From the Kings County dairy fields to the shiny skyscrapers of New York City

By Ed Martin, The Leader Editor
Heron Foundation's Dana Bezerra is Lemoore High School alum who will soon take over as the foundation's president.
Heron Foundation's Dana Bezerra is Lemoore High School alum who will soon take over as the foundation's president.

I assumed that Dana Bezerra would go places. As one of Lemoore High School’s most exceptional students and athletes, Bezerra, the proud, outspoken daughter of local dairy farmers Joe and Kathy Bezerra, exhibited all the signals of a young lady in search of meaning – and a purpose in life.

And she didn’t waste any time getting there.

I spoke to her recently via phone from my tiny office in Lemoore. I assumed she was in her Manhattan office, probably a skyscraper with a view of the World Trade Center, but I didn’t care to ask. I usually prefer one-on-one conversations, but The Leader’s travel budget doesn’t include private jet travel. A Greyhound ticket wasn’t practical either, so instead, I opted for the phone call – which fortunately turned out well.

The small blonde farmer’s daughter has done well for herself. And she remembered me, one of her teachers from those innocent days when most young people didn’t seem to care much about the world outside of Kings County. It was apparent even then that this “smart” kid seemed intent on making a mark in the world, and fortunately, she had help.

Dana Bezerra
Dana Bezerra

Buoyed by a loving family and an inherited work ethic, Bezerra excelled at school – in the classrooms, on the athletic fields and courts of Lemoore High. That work ethic and perseverance would pay off handsomely.

She was one of those go-getters: an overly smart kid and an exceptional athlete who excelled at volleyball, basketball, and softball. She was also one of those rare people that others could always count on – to finish a job or just lend a helping hand.

She also served as a staff member on the school’s yearbook staff for two years where she helped to create a pair of colorful annuals –  at the same time persecuting its – at the time – young yearbook advisor, who, in addition to teaching a few English classes – supervised the yearbook program from his tiny second-floor classroom in the school’s English building.

It’s unclear as to the present whereabouts of the advisor. The last anybody heard he was running a small, online newspaper.   

Bezerra took those positive attributes – mostly hard work and common sense – parlaying them into a diverse and thriving career that ultimately led to her latest job. Later this month, Dec. 31, she will assume the presidency of the New York-based Heron Foundation, a non-profit organization created to help people help themselves escape the continuing cycle of poverty.

Heron Foundation Website

The Heron Foundation’s mission, at its core, is to help people and communities break the cycle of poverty. The foundation works with a diverse set of investment strategies focused on fostering economic innovations and practices that lead to long-term economic opportunity and prosperity for all.

A local example of one of Heron’s partners is Self Help Enterprises, a Tulare and Kings County non-profit that offers a path to homeownership for low-income residents. Prospective homeowners often provide thousands of sweat-equity hours before moving into their new homes.

Heron funded Self Help for many years both with general operating support grants and with program-related investments in the form of low-interest loans. “There were no specific projects,” said Bezerra. “We always fund at the enterprise or corporate level, not at the program or project level.”

From the Kings County dairy fields to the shiny skyscrapers of New York City

After a 10-year career as a Merrill Lynch stockbroker, Bezerra joined Heron as a program officer, eventually ran the foundation’s capital-market team, and for the last two years served as the Heron Foundation’s vice president.

The foundation’s board didn’t exactly hand her the keys and just walk away. She had to earn the job. “The board came to me in February and asked me to reimagine Heron. The board was considering an outside search. But we were enough on the same page, and they offered me the position,” she told me by phone recently.”

Heron Chairman Arthur “Buzz” Schmidt, had lavish praise for Bezerra. “Heron's board is thrilled that Dana will be taking the helm,” he said. “Her selection is not only a tribute to her, but it also reflects the board's regard for (former president) Clara Miller's leadership over the past several years and Heron's strategic direction. Under Dana's leadership, Heron will lever the lessons it has learned over the past 25 years — both on the ground in communities and within the capital markets.”

Miller echoed Schmidt’s remarks: “I’ve had the joy and privilege of working with Dana both before I came to Heron and during my tenure. Her exceptional ability to connect people and ideas, her diverse experience, and her inclusive working style make her uniquely well-equipped to lead the next phase of Heron’s evolution.”

Impressive praise for a “yokel” from the cotton fields and dairy farms of the Central Valley.

Bezerra hasn't visited her childhood home for a while. Her parents now live in Tucson, Arizona, near one of their sons, Paul, 32, who recently earned his doctorate in civil society and foreign policy. Dana’s remaining siblings haven’t fared badly either. Brother Ryan, 47, is a successful Sacramento water lawyer. Kevin, 29, is within hailing distance of sister Dana and lives in Manhattan where he works for a national organization for disabilities. Finally, Jamie Bezerra, 38, is working on his master of fine arts degree in Oregon.

Dana’s sense of purpose was no doubt instilled in her by her family. Her father was a local dairy farmer who would put his kids to work on the farm to experience the rigors of hard work. Joe was community-minded too, serving two terms as a Kings County Supervisor.

“I drove more tractors that I ever tried to remember. I worked for sure. My dad was very clear with us – what an agriculture life was and what it wasn’t," said Bezerra. "He gave us plenty to choose from. We all had different experiences. We all grew up with a deep-seated work ethic.”

That’s where Bezerra learned her sense of responsibility, which perhaps she’ll instill in her children, five and eight years old, along with that “Bezerra” work ethic.

“It was absolutely fundamental to the work I do today in my opinion,” remembered Bezerra.   “It was a gifted way to grow up. You understood about working hard, and it made you resilient. It taught us reliance – and on some level (in instilled in me) the idea that I’m responsible for me and I need to take advantage of possibilities as they come.”

From the Kings County dairy fields to the shiny skyscrapers of New York City

The 44-year-old Bezerra graduated from Lemoore High in 1991 and immediately enrolled at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where she earned a degree in business agriculture and public policy. However, putting those degrees to work proved somewhat elusive. She worked in Visalia for two years after graduation from Cal Poly. “I worked for an advanced biotech firm right out of college,” remembered Bezerra. “It worked with agriculture, and it (biotech firm) was probably before its time.”

Then came her “wandering” years, she insisted. “I aimlessly wandered a bit,” she admitted before finally ending up in New Mexico where she took a job with a well-known artist. “I’m dead serious,” she laughed. “I worked for an artist who did bronze sculpture. It was certainly interesting, and it was formative. It was a different departure for me. I have absolutely no artistic talent.”

She worked there for about three years before the artist’s business partner suggest that – because of her abilities as a “linear and logical thinker” – she might consider a career as a stockbroker.

“He sent me to meet with Solomon, Smith, Barney in New York City. They decided not to hire me, but over his (interviewer) shoulder, I saw the Merrill Lynch building, and I went straight there.” Surprisingly the manager there saw a “competitive vibe” in Bezerra’s demeanor. “He hired me.”

She worked at Merrill Lynch for ten years, mostly at its office in San Diego.

A San Diego philanthropist, Dr. Joe Jacobs, encouraged Bezerra to leave Merrill Lynch and told her about the Heron Foundation. “He had done some business with them in San Diego. He kept saying you need to be in a place like this.”

She started out with Heron as a program officer and quickly moved up the ranks, eventually running the foundation’s capital market team and for the last two years was its vice president.

What’s in store for the philanthropic foundation with Lemoore’s Bezerra at the helm? As president she intends to borrow a familiar adage from her Cal Poly days: “Our commitment to Learning by Doing, transparency, and influence grounded in experience will remain consistent themes,” she said. In a statement, she indicated that new approaches would include better accessibility to Heron’s style of work, and perhaps experimenting with and utilizing new investment opportunities.

“Our challenge is to build a Heron that can contribute most effectively to supporting healthy, self-sustaining people and communities in the face of the enormous upheavals facing us today and in the future,” she wrote. “The time is right to try.”

Based on her track record as a farmer’s daughter, mother, stockbroker, executive and now president, we just may be hearing a lot more about Dana Bezerra.

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