From the Archives: Life on the Other Side
“You can come through just about anything if you believe that you can come through just about anything.”
These are words Gigi Edwards Bryant MBA’02 lives by.
To get to this point of strength and gratitude, Bryant endured a more than challenging childhood. At the age of 6, she was taken from her mother and separated from her three siblings to enter the foster care system, where she said she was sexually assaulted, beaten and left hungry. Things didn’t immediately improve for her when she aged out of the system at 18 years old. She faced multiple setbacks, including teenage motherhood, two abusive marriages and the death row execution of her brother.
Today, the businesswoman and civic volunteer holds an unexpected perspective regarding her past. “I’m just very grateful to God for the life he brought me,” the Austin native said.
Bryant became a ward of the foster care system after her mother was institutionalized. She recalls how her emotions at the time were blurred. A sense of loss and confusion resulted, she said, bringing paralyzing fear, countless tears and unanswered questions as to where she might end up.
“At the age of 6, you really don’t realize what’s happening to you. You don’t have a feel for what emotions you should express, except for fear,” she said.
For 12 years, Bryant entered and exited home after home, spending brief periods in foster facilities. “You’re in a system where you’re passed around and don’t feel that there’s anyone you can connect with,” she said.
By the time Bryant became too old for foster care, she was pregnant. She faced limited options, but she was determined that her children would not experience what she had endured. She made a decision that would change her life and the lives of her children, deciding that education was her best way out.
“I knew education would be the only way I could take care of my family,” she said.
She enrolled at Austin Community College, taking one class at a time (or more if she could manage it) while working full time to support her young daughter.
“I didn’t have anybody to take care of me,” she said. “I was my own backup plan, so I always kept going, regardless of what was going on in my life.”
Bryant transferred to St. Edward’s University in Austin, eventually earning an undergraduate degree in business and computer science and becoming the first college graduate in her family.
During this period, Bryant worked in information systems and project development for the state of Texas. But after 12 years and the breakup of her second marriage, she wanted a change and opened her own business. Equipped with seed money, a newly installed second phone line and an answering machine, she founded GMSA Management Services, a business development consulting firm that still serves clients 22 years later.
In 2000, Bryant enrolled in the global leadership program at UT Dallas and earned an MBA. Years later, she said she’s proud of her degree and her connection with UT Dallas. She said she enjoyed the close-knit cohort during her studies and found the professors very engaged in serving students.
“There was always somebody to answer any question about anything,” she said of the Global Leadership Executive MBA program. “UTD was a great fit.”
Bryant is now serving as a member of the Austin Community College Board of Trustees and said she’s enjoying the opportunity to effect change through this volunteer role. “The reward for education is amazing, but the costs of education not being accessible and affordable to everyone are high,” she said.
Bryant began volunteering as a young woman, initially as a way to briefly escape her living situations. In the process, she discovered satisfaction in assisting and empowering others.
“As I grew up, I always wanted to be able to help people, to give my time and my energy, to give what I had, just me,” she said.
Bryant’s extensive involvement with civic and nonprofit organizations focuses on causes close to her heart: education, family, children in the foster care system, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
In 2007, then Gov. Rick Perry appointed Bryant to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services advisory council. In 2010, she served as chairwoman. Through her post, she was able to influence legislators and champion changes to the foster care system. She’s quick to note that there are case workers and foster parents doing good things every day, but she points out that they need help through community partnerships to improve situations for children.
“Once we take them in, as a state, they are our children,” Bryant said. “We can’t make judicial mandates for love, but we can order the best care possible.”
She also uses memories of her personal journey to help youth in the foster care system, including finding ways to fill the emptiness she felt. For example, Bryant doesn’t remember having a birthday party, going to a movie theater, celebrating Mother’s Day or experiencing many typical childhood occasions. So she founded an organization in 2004 to ensure children don’t miss out in the ways she did. The Write to Me Foundation aims to create experiences of normalcy and typical rites of passage, such as attending prom, having a first manicure or seeing a movie on the big screen.
“I wanted to make sure children experience things just for them,” Bryant said. “Additionally, I wanted to make sure there were resources if young adults from the system ran into hard times, if they couldn’t pay their utility bills, pay rent or put gas in their cars.”
Today, Bryant has found security and a deep-rooted friendship with Sam Bryant, her husband of 13 years. She and Sam first met more than two decades ago. Years later, they met again through work, finding that they shared common passions for family, faith and community.
Gigi and Sam are proud of their blended family of five children and six grandchildren. “I taught my children to be kind, to pray and to keep learning,” she said.
After facing life’s challenges, Bryant said she has come to understand that she is the only person who can make changes in herself. She said she has gained strength in the deep-rooted faith instilled by her great-grandmother and finds herself a bit more philosophical these days.
“Witnessing my brother’s execution was a reflection as to what my life could have been,” she said. “The difference was that I didn’t believe that I wasn’t supposed to make it. Although I was told many times I would end up being nothing, I kept praying that I would prove them wrong.”