10 Leaders in Detroit’s Diversity Efforts

By Staff Report

May. 23, 2008

Louis Green, CEO of the Detroit-based Michigan Minority Business Development Council, seeks to improve business opportunities for the1,311 minority-owned businesses and 450 corporations headquartered in Michigan that conduct $15.5 billion worth of business in America.

Green said that while some local business leaders are pursuing diversity opportunities, for the region to “reach full potential economically, we’ve got to get everyone engaged.”

How does a region become engaged? Follow the leaders—people who already champion diversity in their businesses and the community. Here are 10 examples of the region’s diversity champions and mentors. It is by no means a complete list, but it highlights the work at a variety of organizations, big and small.

Gail Sparks Pitts

Controller, Oakland Community College

Chairwoman, Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants

Volunteering to oversee activities in the 17,000-member Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants takes a big commitment in time and talent. Yet Pitts, 52, the first African-American woman to hold the position, believes she can use the combined clout to reach inner-city youths.

“Every business needs a CPA. You do problem-solving, not just math,” said Pitts.

Pitts said she seeks to raise awareness of the profession. Her organization helps sponsor a high school leadership conference where students have a chance to interact with professionals who encourage them to take math and science courses and achieve good grades.

“Our youth see lawyers and doctors on television. We are real world. Every business needs a CPA or they won’t be in business long. The probability of employment is tremendous.”

Monica Emerson

Executive director, Global Diversity Office, Chrysler L.L.C.

Boards: Oakland University, Focus: Hope, Executive Leadership Council(Chrysler), board of advisers of nonprofit Catalyst

Emerson, 58, is the executive director of the newly established globaldiversity office for Chrysler, which includes a facilitator role for the global diversity council comprised of the top leaders of the company. Her office also oversees six affinity groups representing diverse populations. Emerson said the corporation wants its team to reflect the car-buying public, which is increasingly diverse, and to be seen as an employer of choice by people of all its constituent groups.

Emerson has been a frequent speaker at human resources and diversity conferences around the country and internationally. She encouragesmanagers to mentor young staff members and to mentor across differentdemographics and cultures.

“I’ve had Asian employees that I’ve mentored and learned as much fromthem as hopefully they have learned from me. In any experience, you have two people growing together,” she said. Those experiences helped
structure a mentoring program. She suggests having a network of mentors, one for balancing work and home, one for inching up the corporate ladder and another for individual skills.

Lawrence Almeda

Shareholder and partner, Brinks Hofer, Gilson and Lione

Ann Arbor office

Boards: Governor’s Advisory Council on Asian Pacific American Affairs,U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

As a patent attorney and shareholder in a 90-year-old law firm, Almeda, 40, seeks to expand his outreach by becoming active indiversity panels for the state and the region. The timing is ripe,Almeda said.

“This is a global world,” he said. “High school students are studyingMandarin. They are gaining more awareness of Asians, but Asian historyisn’t taught in our schools.”

Almeda’s parents emigrated from Manila in the Philippine Islands in1961. He grew up in Rochester Hills.

“Asians are seen as the model minority, which is not a positive term.It means someone who doesn’t speak up, works hard and doesn’t complain. It maintains the bamboo ceiling,” he said. He hopes with civic involvement to help elect more Asian-American judges and politicians.

He hopes he can make a difference in the fortunes of Chinese and Pacific Rim business owners coming to America.

Lisa Ip

Founder and CEO, Uniforce Insurance

Madison Heights

Affiliations: Chinese Restaurant Association, Parkway Christian School

Finding jobs—particularly for Asian-Americans—is the prime focus for Lisa Ip, 39, CEO of Uniforce Insurance. She recently formed a business partnership with Luther Ellis, a former defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, who is half Samoan. Together they expect to launch an insurance training institute and call center in Harper Woods.

“We’re looking to recruit in the Hmong, Korean, Filipino and Eskimo communities. We plan to tap other ethnic groups as well because people tend to buy insurance from people who understand their culture and heritage,” Ip said.

Ip was 9 years old when her father gave up his company called Uniforce in the Philippines and moved the family to Detroit. She worked her way through college as an insurance agent, earning so much in commissions
she quit before graduation and opened her own agency in 1994. Uniforce became its name and her father its chief mentor.

With a careful eye to details, she turned a $2,000 investment into a six-figure auto and home insurance agency. This month she is poised to double the size of the sales force and build out a call center for up to 250 people.

Angerine Jacqueline Gant

Executive director, Native American Business Alliance

Bingham Farms

Member, Oneida Nation of the Thames, Michigan Minority BusinessAssociation and the National Association of Women Business Owners

Harvard-educated Jackie Gant, 47, is weary of being asked what percentage of business affiliated with the Native American Business Alliance concerns the casinos. It waves a red flag to the executive director, who struggles for higher visibility in segments such as automotive, logistics and technology.

“We don’t get the spotlight and recognition that other minority groupsmay get,” said Gant, whose job for the past four years is to work withcorporations and businesses for expanded procurement and jobpossibilities. With 300 company memberships and a database of 12,000
business people, her roster includes Rush Trucking, SystrandManufacturing, Choctaw-Kaul Distribution Co. and Arrowhead Logistics.

But the bigger work is education, helping prepare entrepreneurs to compete in a global economy. The alliance is teaming with Michigan State University this spring for an on-campus business boot camp. Classes will include infrastructure development, accounting, management, patent and technology support, and a written businessplan.

Richard Schott II

Executive director, North American Indian Association of Detroit Inc.


Member, Kahnahwake Mohawk Territory, Quebec

The door to diversity and opportunity is more perilous for American Indians than almost any ethnic group, according to Schott, 46, the executive director of the North American Indian Association of DetroitInc. With a seven-member staff, the oldest urban American Indian
organization in the United States works daily to help clients overcomechallenges to job placement.

“People leave the reservation, come to the city for a better way to take care of their families and experience a lot of shell shock,” saidSchott, noting that 30 percent of the 85 to 93 clients seen by his office face hurdles complicated by loneliness. With an office near
Plymouth and Telegraph roads on Detroit’s west side, Schott and his team function as an open door. The 501(c)(3) charity funnels federal,state and municipal grants. It provides General Educational Development classes and job coaching for clients. Intake workers helproute top candidates to computer, trucking and skilled trades training
classes or find resources for housing, substance abuse and medical needs.

Eric Cedo

Co-owner, Brain Gain Marketing


Boards: Hispanic Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs

Good mentoring has helped boost Cedo, 33, up the networking ladderwith his company, Brain Gain Marketing. The company conducts social media and Web-related business for Campbell-Ewald, the state of Michigan, ArtServe Michigan and other creative clients.

Cedo said he would never have achieved $300,000 annual sales and sevenemployees without the groundwork of other Hispanic business leaders. Now he’s trying to pay it forward to up-and-coming workers.

People who helped Cedo include Freddie Feliciano, president of theHispanic Business Alliance of Detroit; Maria Elena Rodriguez, president of the Mexicantown Community DevelopmentCorp.; and LizbethArdisana, CEO of ASG Renaissance.

Cedo, the former director of Create Detroit, in the fall of 2006teamed with investors Robert Porcher, formerly of the Detroit Lions,and Aaron Alston of Candor Marketing to devise ways to keep young talent in Michigan.

Cedo was included in a young diversity panel at the Detroit RegionalChamber’s Mackinac Conference in 2005, representing Hispanic interests. Mentor Ardisana suggested Cedo learn more about his PuertoRican roots so he could move with more fluency through Spanish-speaking cultures, so he took a trip there.

Mentorship paybacks are fun for Cedo. He helps rising stars throughhis Hispanic Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs group by cell phone, suggesting the best social networking sites and job banks. “I believe that working together we’ll help this community grow and compete globally.”

Linda Forte

Chief diversity officer and senior vice president, business affairs, Comerica Bank

Detroit office

Boards: Chairwoman, Michigan Women’s Foundation; president, Renaissance chapter of The Links, Detroit Economic Development Corp.;Women’s Caring Program; United Negro College Foundation; and others.

This month, Forte, 53, the chief diversity officer of Comerica, takeshonors as one of three role models feted in a banquet sponsored by nonprofit Alternatives for Girls. She is the public face for the bankthat has received diversity awards from Hispanic, African-American and
women’s organizations. She was listed among Crain’s Most Influential Women in 2007.

She helped nurture an annual series of entrepreneurship seminars for females and minorities in tandem with the U.S. Small Business Association. Inside the bank, she helps monitor committees and affinity groups.

What gives her the most satisfaction? Forte said it is the Young Womenfor Change program coordinated by the Michigan Women’s Foundation. Itprovides six groups of high school girls around Michigan a yearlong experience in philanthropy and leadership. “We are all responsible for
making Southeast Michigan a more attractive place to be,” Forte said.

Frank Jonna

CEO, Jonna Cos.


Boards: Chaldean America Chamber of Commerce, Catholic Central High School and the Henry Ford Health Foundation

The Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce is on a mission to attract 1,000 members to its ranks in 2008, drawing upon an emerging number of physicians, software developers, legal professionals, hospitality workers and developers, according to Jonna, 58, vice chairman and CEO
of the Jonna Cos. in Southfield.

“Until the 1980s and 1990s, most of the Christian immigrants from Iraq worked in retail trades. Slowly the community evolved to different fields,” said Jonna. His brother, James, now chairman of the board, started Jonna Construction in 1965. Today, the company employs 20
people in its headquarters and 20 in the field and works on
construction projects worth $30 million annually.

Jonna’s wife, Judy, oversees the property management division. Jonna also gives generously to charities funneled through the Chaldean chamber.

Molly Padovini

General manager, Jaguar-Land Rover Lakeside

Macomb Township

Boards: Former president and one of the founders of the Automotive Women’s Alliance

At a recent Land Rover dealer meeting, Padovini, 47, was one of 10women among 120 people in the room. She takes pride in overseeing the2007 construction and grand opening of a $15 million, 45,000-square-foot dealership featuring both Jaguar and Land Rover showrooms under one roof in Macomb Township.

Padovini, general manager of the Jaguar and Land Rover campus at Halland Romeo Plank roads, plays a pivotal role in the Elder Automotive Group run by CEO Irma Elder. The $480 million operation includes 10 dealerships in locations such as Troy, Tampa and Macomb Township. Shegot her start as a saleswoman, moving up to service manager in the early 1990s—one of the first women in the Detroit area to command the post.

Recognizing the need to bring other women into management ranks asElder had helped her, Padovini became part of a team that incorporatedAutomotive Women’s Alliance in 2001 and helped it grow to more than
200 members before stepping down to oversee the dealership construction.

Working for Elder, the first female owner of a Ford dealership who isknown internationally for breaking the gender barrier, has been exciting for Padovini. “I work for an awesome family that is dedicatedto its employees and its customers. They have allowed me to learn a lot and to mentor others along the way.”

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