COUNTLESS STUDIES HAVE LINKED DIVERSITY TO OVERALL SUCCESS IN THE WORKPLACE, with research showing that inclusivity has led to new ideas, increased profits and heightened employee satisfaction.
But as some establishments still learn how to embrace diversity, others continue to lead in their fields through definitive action and innovative policies and procedures.
In Southwest Florida, these companies and individuals are helping to make where we live a better place, by enriching the lives of the people who make up part of our colorful community and providing opportunities for a more dynamic, understanding and welcoming population.
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 were Marisa Cleveland, research and development executive director for The Seymour Agency; 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; and Yemisi Oloruntolo-Coates, system director of Diversity and Patient Rights at Lee Health. The panel selected honorees who reflect positive values and embrace ethnic, racial and cultural diversity with all-inclusive actions that serve as an inspiration to others.
We will celebrate the 2018 winners during an awards ceremony and inaugural diversity summit from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on April 5 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs. The event will delve into topics such as recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce, engaging diverse groups to achieve common goals and more. For further information, please visit facediversitysummitswfl.com.
Arts & Culture
Casandra Ruanova-Cordero grew up in the border cities of San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, attending Catholic school her entire life. In middle school, Ruanova-Cordero and her fellow classmates would teach underprivileged kids in Tijuana about the religion.
“In Mexico, there’s a drastic difference between different parts of the city, and that is something that touched me since I was a little kid,” Ruanova-Cordero says. Later on, while attending college in Monterrey, Mexico, she helped raise scholarship funds for others. “I always knew education was a very, very important way to impact lives and give children better futures.”
Now, she’s helping adolescents obtain religion-based educations as chair of the Saint Ann Latino Contemporary Art Auction (SALCAA). In its second year, SALCAA supports the Saint Ann Latino Scholarship Fund, allowing underprivileged Latino children to attend Saint Ann Catholic School in Naples. The silent art auction, held at Artis—Naples, features some 15 Latino artists each year, many of whom are based in Southwest Florida. The evening also features cultural music and authentic Latin-American cuisine from local vendors.
“It’s a great opportunity to celebrate Latino heritage here in our community,” especially since many event attendees are not Latino themselves, Ruanova-Cordero says.
Ruanova-Cordero, who also volunteers at Saint Ann, helped create SALCAA after an anonymous donor established the scholarship fund. She formed a committee, forged a partnership with the Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Naples, and helped the event raise $20,000 in its first year. The scholarship, so far, has benefited 17 children.
“The idea is to continue to grow this fund and get more students into the school,” Ruanova-Cordero says. “The children that benefit from this fund would most likely not be in one of the best public schools [otherwise], and it’s not just the Catholic education [of Saint Ann], but the education itself that we know makes a difference in their lives.”
Once scholarship recipients are enrolled in Saint Ann, Ruanova-Cordero serves as a liaison between the school and families of awardees, often translating for parents who do not speak English.
“I kind of feel like it’s my obligation at this point in my life to help the Latino population wherever I’m at,” Ruanova-Cordero says. When it comes to aiding Latino youth in Southwest Florida, she adds: “I just feel like this is where I need to be, because I understand and feel both cultures.”
Dr. Carlos M. Mendez
Imagine having a health issue that’s treatable, but because you lack financial means to see a doctor, it becomes life-threatening. Now imagine you’re just barely in your 30s.
That’s the story for one Collier County man, whose renal function had declined because he couldn’t afford to treat his kidney disease. That changed when Dr. Carlos M. Mendez began treating him for free.
“I’ve been able to stabilize his kidney functions, and he’s doing better than he was about a year ago,” Mendez says. Being able to help those who have no one else to turn to means more to the nephrologist than money. “To have a young man in his 30s have to start dialysis [which substitutes for normal kidney functions] because he doesn’t have the resources to see a doctor? I can’t live with that. That’s why I don’t mind taking care of him.”
Mendez, who owns Elite Kidney Care LLC in Naples, treats many more low-income patients for free each year, in partnership with The Neighborhood Health Clinic of Naples, which delivers care to uninsured workers in Collier County. When he’s not tending to them, he’s helping patients who once had trouble receiving care due to language barriers.
Mendez is the only Spanish-speaking nephrologist in Collier County, he says, and at least 60 percent of his patients speak mostly Spanish. He moved from Louisiana to Naples nearly three years ago, mainly to address their needs.
“A lot of my patients have seen other nephrologists in the past, but they couldn’t communicate [with medical staff],” Mendez says. Even with their families present to translate, important information would get lost in the middle.
Not only has Mendez been able to help his patients better understand their medical needs, he’s eliminated the need for their family members to miss work—and in turn income—in order to translate during appointments.
But Mendez’s community assistance doesn’t stop there. Multiple times per week, he sees dialysis patients at Fresenius Kidney Care centers who are undocumented, uninsured and often non- English-speaking. By providing this service—which is also free—he helps ease the burden on local hospitals, which would need to treat these patients emergently.
Mendez’s faith drives him to care for patients regardless of background, insurance or abilities.
“I have to answer to somebody more important at the end, the Lord, and I definitely am not going to get there and tell Him I couldn’t take care of people because they couldn’t pay me,” he says. “I want to make sure that at least with this gift He’s given me, I have not let Him down in that part.”
The daughter of two Lehigh Elementary School teachers, Bethany Quisenberry always knew she’d follow her parents’ footsteps into education. She began teaching kindergarten students, many of whom were English language learners, even obtaining a master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University in Teaching English to Students of Other Languages (TESOL), before earning her doctorate degree.
But when Quisenberry started training other teachers and assuming more leadership roles, she realized the greater impact she could have on children and instructors as a school administrator, a career she’s had for 10 years.
Quisenberry’s abilities were put to the ultimate test in 2014, when she became principal at Franklin Park Elementary, located in the heart of the Dunbar community, with the highest poverty and minority percentage in the School District of Lee County.
When Quisenberry started, the school had an “F” grade, a high turnover rate and serious attendance problem. Today, Franklin Park is a “C” school with low turnover and the 20th-highest attendance record in the district.
What changed? “We started really focusing on the mindset and morale of teachers and kids,” Quisenberry says. With the help of the school district, Quisenberry hired a full-time social worker, nurse, behavior coach, and guidance counselor to meet the children’s basic needs, as many were having trouble at home.
“Franklin Park has 48 students who are homeless, so it’s just about how you develop those home lives, because they have such an impact on school lives, Quisenberry says.
Quisenberry also focused less on test scores and more on tracking the students who performed exceptionally below average, sending a social worker out to their households to address any deeper issues, an uncommon practice in public schools, which might, at best, have a social worker on campus one day per week.
“We’ve been able to show that when parents trust you and have a good relationship with you, and it really becomes a home-school partnership, you can make a big impact, especially in high-poverty schools”, Quisenberry says.
Quisenberry, a member of the Lee County School District Minority Recruitment Committee, also says it's important to employ staff who the students can relate to.
“Children need to see leaders who represent their culture,” Quisenberry says. She’s helped recruit several teachers from historically black colleges in Florida to Franklin Park.
“I do what I do for the kids, and I’m proud of seeing the success of our kids and our families,” Quisenberry says.
Success has not always come easy for women- and minority-owned businesses in the male-dominated construction industry.
“I think our world is becoming more aware of that, but certainly in our past it’s been difficult [for these businesses],” says David Diamond, co-founder of DeAngelis Diamond, a commercial construction and program management firm headquartered in Naples.
But DeAngelis Diamond is making strides to be more inclusive overall, by partnering with diverse subcontractors and businesses when possible, and encouraging disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) organizations to submit bids on specific projects.
DeAngelis Diamond also promotes acceptance within its offices. Each year, the firm of nearly 200 employees focuses on a particular part of its company’s culture, and 2018 is all about diversity.
In March, DeAngelis Diamond celebrated the theme by honoring female leaders, who make up 36 percent of the company, and promoted construction as a career for women at area schools.
“It’s not always one of the first industries that women are looking to get involved in, so we want to show that women in construction are doing great and love what they do,” Diamond says.
DeAngelis Diamond plans to promote industry inclusivity in several other ways this year, including developing an intern/mentorship program for future female project managers.
“We open our intern program to all people, but we’re really trying to focus on women,” Diamond says, explaining that only five of the 49 project managers on staff are women. “We want to raise that 10 percent higher.”
DeAngelis Diamond also has enlisted a data analyst to track how many minority, disadvantaged and veteran employees it has in order to “measure where we are and see how we’re improving diversity within the company,” Diamond says.
The construction firm supports equal opportunities beyond its offices by donating a percentage of its profits to select charities each year and letting employees take two paid days off to assist the charity of their choice. Most recently, the company benefited PACE Center for Girls, St. Matthew’s House and more.
Diamond and co-founder John DeAngelis are active in the fight against human trafficking, traveling internationally to assist and raise awareness. And Diamond joined as an executive producer on the documentary film Bias, which will be shown and premiering at several film festivals and other venues in 2018. It examines unconscious bias and how it affects our behavior socially and in the workplace.
All of these actions help to fulfill the company’s core values and make a difference wherever possible.
“Our mission statement is to develop authentic relationships and have a positive influence on everyone we meet, and we really want that to mean everyone—regardless of where they’re from,” Diamond says.
Kathryn Kelly grew up 1 mile from Harlem Heights, driving past the neighborhood routinely, never giving much thought to the predominately minority families who lived there.
But that changed in 1999, when she and members of her church delivered food baskets to households in the neighborhood, where the poverty rate for children is more than twice Lee County’s average.
She met one family, in particular, living in squalor. Rats infested their home and six children slept on mats spread out on the damp, concrete floor. Kelly suddenly felt embarrassed that she had spent so many years naïve to the condition of households in her own backyard.
It was a day—and family—she never forgot, and it’s what led her and a team of dedicated individuals to create The Heights Foundation.
The nonprofit organization’s 14,000-square-foot community center is like a beacon of hope in a neighborhood that struggles with crime and poverty. It offers opportunities for children, such as an after-school program, which serves more than 110 students; and assistance for adults, such as English language-learning classes and career-skills support.
“Our mission is to build self-sufficient families in the Harlem Heights neighborhood,” Kelly says.
In 2016, The Heights Foundation even opened a charter school, which now serves 50 kindergarten-to-second grade students, of which 73 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are African-American, and 13 percent are Caucasian. Currently, classes take place in the back of the center, but Kelly plans to have a separate building for the school—which will eventually teach up to fifth grade—within the next five years.
The school has made a “surprising amount of impact” in the community, Kelly says. “These are the kids that people before would have said can’t learn, and the kids themselves would not have considered themselves to be successful at school.”
But, with the love, support and expectations the foundation offers, the children are learning to thrive.
“I get choked up thinking about it, because there’s this whole generation of kids now that are going to go through our school, that are going to be successful because they are going to be reading on grade level … and they’re going to be ready for whatever,” Kelly says. “It’s amazing to be able to do that.”
Next year, a very special kindergartener will be entering that school. It’s the son of one of the six children—now young adults— who changed the course of her life on that fateful day in 1999.
“I’m very excited about that, because I used to tutor his dad and now we get to have his son here,” Kelly says. The relationship shows Kelly and her team have done more than spur change in the neighborhood—they’ve earned the trust of families and become a very part of the community’s fiber.
Growing up, Sean Casey had the odds stacked against him: he came out of the womb addicted to heroin, from a mother who died just nine months later. He went to live with his grandparents, did poorly in school and surrounded himself with others who lacked motivations.
In high school, Casey received a wake-up call in the form of his newborn son and a sudden need to provide. He started barber school and his hidden entrepreneurial spirit began to emerge, really taking shape when he moved in 2006 from New York City to Fort Myers, where his son was then living.
“When I came here I had a five-year plan for myself to open up one barber shop and just build up my network,” Casey says. He did it in four.
TwinCutZ started in 2010 with just six chairs and two barbers at the height of the recession, once again leaving Casey at odds with the world.
“A lot of people said it wouldn’t work,” Casey says. “But I had a strong enough passion and I knew my capability as a barber.”
In 2013, Casey got lucky when one of his original cuts—an eagle and basketball to commemorate a historical season for the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball team—went viral, with coverage on USA Today, Yahoo, ESPN’s SportsNation and more.
Casey soon opened a second location at Gulf Coast Town Center, and two more after that. Today, he has four stores and 38 employees, representing a spectrum of racial and ethnic backgrounds, an uncommon practice in traditional shops, Casey notes.
“When I was working as a kid, I was … the white guy in the black barbershop because that’s how separated it was,” Casey says. “People would walk over me and I would generally have the best skill in the shop. But that’s just how shops were created—when they hire, they create for the community, and that’s what they attract.”
From day one, Casey wanted his shops to cater to every customer. “In all four of my barber shops I have women cutting hair and men of all ethnicities, so when somebody walks in they can feel comfortable sitting with anybody.”
TwinCutZ also stands out for its community service, this past year alone donating 400 full backpacks prior to the start of school and providing free haircuts. Casey also teaches at the Paul Mitchell The School in Fort Myers and is a touring educator for Hattori Hanzo Shears and Andis Co. In these roles, he hopes to show young adults that they can be successful, no matter their circumstances.
“For how difficult life can be, I want to set an example by showing that it’s not always about structure, as far as what’s the norm," Casey says. “You can look at someone like me and know you can follow something you love and become great at it—who’s going to stop you?”