civic initiatives. “It’s exciting to work with her, because she’s very clear about her desire to work collaboratively with other funders where possible, but she also wants to carve out a niche of high risk/high return projects that other philanthropists might not feel comfortable funding.”
A student of organizational behavior (Master’s in Social Work from UNC Chapel Hill) and psychology (undergrad degree from the University of Minnesota), Sally Gambrell Bridgford is both a thinker and a learner, a pragmatist and a dreamer: “One of my personal advisors is, like, ‘Keep it simple!’ But everything’s connected.”
The daughter of Sarah Belk Gambrell and Charles G. Gambrell – and the granddaughter of William H. Belk, founder of the Belk department store chain – Sally is well-aware of her family’s storied legacy.
Her uncle John M. Belk was a four-term mayor of Charlotte. Her aunt Claudia Watkins Belk was the first female District Court Judge in Mecklenburg County. Another uncle, Ike Belk, was a state senator who played a key role in creating UNC Charlotte.
Her mother, Sarah Belk Gambrell, is a beloved daughter of Charlotte, a philanthropic giant and a trailblazer for women in business. At 101, she is still The Gambrell Foundation’s President Emeritus and its thought leader. It’s a fitting role for a woman who was so driven that when Sally was in school in New York City, her mother was simultaneously on the boards of the New York City YWCA, the Charlotte YWCA, the national YWCA and the international YWCA.
“When I was first participating with her in the (Gambrell) Foundation (as a board member), I gave birth during a meeting involving the YWCA,” Sally said. “I was literally in labor and my mom goes, ‘Well your baby isn’t coming yet, so let’s talk about the YWCA.’”
They had the board meeting in the delivery room prior to welcoming her third child, Christopher. And, yes, she made it all the way through the meeting, Sally confirmed, in a tone that made it clear she never considered stopping.
That drive to keep going stems from her family. The Bible verse, “To whom much is given, much will be required” is a family motto. Humility, too, is a family trait. Sally returns often to a saying passed down from her grandfather: “Hire people who are better than you.” It comes up often in conversation, whether discussing the foundation or her own business, Yoga One.
In all things, she is quick to dispel any stereotypes that come with being a member of an affluent family. It’s why she’s willing to share even the painful parts of her own story.
She was sexually assaulted when she was 12. It was a trauma that, at the time, she could not process in a healthy way, blaming herself for the incident. That pain led to alcohol and substance abuse, along with eating disorders and other issues.
But it’s those competing narratives of being both a trauma survivor and a woman of privilege that inform Gambrell Bridgford’s philanthropic viewpoint and empathy for others.
“When I go to conferences to speak, I often feel like an imposter,” she said. “Because I’m on both sides of the equation as a person who is studying these issues but also as someone who has been affected by these issues.”
Overcoming her addictions and dealing with trauma – along with that feeling of being an imposter who does not quite fit in either world – continues to inform who she is. Her past gives her an authentic connection to those in need.
“It gives me a lot of compassion for what people deal with,” she said. “Could you imagine dealing with the trauma of abuse and dealing with the trauma of racism and dealing with the uncertainty of economic stability? That’s just frightening. And I don’t know what that is like. I’ve not had all of that at once. But it gives me an ear that’s listening for ways to try to help address that.”
Her clarity is assisted by the healing she’s found through practicing yoga, although it did not start that way. As a high school student in New York City, she and a friend went to their first yoga class. She remembers it being in the basement of a women’s club. The room smelled of liniment, the carpet was green Astroturf and clothing was optional. She was terrified.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m never doing yoga.”
In the early 2000s, she took another class. This time it clicked. “It just fit,” she said. “It felt so good. It was like coming home to myself.”
Through yoga, Gambrell Bridgford found peace and purpose. She wanted to share that with others, so she opened her own business, Yoga One. Like her grandfather before her, she started it from scratch, without the aid of her family.
“I decided that the better way for me to help was to create an environment where people could come together from different backgrounds and create a safe and powerful space for them to begin their own journeys,” she said. “So, I started Yoga One. That was 16 years ago, and it’s still a vibrant community.”
Even with her busy schedule as a business owner, foundation head, mom, wife and daughter, Sally tries to practice three times a week. And when she’s not on the mat, she’s still repeating the lessons learned in yoga: Breathe. Focus. Concentrate. Center.
“The goal of yoga is connection, it’s about flow,” she said. “Isn’t that something we are trying to accomplish to flourish? To thrive?”
“I am the daughter of a rebel,” Sally said about her mother, Sarah. “She told my children they are the grandchildren of a rebel. Having been rebellious myself, I guess I’m a rebel, too.”
When the Belk chain was sold to the private equity firm Sycamore Partners in December 2015, The Gambrell Foundation grew with its increased asset size, taking on larger philanthropic projects. The charitable focus of the foundation might not have shifted that much, but as Gambrell Bridgford puts it, the numbers got bigger.
When Sally visits her mother, she will catch her up on the foundation’s work. She will mention the latest grant and the size of the donation, and her mom’s reaction is usually a shocked, “Oh, my.”
But the reaction is not about the money, it’s about what opportunities each dollar represents. Sally is a big-picture thinker who would rather grant a significant sum to a large project that has longterm payoffs. While her mother would choose to invest smaller amounts in multiple projects with immediate results. As Sally puts it, with a laugh, if her mother had her way, she’d have her write 6,000 $100 checks.
In 2017, Brian Collier approached Sally Gambrell Bridgford about Foundation For The Carolinas’ efforts to improve economic opportunity, stemming from the release of the Leading on Opportunity report earlier that year. The two hit it off immediately, sharing an interest in books, even exchanging reading lists.
“I love being around people who are intellectually curious and who are voracious readers on a wide variety of topics,” said Collier. “And that’s who Sally is. She’s continuously trying to learn and trying to figure out possible solutions to the really complex questions. She has a very nuanced view of the world – nothing is simple, everything is complex. And I love that about her.”
In spring 2018, Collier met with Laura Shepard who, at the time, was working as a consultant for The Gambrell Foundation (she’s now its Director of Communications). In their discussion, Collier mentioned a few upcoming projects. Among them was a partnership with Raj Chetty’s new initiative at Harvard called Opportunity Insights. A key piece of the new initiative is the Opportunity Atlas, a database that uses census and IRS data, as well as local data from UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, to give researchers a street-level view of the factors that influence mobility.
The discussion was informal – an exchange of information but not the normal presentation Collier makes to potential investors. However, a week later, he got a call that Sally was interested in fully funding the project. Collier was shocked.
Bridgford with FFTC’s Brian Collier and Harvard’s Raj Chetty
“I’ve never had a call like that before,” he said. “For the Opportunity Insights work, usually I would’ve gone to 10 funders and try to convince each one of them of the merits. I would’ve had to go through a whole process of trying to explain to funders why it’s important, what it might accomplish and why it might not accomplish what we think. But Sally saw the merits right away, along with a pragmatic view of the risks.”
Collier said Gambrell Bridgford is engaged but not hands-on. She wants to be informed so she can use that information to assist other grantmaking. Sally, for her part, said she is both an artist at heart and a nerd who loves statistics. The work of Opportunity Atlas provides an opportunity to dig into the numbers and find out how to help on a precise block-by-block basis.
“I think what I bring is a creative mind and a willingness to make mistakes,” she said. “I have a desire to listen and to let other people succeed and take credit. Sometimes it’s better to let other people get the credit, because what’s the goal? The goal is that we get rid of some of the obstacles that rob us of really great resources, like children and their minds and what they have to bring.”
Collier also introduced Gambrell Bridgford to Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute. Reeves and his colleague Camille Busette had an interest in researching, on a national level, the concept of social capital – the relationships and networks people have that connect them to opportunities. Social capital was mentioned in the Leading on Opportunity report as an important factor in improving upward mobility. The hope was eventually the research would be used to create effective social capital programs in Charlotte. She agreed to fund that study, too.
Gambrell Bridgford is hoping the research of the Brookings Institute – and Opportunity Atlas – leads to long-term solutions and better public policy that fundamentally change the way we address affordable housing, family stability and all of the factors that contribute to economic mobility.
“We can keep helping people, but what if it’s a policy issue?” she said. “We have to do something with policy, not just helping each individual person. Because that’s like fingers in the dike. That’s good, but what about what is causing the leak to begin with?”
Here she returns to the lessons she learned growing up in her well-known family. Her grandfather expanded Belk by investing in local community partners, town by town. William H. Belk, she said, was looking for people willing to work hard, and when he found them, he committed to their futures.
“Why don’t we do that with these issues?” she said. “I look for organizations that are really dealing with things in a direct way and try to figure out ways to help them get visibility so other people can help. It’s not just the money. We try to stand with people.”