Issue: January/February 2012
Power 100: Color Lines
Four of Northeast Ohio’s most prominent minority leaders (three of them members of our Power 100) talk about power, influence and inclusion, sharing some of their experiences from times when being distinct was sometimes far from an asset.
left Guyana in 1963. When he arrived in America, he immediately learned it was a land of opportunity — but not equal opportunity.
Douglas, president and CEO of Akron’s Austen BioInnovation Institute, arrived just before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. He quickly learned that white students not only enjoyed more opportunities, but more civility.
“One day, I was very ill, and I ended up going to the hospital,” recalls Douglas. “And one professor gave me a lecture about blacks being lazy, and now that I was in America, I needed to change that.”
Nearly half a century later, minority professionals face significantly better opportunities, whether they’re from Africa, India or Ohio. But are they the same opportunities that whites enjoy?
Lonnie Coleman, president, Coleman Spohn Corp., mechanical contracting company, age 62:
“When I started, there were not a large number of programs we could turn to for help, outside of the Small Business Administration and the Cleveland Contractors Assistance Program. [But] African-American businesses still deal with the impediments and barriers we were dealing with in the ’70s: not being able to acquire wage bonds or performance bonds, retentions that take away capital for operations and, most importantly, access to capital.”
Monte Ahuja, former chairman, president and CEO, Transtar Industries, age 65:
“It was hard being Indian to begin with, because people didn’t have much understanding of Indian culture. I had a boss that was phenomenal and supported me, but unfortunately, he passed away before I graduated. Then I saw true discrimination. And that’s when I started to take a shot in starting a small business.”
Inajo Davis Chappell, attorney, Ulmer & Berne, and member of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, age 51:
“You’ve got to do at least two or three times as much as everybody else does to receive the same recognition. … Simply, be a difference maker in all you do. Be the most effective and creative problem-solver you can be.”
“The late Walter Burks, of Burks Electric, would often say, ‘Never let the negative thoughts of others stand in the way of the positive things you can accomplish with success, for you, your family and your community.’ ”
“You really have to have an advocate. It’s important to have someone to speak to your skills, your talent, your intellectual horsepower. When women promote themselves, they often feel uncomfortable. Guys promote themselves all the time. It’s always nice to have somebody else toot your horn.”
“I do try to influence as many [Indians] as I can. In Cleveland, the community is now so large. When I came, they had 25 to 50 families. If I didn’t know all, I knew most of them. Now they have 5,000 to 7,000 families.”
“There are many more minorities in high positions, who can be role models in predominantly white institutions, who understand how the white business world operates.”
“The difference is night and day. I don’t think any Indian feels being different is a negative trait. They are more respected today. That respect goes to [other] newcomers, as well.”
“We have to really allow young professionals — minorities, females, all of them — the freedom to make mistakes and to grow. And we have to give second chances to help them grow and flourish.”
“Don’t talk about the pipeline being small. It is very easy to develop a pipeline, to identify students who have an aptitude and interest, to give them the type of experience they need.”
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