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Diversity. It’s a discussion topic quickly gaining traction from recent changes that have occurred within our country.

It’s also a word that is meaningless without inclusion. Businesses have proven time and time again how they excel with team members and customers of different backgrounds. It allows these companies to have more creative perspectives, relate to a varied fan base and better accept and understand one another.

Like the rest of our nation, Southwest Florida is home to an abundance of immigrants hailing from around the globe, and those many different faces and voices have shaped our region into the colorful community it is today.

To recognize and celebrate that diversity, Gulfshore Business partnered with D’Latinos magazine to create the inaugural Face Awards in 2011.

Nominations in six different categories are reviewed by our judges who this year included Adriana Buitrago, director of the Hispanic Institute at Hodges University; Paula DiGrigoli, executive director, NCH Safe & Healthy Children’s Coalition of Collier County; Altony Lee, director of Major Gifts, University Advancement, Florida Gulf Coast University; Yemisi Oloruntola-Coates, system director of Diversity and Patient Care Civil Rights at Lee Health; and Andrew Solis, attorney at Cohen and Grigsby law firm. The panel selected honorees who reflect positive values and embrace ethnic and racial diversity with all-inclusive actions that serve as an inspiration to others.

We will celebrate the 2017 winners during a gala at 6 p.m. on March 24 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs. And this year, our keynote speaker is Florida Gulf Coast University President Wilson Bradshaw, who will retire in June after nearly a decade of service. In recognition of Dr. Bradshaw’s contributions to our community, he will be presented with the inaugural Face Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.


Helen Midney

Helen Midney knew she was destined for greater things while she was still a student at Immokalee High School.

Her mother, who emigrated from Paraguay and never made it past elementary school, had instilled in her the importance of a proper education. “She basically said, ‘you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not taking advantage of your opportunities,’” Midney recalls.

So she studied hard and in 2006 joined the Guadalupe Center High School Tutoring Corps, a program that prepares selected Immokalee High School students for college while they make a wage by tutoring the nonprofit organization’s elementary school students.

The program also pairs students with mentors. At the guidance of her own adviser, Midney applied to Bowdoin College in Maine, where
she spent four years on 
a full-ride scholarship.

“I wouldn’t have had that opportunity had I not had my mentor, and I would not have had my mentor if I was not in the program,” she says.

Midney’s mother may have swayed her good grades,
 but it was her father, an American citizen who met Midney’s mother in the Peace Corps, who influenced her future.

“[My dad’s] side of the family were teachers, and he would say, ‘You know, you were given these skills and blessed with compassion and knowledge and drive to go further, so you need to give back.’”

So she joined the Guadalupe Center as high school tutor corps coordinator in 2014.

Midney now helps 
youth who mirror her own upbringing. While the teenagers she sees may differ on the outside (out of her 100 students, 70 percent are Hispanic, 29 percent 
are African-American, and 1 percent is Caucasian), they all share similar backgrounds.

“A lot of the kids’ parents are farm laborers, or they work in the packing houses or construction,” Midney says. “There are some differences but only one parent of the current 100 kids has a college degree,” she says.

Midney has implemented essay writing workshops to help the children—many of whom are English-language learners—hone their voices.

One of Midney’s biggest payoffs is watching the kids become more confident in their communication skills. There is one moment she recalls in particular.

In September of last year, a Haitian sophomore student who struggled with his English had to introduce himself in a speech to the class. He shook with nerves as he faced his peers, palms sweaty, voice cracking here and there.

He finished his speech with a whisper, but felt a wave of relief as the audience clapped and cheered for him.

Now, Midney says, “he’s a social butterfly.” The 
boy recently gave another presentation. He wore new trousers and spoke loud and with confidence, welcoming the attention he previously shied away from.

And in those moments, she knows she’s helped make a difference. 

Arts and Culture

Xavier Brignoni

Xavier Brignoni is a well-known force in the Lee County art scene. He’s aided in the River District’s artistic revival as cofounder of the monthly Fort Myers Art Walk, and given lesser- known artists a leg-up with his involvement in The Union Artist Studios and DAAS CO-OP Art Gallery & Gifts.

But 16 years ago, Brignoni was a transplant from Puerto Rico with no connection to the area. He quietly produced mixed-media art in his “little apartment,” optimistic about one day breaking into the Southwest Florida scene himself.

At the time, the community Brignoni sought to be a part of lacked foundation—there were few places for artists to meet and show their work. But when he took his first stroll through downtown Fort Myers, he saw potential in the nearly blank canvas that is was.

After meeting Claudia Goode, curator of the Arts for ACT Gallery (one of the few downtown galleries in the early 2000s), Brignoni learned of other creatives who shared his same visions for the area. With their collective planning, Art Walk launched in 2008.

“The reason we [created Art Walk] is because a place that doesn’t have art and doesn’t show the freedom of art is basically a dead place. It’s a place without identity,” Brignoni says. Plus, there were too many people with unique stories to share to go unnoticed.

“The good thing about art—and thanks to the creation of Art Walk—is you can see the different faces and the different influences of all kinds of people, from locals to people of other ethnicities and beliefs,” Brignoni says.

Today, Brignoni promotes the arts with classes and workshops at The Union Artist Studios, which he cofounded in 2012, and through his latest project, DAAS CO-OP, which he launched with fellow artist David Acevedo last year.

The cooperative gallery consists of nearly 30 seasoned and up-and-coming artists (many hailing from different countries, Brignoni notes), who promote and sell their pieces at the studio. DAAS CO-OP and The Union Artist Studios also participate in the newly launched SoCo Second Saturday event, which begins south of Colonial Boulevard on the second Saturday of every month, and centers on arts and culture.

Brignoni, who is a social worker by day, says he finds joy in being able to give people of all backgrounds an opportunity to be seen, heard and understood.

“What I’m really looking forward to with my time
in this world and in Lee County is basically showing other people to not let fear stop them from being who they are and to embrace differences,” Brignoni says. “Being able to connect with other people that are different is what makes us stronger.” 

Large Company

Hilton Naples

Traveling to a foreign place can be challenging, but Hilton Naples aims to make all people feel at home.

Many of the luxury hotel’s 185 team members are bilingual—some speaking three to four languages—to better communicate with its visitors.

“It demonstrates how we represent their cultures and appreciate their business,” says Clark Hill, Hilton Naples’s general manager.
When the hotel opened in 2000, Hill says they sought potential workers from “all areas and all representations.” It mattered less if a person had hospitality experience; he or she really just needed to have a passion for people.

“We’re in the business
of greeting a very diverse population,” Hill says. “We learn and grow from that,
and we take that culture to
the internal operation and implement that thinking within.” Last year, the company welcomed 5,000 international guests who traveled from 77 different countries.

The hotel’s carefully crafted workforce represents “many ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.” The range of personalities is paramount to the business’s success.

“It’s critical to have a diverse workforce because we need the creativity that it brings to us,” Hill says. “It’s just a good melting pot of diverse ideas that enable us to continue to be creative.”

The hotel takes time to celebrate its unique staff. Late last year during a group gathering, employees were asked to share how they honor their beliefs during the winter holidays. “It was a great team-building exercise,” Hill says.

Hilton Naples has also been recognized for its all-inclusive efforts within the community. Tom Donahue, manager of 
the hotel’s restaurant Shula’s Steak House, in 2015 received an award from Hodges University for excellence in diversity. The NAACP of Collier County recently named Cesar Fernandez, Shula’s executive chef, as “Best Chef in Naples.”

Hilton Naples supports many different types of organizations in the area. It’s been a continual sponsor for the Jewish Federation of Collier County’s annual book festival, and leaders of the hotel
have been involved with the United Way of Collier County, NAACP, Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County, and other organizations dedicated to affordable housing and military veterans.

“We feel the community has been so good to us, so we feel an obligation to give back to the great community,” Hill says.

It’s just another way for the company to embrace and support the many different people who make up Collier County. And in turn, it makes Hilton Naples a more well-rounded place.

“We are an extremely diverse group of people, but I think the key to making 
it work is the respect we have for one another and the respect have for each other’s cultural differences, and also the appreciation for how those differences benefit our operation.” 

Small Business

Black Onyx World LLC

Rochelle Graham-Campbell wants to shed the mainstream idea of female beauty. And she’s doing it with the help of her six businesses under Black Onyx World LLC.

Before Graham-Campbell developed her limited liability company (which is the parent company to Alikay Naturals, Be Fabulous Salon, BlackOnyx77, Rochelle Alikay, Mogul University and RISE Empowerment), she would promote natural beauty remedies via her YouTube channel.

In 2008, Graham-Campbell shared her hair-growth journey online. She’d talk about
using homemade treatments inspired by her grandmother, a Jamaican herbalist. As her tresses grew, followers became more interested in purchasing her creations.

In response, Graham-Campbell launched a line of products, Alikay Naturals, designed specifically to work with textured locks, not against them.

“I wanted women with textured hair to know that they were just as beautiful,” Graham-Campbell says. “For years we were kind of left out of the beauty industry.”

Graham-Campbell has since built Alikay Naturals into an international name, and promotes the company with carefully selected images and testimonials from all different fans of the brand.

“It’s important that we’re sharing images of diversity, so when we’re selecting our customer photos for social media, we are making sure we’re all inclusive and we’re not just showing that picture- perfect person based on society’s standards,” she says. “We’re showing everyone so it resonates more with our consumers.”

Graham-Campbell also spends time educating women about entrepreneurship through her some of her other businesses, including Rochelle Alikay, Mogul University and RISE Empowerment.

She targets women ages 25 to 45 with lectures, educational workshops and more, hoping to encourage them to become fearless, successful leaders, no matter who they are or where they came from.

“It’s really important to show other women that we can lead and run a business and be that head decision-maker,” Graham-Campbell says. “It’s not always being in the background and having to give up our own dreams and aspirations in order to have a successful career.”

Graham-Campbell, who was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and moved to Florida with
her single mother at a young age, shares her own story to inspire others.

“I’m speaking [to people] primarily as an African-American woman. It’s important for me to help the next generation that’s coming to say, ‘Wow, this is a black woman and she’s successful. I can do this, too,’” she says.

That’s also why each of
 her Alikay Naturals products bear her photo on the label. “I want these kids, when they’re doing their hair everyday and my bottle is sitting on their bathroom counter, to look over and remember, ‘if she can do it, I can do it.’” 


Neighborhood Health Clinic

Picture Collier County as an hourglass. As affluent people continue to rise to the top and inhabit the area, the sand in the hourglass—which represents their needs—trickles down with more weight. That means more people in the service industry are needed for the region to come full circle.

The problem is most of these trades oftentimes pay below a living wage, making it difficult for many workers in Collier County to afford healthcare. That’s where Neighborhood Health Clinic comes in. Founded in 1999 by retired dermatologist Dr. Bill Lascheid and his wife, Nancy, the privately funded clinic provides care to sick, working individuals who are at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Income Level and without insurance, just for the cost of a requested donation.

“Part of our mission is to be the safety net of safety nets,” says Leslie Lascheid, Neighborhood Health Clinic’s CEO and daughter of Bill (who passed away in 2014) and Nancy. “These are people who take a lot of great pride in working, but because pay is low … they can’t afford healthcare.”

In the last year, Neighborhood Health Clinic, which is staffed with nearly 250 medical experts and “hundreds” of non-medical employees or volunteers, has treated about 9,500 patients. Sixty-three percent of them have been Hispanic or Latino, 28 percent Caucasian, 4 percent African-American, and 5 percent identifying as other.

Many patients are women ages 45 to 55, raising children and/or grandchildren, and working hourly positions in places like mini-marts.

The hospital buzzes with at least four translators each day to help visitors better understand their medical situations.

Educational assistance is also tailored to a person’s cultural norms. For instance, when discussing healthier dietary options with a client, educators will suggest meal plans that include food similar to what one is used to eating and realistically has access to.

“For some of our patients, trust is an issue in their lives that they struggle with,” Lascheid says.

But Lascheid has a message for those people.

“If you’re in a position where you’re working
hard and it’s just at the lowest paying jobs that are available—whatever it is—we have a diverse group here to help.” 


Florida SouthWestern State College

A $30-million, 75,000-square-foot sports complex commands attention from
a corner of the Florida SouthWestern State College Lee Campus.

The Suncoast Credit Union Arena, which prominently bears the college’s signature buccaneer’s head in front, broke ground in in 2015 and hosts FSW’s basketball and volleyball teams, and also holds a student athletic center.

In many cases, it’s been what Dr. Jeffery Allbritten, FSW’s president since 2012, has become known for.

“A lot of the community … they think I’m all basketball or baseball,” Allbritten says. “The fact that I don’t even really watch sports would amaze people.”

Allbritten says his passionsreally lie in education and undergraduate education.

That is why, quietly in the shadow of glowing regard
 for the arena, FSW has been growing its Center for International Education.

Created in 2014, the center provides opportunities for students to study abroad and experience different cultures with on-campus events.

So far with the center’s programs, students have traveled to Nicaragua and met with the country’s vice president, and to Durban, South Africa, to speak at the International AIDS Conference with faculty members researching the topic.

“We’re trying to give [students] more and more opportunities to interact with others not only of different races, but different ethnic cultures,” Allbritten says.

It’s important that the nearly 22,000 students attending FSW not only embrace diversity to coexist well (in the Lee County campus alone, about 47 percent of students are Caucasian, 30 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent are African-American and more than 6 percent are Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native or Pacific Islander), but to become more successful in life.

“Studies have shown about 92 percent of employers prefer people who have studied or trained abroad,” Allbritten says.

The FSW Diversity Alliance program has also expanded in the last few years to further foster an inclusive campus community. Today it includes more than 30 clubs supporting people of different backgrounds and beliefs.

“We’re really focusing on being the intellectual, academic and cultural center for this region, and that spans across all ethnicities and all demographic groups,” Allbritten says.

The attention is also on military veterans. “The military 
is a melting pot of the all the cultures of the United States, and we have really been on the cutting edge of supporting veterans,” he adds. The Veteran Education Benefits-approved college currently has about 590 veteran students in attendance.

FSW takes these inclusive actions to keep all students engaged, which leads to higher graduation and retention rates, he says.

“We want to make sure that everybody has a voice and everybody has an opportunity to participate and feel they are a part of this thing,” Allbritten adds. 

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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