A year ago, when the murder of George Floyd ignited a renewed debate about race in America, I reached out to Travis Mack, someone I’ve known for most of my time on the Central Coast, and one of most successful Black entrepreneurs in the region.
The column I wrote last spring about Travis and his personal journey started me thinking about Black business and community leaders and how they viewed life and work in our region. So, over the next 11 months, I started look more closely at Black professionals and their experience with our corporate culture.
The result is the virtual roundtable I conducted over the past month via email with 10 leaders that appears in this edition of the Business Times.
I learned that the Central Coast is a curious place. It welcomes diversity and tries hard to provide equal opportunity. But individual cities are pretty insular, and being both Black and “not from here” is a tag that lasts for at least a few years.
Being a Black professional on the Central Coast is a relatively rare thing. Across all three counties the Black population totals just 2%: roughly 16,000 people in Ventura County, 9,000 in Santa Barbara County and 5,300 in San Luis Obispo County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
One thing we learned last spring is that, perhaps because of the small population, there are not many Black-owned businesses in the region, and only a few have more than a handful of employees.
Mack’s company, Saalex Soutions, is among the largest, with operations in Camarillo, Ridgecrest and at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, plus IT support centers in several states. It is also a successful graduate of U.S. Small Business Administration programs designed to help minority and veteran-owned companies.
Myraline Morris Whitaker’s company, Central Coast Hospitality, a hotel management firm based in Pismo Beach, is also a substantial enterprise. Lagrant Communications CEO Kim Hunter has put together a corporate communications and advertising firm and combined it with a grant-making arm that promotes diversity in the advertising and public relations industry.
Black leaders also turn up in important positions. Henry Thompson runs Santa Barbara Municipal Airport and is one of the architects of Southwest Airlines’ entry into the Central Coast market. Richard Beswick, Ph.D., was recruited from Texas to run the research activities of Cottage Health. Regina Biddings-Muro is the head of advancement for California Lutheran University.
Warren Ritter, who reached out to us after our initial coverage last year, has organized a Young Black Professionals organization. As I was putting together the roundtable, several people made important suggestions.
Business Times Publisher Linda le Brock introduced me to Beswick and Leonie Mattison, chief operating officer at CommUnify, a large nonprofit in Santa Barbara that used to be called Community Action. She also made an introduction to John Grace, a financial planner who has worked on financial literacy issues in the region.
Eduardo Cetlin, who runs the Amgen Foundation, introduced us to Tamika Jean-Baptiste, who runs the biotech giant’s diversity and inclusion efforts. During the past year Amgen and its foundation have committed millions of dollars to social change and economic equity efforts.
One thing that struck me as I listened to the panelists’ stories is that many of our roundtable members left places like Los Angeles or Texas where there was a lot more racial tension.
They find the Central Coast is generally a welcoming place, once you get over the sticker shock of sky-high housing prices. That’s partly a reflection of the culture of the region, which, despite some terrible episodes in the past, has a history of valuing talent over race, religion or national origin.
Another thing that struck me as I was getting to know our panel is that we have a core of leaders in business, education, health care and the nonprofit sector who happen to be Black. But there isn’t really a network for the Black leaders who are playing important roles in the regional economy.
Perhaps that is the next step in the constantly evolving corporate culture of the Central Coast.
• Henry Dubroff is the owner and editor of the Business Times. He can be reached at [email protected]