Wendy Poteat of Say Yes Guilford

by Terry Watson | January 19th, 2021
Wendy Poteat (Photos by JLG Photography)

Wendy Poteat (Photos by JLG Photography)

Ask Wendy Poteat what Say Yes Guilford is about, and she can quickly recite the mission and purpose of the community-centered, educational nonprofit – Say Yes Guilford is committed to providing access to support services and scholarships designed to prepare Guilford County Schools’ students for success in college, career, and life.

Moreover, as president and chief executive officer of Say Yes Guilford (SYG), she has a focused passion to not only see the organization flourish, but more importantly, to see Guilford County students and even those of the entire State of North Carolina flourish educationally and ultimately professionally.

“I know that we are Say Yes Guilford, but I believe what we are building in Guilford County would be of such benefit to the smaller counties that surround us I would love for us to be able to extend outreach in different counties,” said Poteat. “I think something like this is so needed especially in rural areas where students graduate and don’t have the opportunity or resources to go to college.”
“I would love to see us working in that direction, talking to those municipalities and being able to help smaller areas create industry. It is clear that workforce development is predicated on a foundation of education.”

Say Yes Guilford is an individual non-profit. It was established in Guilford County in 2015 – one of the first Say Yes organizations in the Southeast United States. All others are in the northern region of the country.

In order to be chosen as a Say Yes community, Guilford County directors had to spend significant time and energy fundraising to establish the endowment that would be used for student development and scholarships. Through continued community support, the program will be able to continue serving students and extend its annual distribution amount.

While SYG is growing and looking toward eventual expansion, Poteat and staff are doing the necessary work to make sure the organization flourishes and has the ability to help the most students possible.

Currently, SYG partners with every public college and university in North Carolina and more than 100 private institutions around the country to offer scholarships to Guilford County Schools’ graduates. The organization’s endowment has provided for numerous students and, with continued support will impact the primary, secondary and post-secondary education of many more.

From 2016-2020 SYG has awarded $7,396,600 in tuition awards, $1,953,317 in Choice Grants, and $845,550 in Opportunity Grants for a total of $10,195,467 paid directly to GCS students. Through private compact scholarships, $18,326,076 has been awarded to GCS students whose household income is less than $75,000 per year. The total leverage from 2016-2020 is $28,521,543.

SYG utilizes numerous equitable wrap-around student support services that embrace differences and eliminate barriers to educational opportunities. While it is known for scholarship distribution, the organization ultimately provides resources that equip students from Kindergarten to career and every stage in between including early literacy skills training, book giveaways, free SAT and ACT prep classes and community engagement opportunities.

Poteat says making sure to properly serve the organization’s community was the first matter she addressed when she started working with the program in 2019. Equity was a major factor.
“When I first began, one of the first things that I looked at were the different components of the program, including scholarship and support services,” she said. “I realized the schools we partnered with were Title I schools. It was evident that we had to be intentional about the support services we were offering and make sure that we were offering what kids needed, had adequate access and ensured they met eligibility requirements.”
Leading the organization was a naturally progressive step for Poteat, who has proven expertise in public policy, politics and education. It was a position she didn’t seek, but it was a role she knew was perfect to take. Her journey to Say Yes is impressive, but not one she ever envisioned she would take.
“My passion has always been education. Growing up I knew I would go to college. I wanted to be a lawyer. I knew this was where I wanted to be, but my journey to get here was unconventional,” she said.
A native of Sweet Gum – a very small town in Caswell County, North Carolina – Poteat initially studied economics at North Carolina A&T State University. She was a Chancellor’s Scholar and held a full scholarship. However, despite her opportunity and desire for education, many unforeseen obstacles and tragedy derailed her efforts.

“I lost my parents in a murder-suicide my freshman year in college. Then my sophomore year I had a child. I eventually completed three years at A&T, but then I didn’t have the money to continue,” she said. “I wasn’t focused. Really, I was just broken. I needed to heal and figure my life out.”

Poteat spent the next several years working in the restaurant industry, but she knew she had to finish her degree. Not only was it imperative for her professional growth, but she believed she had to set an example for her children.

“I knew I couldn’t push them to go to college and finish, if I didn’t finish college,” she said. “I didn’t want to be that parent that was telling my kids to do something that I wasn’t able to do. So, I quit my job and went back to school. I graduated from Guilford College in 2010. I originally started college in 1991. It took me that long to finally finish and obtain my degree.”

Her path may have been unorthodox, but it turned out to be the best route for her to take. After graduating, she took a coordinator-level position with Greensboro Partnership which is now the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. Between 2006 and 2010 she consistently moved through the ranks and ultimately became manager of government affairs. That position provided her the opportunity to become a registered lobbyist, making way for continued opportunities.

“Being registered as a lobbyist with that position really pushed me into lobbying work. I went from that role to a private organization health and human services agency in Raleigh. I gained corporate and foundation work at the same time.” Said Poteat. “It wasn’t just another opportunity. I always say I have been on God’s journey. There’s no way that I could have formulated this myself.”

She eventually accepted a position with the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce as director of government Affairs. Again, her lobbying experience was significantly vital to the role.
“I remember one of my mentors told me, ‘you’ll know it’s time to do something different when the things that you are not lobbying for are the things that keep you up at night,’” said Poteat. “At the time, the city of Charlotte was adopting the HB2 Law, better known as the “Bathroom Bill. It was controversial and it was keeping me up at night because my brother is part of the LGBTQ+ community and I felt so terrible that I couldn’t do something with my platform to help him. That’s when I switched jobs. I went to the United Way. I was actually doing work similar to what I’m doing now.”

Before she knew it, another opportunity was presented. It was Say Yes Guilford, but it wasn’t a move that she was terribly interested in pursuing. Unfortunately, the organization’s reputation was in need of repair. However, the position would provide the opportunity for Poteat to work in a community where she lived.

“My youngest son told me it would be cool if I could help the kids that he went to school with. It means a lot to me because I live in this community and I’m able to help these students,” she said. “I was in the nail salon and a little girl walked up to me. She said, ‘you’re the Say Yes lady. You guys gave me $2,500 to go to school last year.’ It means a lot to me that I can impact the people and place where I actually live.”

Poteat says in addition to helping students in her own community, she sees the hard and diligent work of her co-workers and knows they are just as committed to the success of the organization and students.

“The staff are truly the boots on the ground. They take the strategic plans and turn them into tangible work for our students and families. The work is tedious and requires a lot of dedicated people to make it happen, but it’s tremendously rewarding,” she said. We receive a great deal of support from committee and board members and community advocates giving constructive feedback and cheers.

Community support and participation is a key element to SYG’s success. Poteat says there is a message and request for philanthropic support, but it’s not eclipsed by the need for the community to understand, support and utilize the variety of support services provided.

“I see us being able to build out what we’re doing in a way that we’re serving all students. We have on average 5,000 students in a senior class every year. Statistically, only about 55% of the students that graduate will end up enrolled in college in the fall immediately after high school. I want us to be able to impact every senior class in some way. Even if they don’t get scholarship money from Say Yes, I want them to take the SAT prep class. I want them to gain some sort of educational weapon. I want us to be able to say that every kid that graduated from Guilford County Schools had access to something that Say Yes was offering and were positively touched by the program,” said Poteat.

“I really feel like we have built a sellable product. When I came, there were some things that Say Yes was still trying to figure out. We had to go out and build relationships and gain credibility as the organization that did the things that we said we were going to do.”

With the onset of COVID-19, the SYG staff and organization were able to pivot to virtual options still making over 7,000 interactions with students and families during the first year of county-wide support service offerings, which was almost a 200 percent increase over the previous year.

The overarching goal is to ensure that students that need the most are offered the most support. Philanthropic supporters and donors are critical to the success of Say Yes Guilford and the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission, create equitable opportunities for the next generation of leaders and build an educated workforce for Guilford County and beyond.

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