In October, primetime television fans and local philanthropy leaders alike were treated to an inspirational speech from actress Grace Byers, who has roots in the Tampa Bay area.
Byers plays the character Anika Calhoun on the Fox drama series “Empire.”
She's also a 2006 alumna of the University of South Florida, and recently returned to Tampa to speak as the keynote speaker for this year’s USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy symposium.
“As you continue to go out in the world, and as you continue to move up the hierarchy in your industry - whatever that might be - you may very well find that you are the only female in your profession,” said Byers. “Because women - we’re still breaking barriers, we’re still shattering glass ceilings.”
Before "Empire," Byers was Grace Gealey, a theater student chasing her dream of becoming an actress. Gealey performed in numerous stage productions while at USF, including “Romeo and Juliet,” “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” and more.
“I was thrilled to be able to do a lot of work that involved diversity,” Byers said. “So I did ‘Moon on a Rainbow Shawl,’ which is a Caribbean play. I did ‘Crumbs from the Table of Joy,’ which is centered around an African-American family.”
From Tampa, Byers went on to graduate school at the University of California, Irvine. Her next move was to New York City with Broadway ambitions. There, Byers said she faced some of her toughest moments.
“There came a situation in New York where I was really struggling for a very long time,” Byers said. “I was working multiple jobs, and even with working multiple jobs, I still wasn’t making ends meet. And it got really bad. It got so bad to the point where I was facing eviction.”
Her perseverance paid off. By January of 2015, Byers was living in Chicago, experiencing a wave of success in her acting career.
“Within a month, I booked a national commercial,” said Byers. “The next month, I booked another national commercial. And then the third month, I booked 'Empire,' which was (in) March.”
Byers’s college mentor Fanni Green still teaches in the USF Theatre Department. She attended the symposium.
“It was interesting being a former teacher- and one who has kept in touch with Grace over the years, seeing her evolve even more,” Green said. “And so it was wonderful. And to hear stories that, some of them I had heard, some of them I hadn’t heard, but to see how the journey of life has allowed her to be able to pay it back”
In addition to acting, Byers is now an author. She addresses bullying and respect in her forthcoming 2018 children’s book, titled “I Am Enough.”
"Recently it was brought up again when I was approached by a literary agent, and we were talking about my life," said Byers. "He was like, 'Wow, you were bullied growing up. What’s one thing you would tell your 8-year-old self?' And I said, you know, I think I would tell her that she’s enough."
Byers now inspires current USF students with that message. Junior Kassandra Jones is not an aspiring actress, but is a fan of "Empire" and its hip-hop industry storyline. Jones says that Byers’ story encourages her to persevere over struggles she is currently experiencing.
"It made me want to watch 'Empire' more," Jones said. "Because I knew she was a USF alum, and it’s really cool to see USF alum doing really great things. So just hearing her story and how she made it through that, it’s inspiring because it shows that maybe I’ll make it through this. Maybe I shouldn’t give up even though I am tired of seemingly failing because, you know, I end up making it."
For more information about the USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy program, click here.