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For transgender activist Rhonda Williams, a life of dramatic change provides inspiration for others

Rhonda Williams visits the College of Engineering to see how the field has changed in the 50 years since she graduated from RPI with an engineering degree. (Photo courtesy of Rhonda Williams)
Rhonda Williams visits the College of Engineering to see how the field has changed in the 50 years since she graduated from RPI with an engineering degree. (Photo courtesy of Rhonda Williams)

Rhonda Williams has lived a life of dramatic change. She left Halifax County in rural Virginia after high school for the bustling state capital, Richmond. Over the years, she forged a career in the then-nascent field of software engineering, pursued a new path as an entrepreneur, came out as transgender and discovered new skills as an activist for diversity and inclusion.

Her alma mater, Richmond Professional Institute, has gone through many changes, too. Williams’ Class of 1968 was the last to graduate from RPI before it merged with the Medical College of Virginia to become Virginia Commonwealth University. Though well-known buildings such as Ginter House remain, RPI’s campus, now the VCU Monroe Park Campus, has expanded and changed.

Williams, however, tends to look beyond the surface. “Although it’s changed so much, so radically, over the last 50 years, it’s still got the same spirit,” she said, describing it as artistic, alive and unique.

She believes that she has kept the same spirit, too. A desire for adventure and escape motivated her long before she turned down the chance to take over her grandfather’s rural Virginia general store and instead moved to Richmond to attend the School of Engineering Technology at RPI.

After graduation, her engineering degree helped her land a position with Westinghouse Electric Corp., where she received on-the-job training in computer programming. In 1980, she started a software company, which designed PC/TaxCut, the first PC-based tax preparation system, as well as the first PC-based human resource system. The HR system’s customers included Ford Motor Co. and NASA among others.

In her time studying engineering at RPI, the class included only one female student, who wasn’t Williams. (Her classmates knew her as “Tom.”) Though Williams said she spent a significant amount of her life questioning her gender identity, she began to work and interact as female much of the time just in the past two decades.

Williams likes to say she’s “all dressed up with somewhere to go.” For her, the saying is about gaining confidence to enjoy life in public despite the fear that prevents some transgender people from presenting as their preferred gender.

it’s a whole different experience when someone actually has to be prejudiced or bigoted against someone who is a person that they know.

Williams now frequently socializes as Rhonda. “One of the reasons for being out as much as I am is to have people meet and know someone who is transgender,” she said. “Many people can be prejudiced toward a concept, especially if they don’t understand the concept. But it’s a whole different experience when someone actually has to be prejudiced or bigoted against someone who is a person that they know.” 

Williams has encountered issues professionally, though she said she’s fortunate to have avoided some of the other types of discrimination transgender people face, such as physical abuse. As a well-qualified engineer, while presenting male, Williams said she never went on an interview without being offered the job. Presenting as Rhonda, on the other hand, she said it took 51 interviews over two years to get an offer — and then for a position as an unpaid intern.

She hopes her persistence can inspire and encourage others. Having benefited from support groups in the past, she founded one in 1995 in Tampa, Florida, and later started a second group in West Palm Beach. Now living in Jupiter, Florida, she launched the blog Rhonda’s Escape in 2016. The blog has about 2,000 views a day with total views exceeding 2 million.

“I think her story is so empowering,” said Fred Wayne, who retired from VCU in 2003 as a special assistant to the president and has been a friend of Williams since meeting her about 10 years ago at an RPI reunion. “I know that in my own life, there are things that I would like to have done, that I could have done, that I should have done, that I did not do. And I see Rhonda and I think, you did it. I am so happy for you.”

Williams’ next chapter is another entrepreneurial adventure, this time offering corporate diversity and inclusion training. “My hook will be, ‘Going through the glass ceiling — the opposite way,” she said, referring to the special understanding she’s gained by experiencing the corporate world as both male and female.

RPI, she said, laid the foundation for the entrepreneurial spirit she has embraced throughout her life. She still comes to campus anytime she’s in the area. On her most recent trip to VCU for Reunion Weekend in April, she visited the new Institute for Contemporary Art with a group of friends and was delighted to discover a large sign that read, “You belong here.”

More than 50 years after leaving Halifax County to attend RPI, Williams is still showing the world that she belongs anywhere she chooses to go.