Diversity Heroes 2015

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by Rita Palmisano

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Categories: categoryHeroes In Diversity
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The names & faces behind St. Louis’ greatest champions of business diversity

Words By Julia Paulus Ogilvie

Amber Gooding Lambert—St. Louis International Airport

In her 25-plus-year career, Amber Gooding has gained expertise in business development across several industries, including health care, aviation and government. Whether her focus was on attracting and developing strategy, services and policies for hospitals to recruit and retain minority physicians; developing educational forums for a statewide civil rights agency; creating programming to recruit and mentor minority business owners; or administering federally mandated  programs to assist small, minority-owned and women-owned businesses, Gooding has provided support to diverse members of the business community.

Before coming to St. Louis, Gooding worked in business diversity development for the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority. She came to St. Louis to fulfill the role of director of business diversity development, formerly the DBE and community program, at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. “I have deliberately chosen roles in which I have the ability to package together programs and conjoin teams that will resolve issues and provide solutions that make a strong, positive impact on our communities,” says Gooding. “I was impressed with the level of commitment to diversity and inclusion exhibited by the city’s leadership and the private sector. It is an opportunity to continue great work.”

In the course of her career, Gooding has been most proud of developing an Emerging Contractors and Mentor Protégé Program while in Nashville. She hopes to bring a similar program to St. Louis in the future. “The concept was designed to go beyond diversity outreach goals and offer education and technical assistance to help contractors improve basic business skill sets necessary for the contracting process,” she says. “The programs help the business to become stronger and more technically competent so that they may compete in many arenas.”

In addition to her work with the airport, Gooding gives time outside work as a member of The Links Incorporated, an international not-for-profit organization consisting of nearly 14,000 professional women of color in 280 chapters. “Volunteering with The Links affords the opportunity to interact with an incredible group of professional women here locally and nationally,” she says. “Some of them are entrepreneurs and interested in learning more about how our diversity and inclusion programs can assist them. Some are professionals who can offer expertise to the business owners I work with every day.  Most of all I find that no matter where someone is now, they have a story to tell about their journey. I enjoy connecting people and facilitating the interaction and communication. I believe we all benefit when we are learning from one another.”

Edward Bryant St. Louis Minority Business Council

To Edward Bryant, the newly appointed president and CEO of the St. Louis Minority Business Council, diversity and inclusion are not just an issue of social justice but also a growth strategy for the region. “We won’t grow as a region without diverse individuals and diverse businesses,” says Bryant.

He realized this in his previous position as vice president of the Economic Development Collaboration for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. “My last project for the partnership was to help develop a strategic plan for the economic development of the city and county,” he says.

In order to develop this plan, Bryant held sessions with three groups of individuals: business leaders in town, millennials and African-American leaders in the business community. “We asked participants about their vision for the community and what they saw as assets, opportunities and threats,” he says. “What we found was that diversity and inclusion needed to be included in everything that the partnership did. We had to make it an intentional piece of the plan, which rolled out last May.”

Today Bryant is just as intentional with his plans and the partnerships he builds to benefit the members of the Minority Business Council. “I ask, ‘How are we working with the region’s economic development leaders?’” he says. “For instance, the chamber is looking at four business clusters where St. Louis will grow. If those are the areas in the region that will grow, that’s where we can connect minority business owners, whether the MBE is a startup or established business finding its place in the pipeline.”

While Bryant works to build connections and opportunities for diverse businesses throughout the region, he sees MBEs encountering obstacles that have been present for years, particularly gaining access to capital and information. At the same time, though, Bryant recognizes that there is greater awareness of high-quality MBEs who have the bandwidth to take on larger projects, and corporations like Ameren and BJC are leading the way for these MBEs.

“MBEs are operating on a different scale than 20 years ago,” he says. “These aren’t fly-by-night companies. They aren’t resting on their laurels either. They are going after work and not just as vendors but as partners. They are looking to provide solutions.”
Bryant is motivated to continue helping these MBEs because of the real opportunities available. “St. Louis has been nascent the past few years,” he says. “There is a sense of collaboration to greater good. We can’t work in silos. We must work in partnerships. We’re all working for positive community outcomes.”

Jim Castellano, RubinBrown

Since starting his career as a staff accountant with RubinBrown LLP 42 years ago, Jim Castellano has been a dedicated team member at the firm. As he rose through the ranks with the company, Castellano made sure to follow the firm’s core values, including devotion to community and profession. “We encourage our team members to get involved in organizations they enjoy and provide the time and financial support for them to do so,” he says.

Today, as RubinBrown’s chairman, Castellano’s personal involvement in the community includes acting as co-chair of the Business Diversity Committee of the St. Louis Regional Business Council (RBC) and former member of the board of the St. Louis Business Diversity Initiative. His dedication is based on the belief that community is enriched when all residents prosper. “Some groups in our region need greater support than others to enable them to lead prosperous and productive lives,” he says. “I have found the diversity initiatives of the accounting profession, Regional Business Council and St. Louis Business Diversity Initiative to be both personally rewarding as well as reasonably successful in advancing the lives of people who need our support.”

While working to advance minority- and women-owned businesses, Castellano takes on the challenge of connecting the business owners with the support they need, particularly top-quality professional advisers. “These entrepreneurs struggle with the same challenges that all startup businesses face,” he says. “Finding a way to reach these entrepreneurs and to offer them top-quality, effective advice in a cost-effective manner is a challenge I enjoy. The leaders of minority- and women-owned businesses often also need personal mentoring, and programs such as the Young Professionals Network of the RBC and the Fellows Program of the St. Louis Business Diversity Initiative fulfill that need.”

Castellano has no doubt that the business diversity of the region is improving and increasing the vibrancy of the city. “We must continue building on the successes, such as the Young Professionals Network; St. Louis Business Diversity Initiative; Mosaic Project; Diversity Awareness Partnership; St. Louis Internship Program; Asian, Bosnian and Hispanic chambers of commerce; and many other programs that are really working to make St. Louis a more invigorating place to work and live,” he says.

Witnessing young minority professionals he has mentored blossom in their own careers motivates Castellano to continue in his efforts. “I was fortunate to have mentors who opened a few doors for me along the way,” he says. “It was up to me to walk through the doors and do something once inside, and I thoroughly enjoy opening a few doors for others and watching what they do once inside. It is simply an amazing feeling of personal gratification.”

Suzanne Sitherwood, The Laclede Group

Ever since Suzanne Sitherwood entered the gas industry after college, she has made sure to be involved in the community where she works. “I follow the sentiment that to whom much is given, much is expected,” she says.

Over her 30-plus-year career in the gas industry, the importance of getting to know and supporting the community in which she works has only become further ingrained in Sitherwood, who is now the CEO and president of The Laclede Group. “Gas companies are involved in their communities because their customer bases and business are made up of those diverse communities,” she says. “Ours includes women, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, Bosnians and more. From customer service to hiring and supply chain management, it’s important for us to understand and respect the community we serve.”

While Sitherwood has been in St. Louis as the head of The Laclede Group for only the past three years, she eagerly took on leadership roles with the United Way of Greater St. Louis and the St. Louis Regional Chamber to get to know her community. “These groups apply to the support of a diverse community because with a strong, growing business community, opportunities are created for diverse organizations,” she says. “This is why I have done chamber work for a long time. As job opportunities are created, entry ways for women and minorities are created too.”

As Sitherwood gives her time to strengthen the St. Louis business community as a whole, she also focuses efforts in her own industry. “Our industry is comprised of maintenance out in the field and construction,” she says. “Generally women aren’t oriented to these fields, but there are ways to recruit and orient women through the programs we set up. The same goes for minorities. How we recruit and engage is how we can overcome this. It can be done.”

Coming from Atlanta, Sitherwood also recognizes the way St. Louis excels in supporting a more diverse business community. “I see many women here in senior positions, and that is highly encouraging,” she says. “It is inviting as a woman CEO coming in and says a lot about the community. From an international perspective, St. Louis also embraces many people. As a region, there are still improvements that can be made. How we invite, engage and support people as a region is still a challenge. It’s why I am involved with the United Way and chamber.”