February 22, 2024
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Dubroff: Black leaders are beginning to shape the Central Coast

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The Central Coast poses a unique challenge when it comes to writing about Black History Month.

Less than 2% of the population is Black. That’s a very low number that, in part, reflects the impossibly high cost of housing in the region.

And yet, the region’s small group of Black executives has a high impact, something I’ve noticed as they have risen to top ranks in business, government and at area nonprofits.

In 2021, after the murder of George Floyd sparked a national conversation about race relations in America, I decided to ask a number of these leaders what they think about race relations and our corporate culture of the Central Coast.

Publishing our first Black Leadership Roundtable was an eye-opening experience for me. And it was an opportunity to learn how the legacy of racism and Jim Crow impacted the lives of these Central Coast leaders.

One of the things I learned is how often Black executives and managers face extraordinary barriers on the way to success. And how often they are championed by a single leader who dares to ask them what their experience has been like. I also learned that most of them are here because they feel institutions on the Central Coast offer more of a level playing field – and executives who are willing to listen.

The 2021 Roundtable also gave me a chance to introduce our panelists to each other.

From that initial conversation has emerged an informal Central Coast Black Leadership Roundtable. The members of the original panel have met and begun to think about ways they could act together, perhaps to foster mentorships or advocate for housing solutions.

“I think we are getting somewhere,” one of the panelists, Richard Beswick, vice president of research and chief research officer at Cottage Health told me in a recent phone interview. “We have been taking baby steps to where we are today.”

Beswick has hosted lunches, helped mentor younger managers and kept the dialogue going. He and others have been looking at Austin, Texas, another university city with high housing costs and trouble diversifying its executive ranks, for lessons in mentoring and housing. It was getting to be time to revisit the Black leadership experience.

Beswick and Regina Biddings-Muro, vice president for University Advancement California Lutheran University, were my go-to sources when I started thinking about a second Q&A that would appear during Black History Month.

One thing was clear to me – a new cohort of Black executives is not just part of the C-suite. They are the people in charge. Sevet Johnson was named CEO of Ventura County last year, Erica A. Stewart has become the first Black woman elected Mayor of San Luis Obispo. Leonie Mattison, one of our 2021 panelists and former chief operating officer at CommUnify, was named to lead Pacifica Graduate University last fall.

In thinking about the 2023 panel, it was Beswick who suggested housing was a very important topic when it comes to recruiting and retaining any people of color for professional jobs on the Central Coast. It made perfect sense to ask the CEO of our biggest county and the Mayor of SLO to weigh in – and I’m grateful for the time they took.

We got a powerful response to our question about the effectiveness of DEI initiatives at regional institutions. And our question about mentorship got very personal responses from two new panelists, pioneering Santa Ynez Valley winery owner Iris DuPlantier Rideau and Tammy Sims Johnson of the Santa Barbara Foundation.

I owe a debt to Beswick who has kept me in the loop and has been generous in acknowledging the role of the Business Times as a catalyst for the group. And to Biddings-Muro who introduced me to several of our panelists.

Finally, a few words of appreciation for Kim Hunter, CEO of LAGRANT Communications and a thoughtful panelist. He facilitated the sponsorship of our 2023 State of Black Leadership report by the California Department of Public Health.  

Henry Dubroff is the founder, owner and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. He can be reached at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.