Extraordinary Woman: Stacy Carlson


Focus on your assets, not your deficits. Don’t freak out. A smile and “hello” can go a long way in making a bad day better or a good day great. Those are the mantras by which Stacy Carlson lives.

Carlson is the busy mother of three boys, Trey (13), Jacob (6) and Jon Luke (5). “They are the absolute best part of me, even when they are being naughty (and maybe that comes a little from me too),” says Carlson. Carlson’s other job is as vice president and program director at Helios Education Foundation, where she works to help more students access and graduate from postsecondary education.

“As a first-generation college student, college was always an expected destination after high school,” says Carlson. “My personal journey to get there taught me the path can be full of potholes and unnecessary diversions that almost led me to drop out. My experiences led me to a career where I can help alleviate some of those barriers, making it easier for students to complete.”

Carlson also is passionate about developing the potential of women to be community and civic leaders. She focuses her efforts as president of The Junior League of Tampa. “The League has given me opportunities to grow my skills as a volunteer and leader while contributing to lasting community impact,” she says.

Carlson grew up in Tampa, graduated from Chamberlain High School, obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of South Florida, a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and a doctorate from the University of Florida in Educational Leadership and Policy.

What do you think is the secret to your family’s success?
My family is phenomenal. I can’t imagine how three boys from the same parents could be so different and amazing. I am divorced, and while many women would say that with a hushed voice, my family is still intact. As husband and wife, we are no longer together, but we will always be parents to our boys. At the center of our success is mutual respect. My ex-husband and I are very respectful of each other. We also manage to keep our kids at the forefront of our decisions and planning. We are very successful juggling all of our busy lives while celebrating the successes and overcoming the obstacles together. I also have very supportive parents, brother and former in laws. We all work together to make sure the busy train stays on the tracks and no one skips a beat.

What is your biggest fear?
My biggest fear is taking for granted all that is wonderful and beautiful and possible by being so busy I don’t slow down long enough to appreciate all that is around me.

My latest realization of my tendency to not slow down was when Trey turned 13. I realized: five more years and he may move out forever. I struggled with guilt for a little while and then focused on how to make little changes to my life to increase my time with him. For example, I drive him to school without my phone, so I can focus on listening to him. I also try to spend time with just him—whether at dinner, a show or a short trip. I take similar one-on-one strategies with my other boys.

What advice would you give to other women?
I saw this post on Facebook recently on advice women were giving to other women: “If you focus on the 50% of people that will always disagree with you, you lose focus on providing leadership to the 50% of people who are on your side.” We can’t waste our energy on negativity. We have such precious time that it is wise to focus it on those that make us better, not tear us down. Women aren’t quitters.

What is your proudest moment?
Probably my happiest moment was each time I gave birth to one of my boys.

What is your biggest achievement?
Besides my three kids, I think it was getting a fellowship to pursue my doctorate and receiving my PhD. I recall looking up into the stands where my family sat looking at me and I saw my mom cry. My mom and dad didn’t go to college. I knew at that moment, they knew what an accomplishment this was. A doctorate was never a lifetime goal for me, but a challenge. Completing my doctorate after three kids, a full-time job and The Junior League was an immensely huge achievement.

What makes you happy?
I love traveling with my family and friends. I need a “trip” to unplug from my busy life. It makes me so happy to spend that time with people I love while exploring new cultures and having new adventures.I also get great joy from watching my kids gain a new skill or have a new experience. Appreciating life through the eyes of someone who is seeing things for the first time can’t be replicated. I love when my kids read a higher level book, get to ride a new ride and perform in theater. Their boundless, uninhibited happiness is infectious.

How do you relax and take time for yourself?
There is something very therapeutic about being in the sun. So whether it is relaxing on the beach, paddle boarding, kayaking or riding my bike, enjoying the outdoors is a good start. As I mentioned before, a trick to actually get me to relax is to go away. I love travel and I seek out every opportunity to go to new places. I also find going overseas to new countries gives me an appreciation for what I take for granted. I return refreshed and renewed.

What kind of message would you like to give women in the community?
Women’s importance and relevance in all aspects of community are improving. We are better educated, earning more money, making more financial and household decisions, and have unique skills and attributes to bring to critical decisions being made in the community. Now we have to continue to figure out how to capitalize on these attributes to build greater opportunities for women and our community at large. Whether it be in politics, nonprofits or the business board room, we need to work with other women to take a hand up and offer a hand back to make sure there is a pipeline of women in positions to add their voice to critical conversations and decisions in the community.

Who is your role model?
My biggest inspirations are women who identify a problem and create a unique way of solving it. The Junior League of Tampa is a membership full of these types of women. Whether it is passing legislation to help human trafficking victims, providing food over the weekend to families who are struggling, or mentoring other League members to develop their potential, I am inspired by the women who are spending their time to make this community a better place while making sure the next generation of women who will come behind them is prepared to find success as well.