Taking Flight

by Trina Ryan

Raised by a single mother in a low-income Miami neighborhood, Mark Norato ’91 is giving others who grew up in similar circumstances the opportunities he never had.

The American poverty rate has steadily risen throughout the past two decades — not simply because more people are falling into poverty, but because few are finding a way out. Mark Norato ’91 is one of the lucky few who got out.

An accomplished entrepreneur and investor, Norato credits much of his professional and financial success to his education and networking. But perhaps more influential was witnessing his mother’s unwavering perseverance. “She taught me that success is sometimes measured in inches, rather than feet or yards,” he says. “But if you’re moving forward a little each day, those inches become yards, and those yards become miles, and eventually you’ll get to where you are going.”

When Norato was an infant, his father deserted him and his older brother, leaving their mother to raise two young boys alone. The family home was an 850-square-foot duplex about a quarter mile from the Miami International Airport. With money scarce and no child support, Norato’s mother had to work two jobs to make ends meet.

Education, his mother reinforced to him, was the ticket out of poverty. Though she was a single parent working two jobs, Norato’s mother went back to school to earn her college degree. It took her more than 20 years of taking night classes, but she eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in risk management. Having watched his mother make so many sacrifices throughout the years, Norato did not want to disappoint her. He knew that earning his college degree would not be quick or easy, but he learned from his mother that success is sometimes measured in inches.

“Getting a degree did not happen in a straight line for me,” he says. Alternating between working and taking classes to pay his way through school, he graduated at 30 with a bachelor’s in business administration from UCF. Norato says UCF was his “beacon of hope,” his entrée into a better life. A college degree meant open doors, opportunities, a chance to be seen as more than a kid who grew up poor.

“I was really driven,” he says. “I never pegged myself as being that smart. But the one thing I did have is that I could outwork anyone.”

If Norato was going to become the entrepreneur he dreamed of, he not only needed to work hard; he needed connections. His first job out of school was as a sales representative for Kaiser Permanente, a California-based healthcare provider and insurer that had opened a location in Atlanta. Norato jumped at the chance and eventually worked his way up to director of sales.

He continued to move up the professional ladder, parlaying his knowledge and natural networking ability into higher-paying, more esteemed positions. He has held executive roles in healthcare technology, business intelligence and analytics platforms. Now, he is vice president at North American Partners in Anesthesia (NAPA), where he specializes in working with hospital executives to optimize their anesthesia operations, staffing and coverage models.

Norato is also living out his dream of being a business owner. Thirteen years ago, he and his business partner opened a car wash in Atlanta. The business, he says, has washed more than a million cars to date. Norato attributes his professional success to his connections: being at the right place at the right time and, most important, knowing the right people.

At 63, Norato isn’t slowing down, but he is pivoting his passion in a new direction. “When I left school, I had to figure it all out on my own, because I didn’t have the resources that some of my peers did,” he says. Now, he wants to give kids from underprivileged backgrounds the opportunities he never had, starting with providing scholarships to students at his alma mater, UCF.

This idea inspired him to create The Taking Flight Foundation and choose UCF Day of Giving 2024 to establish a $125,000 scholarship that will empower low-income, first-year students from single-parent homes to attend UCF. The scholarship will cover the cost of all first-year expenses, including tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

But scholarships are just one aspect of what Norato hopes to accomplish. Now in the final stages of launching his personally funded foundation, Norato also plans to provide a network of connections for students where they receive advice from professionals who align with their career aspirations — people who can help open doors for them the same way others did for Norato. The goal is to equip young people with lifelong resources that don’t just launch them off the ground, but keep them airborne so that someday, when they reach economic success, they will remember how they got there and pay it forward.

The moniker “Taking Flight” perfectly encapsulates Norato’s vision: giving students the boost to propel them forward while providing them with the tools to keep the momentum going. The name is also a nod to his mother’s career in the airline industry. She was first a flight attendant, but had to quit when she became pregnant. (In the 1950s and ’60s, airlines did not permit young female flight attendants to be married or pregnant, as they were required to maintain an image of desirability.) She later got a job with Hertz at the Miami International Airport. Her second job was at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where she started in clerical work and, thanks to her college education, retired as an associate director of risk management.

Norato’s mother passed away in 2008. The pastor of the family’s local church came out of retirement to deliver her eulogy. The day before the service, the pastor asked Norato and his brother to think of words to describe their mother. Norato said the first word that came to mind: “perseverance.”

Success may come easily for some. But for others, especially those who grow up in poverty, it is a path filled with detours; it’s putting one foot in front of the other to inch closer to a destination.

Norato knows, because he grew up watching his mother do it every day. “She could have easily abandoned us, but she didn’t,” he says. “It wasn’t until much later that I appreciated what she gave up — which was her entire life.”

And now, through The Taking Flight Foundation, her legacy will live on, inspiring others, for years to come, to forge ahead and persevere.

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