“How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” That headline appeared above a 2014 Scientific American story that concluded—based upon copious amounts of research— when people work with or regularly engage with others of different backgrounds, they are “more creative, diligent and harder-working.”
And Southwest Florida provides bountiful opportunities to connect with many diverse individuals and businesses. We are home to immigrants from around the globe—those of Latino, African, Asian and other cultures who reverberate in the arts, education, business, medicine and philanthropy.
To celebrate and recognize 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, engagement lead, Blue Zones Project-SW Florida; Tracey Galloway, CEO at Community Cooperative; Yemisi Oloruntola-Coates, manager of Diversity and Language Services at Lee Memorial Health System; and Andrew Solis, attorney at Cohen and Grigsby law firm. And, as in the past, the panel chose honorees who reflect and celebrate positive values and ethnic and racial diversity. In other words, smart decisions.
ARTS AND CULTURE, DAVID ACEVEDO
Vibrant faces of all backgrounds are featured in David Acevedo’s latest series of works. A geisha, an African- American woman, a Hispanic man—but none of these paintings were derived from a particular person. Acevedo instead began by sketching general features that eventually shaped stories of their own.
Born in Puerto Rico, Acevedo says being exposed to different cultures and nationalities was just a part of his life—one that no doubt plays into his artistic inspiration at times.
“I come from a melting pot of all sorts of people. I am very much used to being accepting of everybody of every background. I believe we are one world,” he says.
When Acevedo moved to Southwest Florida in 2000 after obtaining his visual arts degree from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus, he recalls it being a culture shock of sorts. He had no connections to the local art world. But his intuitive way of creating became recognized and he was able to establish himself. He cofounded Fort Myers Art Walk and served as a core committee member from 2008 to 2012 and is a current member of The Union Artist Studios in Lee County.
Acevedo refers to his Hispanic heritage as more of an inspirational tool; never something that held him back as an artist in the area. It’s newer artists, he says, who may struggle to gain recognition. But he hopes to diversify the art scene by further supporting artists of all kinds with his latest venture— a cooperative gallery for locals set to launch early this year.
“I’ll be spearheading it and providing a professional gallery space for artists. It’s a big investment but I’m doing it because that’s what I really love to do,” Acevedo says. “If I’m not here at any point at least someone can look back and say this was established by David Acevedo and somehow it helped build the art community of Southwest Florida.”
By promoting other artists, Acevedo is giving the public the chance to experience creativity from various walks of life. And he says that type of diverse exposure is essential to the community.
“As human beings, we are unique. To embrace, accept and understand our differences is to live in peace and harmony with those that surround us, and to grow intellectually and emotionally,” Acevedo says.
LARGE COMPANY, LIPMAN PRODUCE
There was a point in time when Lipman Produce considered hanging a flag in its headquarters for each country represented by team members. “But we couldn’t because there just wasn’t enough room in our office,” says Jaime Weisinger, the company’s director of community and government relations.
As the nation’s largest field-tomato grower, Lipman Produce employs some 8,000 people across the country—from Southwest Florida to the Pacific Northwest—many of whom hail from very different places.
“People come from all over the world that work here,” Weisinger says. “You can go to one of our locations here in Florida and you’ll see a huge Hispanic workforce and you can go into one of the packing houses and you’ll see a huge Haitian workforce, then you can go to one of our facilities in Portland, Oregon, and you’ll see a Vietnamese workforce. We make it all work; we celebrate all cultures.”
The Lipman founders were minorities themselves, Weisinger says. When Weisinger’s grandfather and great grandfather began the family-owned company in Southwest Florida in the 1930s, they stuck out like bright green tomatoes in a field full of red. “My family was Jewish and came from New York, and that just wasn’t what you saw in an Immokalee farming community at the time,” he says. But they’ve learned to embrace differences of all kinds.
“Fast forward to today, and we’re even more diverse than we’ve ever been. We’ve got not just cultural diversity but we have educational diversity. We’ve got Ph.D.s that work with people with very little formal education,” Weisinger says.
And for staff members who have wanted to better learn the English language, the produce manufacturer has worked with the migrant education system to offer classes.
Weisinger says opening the door for people of all walks of life can only aid in a business’s success.
“If you want to be productive and you want to move your company forward, the only way to do that is to understand where people are coming from and to appreciate those different perspectives,” he says.
EDUCATION, SYLVIA DORISME
Uprooting to another country as an adult might sound intimidating. For a teenage girl, it can be like a nightmare. But that is what Sylvia Dorisme had to do in order to better her life.
Financial aid did not exist back home in the Caribbean, and Dorisme’s mother could not afford to pay for her six children to go to school. So, at just 14, Dorisme was sent to the United States to earn an education.
Dorisme endured a lengthy immigration process to obtain her citizenship. She got by in her initial classes with broken English. When the school bell rang to end the day, she had no real home to go to. Just spare rooms offered to her by family friends.
But she made the most of her opportunities and graduated with a business degree from Hodges University.
Dorisme got a job with a local career school but when the economy turned in 2008 she was let go. She couldn’t find replacement work, despite her versatile degree, and after finding that many others also needed to get on their feet quickly, she decided to open Southwestern Vocational Training in Cape Coral.
“I saw a need in the community and wanted to offer something different than the traditional school setting. I wanted to help people get to work in a faster pace, so I went for it,” Dorisme says. “It has been a very challenging journey, but we found a niche here ... and we’ve been able to help over 2,500 people.”
Students of the post-secondary career school are primarily Hispanic, Dorisme says, so Spanish-speaking services are available. Select courses in Spanish are in the works, too.
“We’re finding a lot of Hispanic people don’t want to take our classes because they are afraid to do it in English, because they don’t really understand it. It doesn’t mean those individuals are not smart or they don’t do a good job. But they prefer to have it in their language,” Dorisme says.
Dorisme’s drive to help others succeed does not end with the school. She is currently working with another organization to create Sis to Sis, a nonprofit which provides shelter and success tools for young pregnant women in Haiti, where her family is from.
“When I started my professional career I was blessed to have individuals who cared enough to give me opportunities … and you know what they say: ‘When you are blessed you also have to bless others.’ So my ultimate goal is to pass on that blessing to others who need it.”
NONPROFIT, MARIA LUISA MALTA CARTER
"Joy,” “Love,” “Believe,” “Relax.” Those are just some of the words that adorn the walls of House of Gaia, a nonprofit community center in Naples and project of Bee Gaia Inc.
It’s those simple concepts that founder and president Maria Luisa “Lulu” Malta Carter hopes to teach children and adults who visit the facility.
“We build up self-esteem, we build on their own skills. We give them room to exercise their own selves without fear of being judged,” Carter says.
Carter, who also owns a travel company with her husband that connects companies and organizations to enrichment programs abroad, created the nonprofit in 2008 to help people form meaningful relationships, regardless of differences.
Programs offered celebrate various cultures. They hold tribal dance classes, African drum workshops, exotic potlucks and monthly meetings for Kirtan—a devotional chanting accompanied by Indian music. Art, health and wellness courses are also mixed in and professionals sometimes come to lecture. There is no restriction on age, ability or belief.
“People from all over the world come to our place,” Carter says. At one event, “we had people from Tanzania and South Africa but at the same time we had people from Jamaica, Mexico, Americans from the North, Americans from the South … so we see many different cultures, populations and ages.”
Brazilian-born Carter says she understands the overwhelming need people sometimes feel to fit in, but the best way to learn is from observation, appreciation and acceptance.
“We need to build a global society based on sense of equality and equal opportunities,” she says. “Being more emotionally intelligent brings awareness to how life can be better if we learn to share. And learning and sharing doesn’t mean we are going to lose ourselves or lose anything—we are just gaining.”
When Carter gears up for new trips overseas, she buys a giant canvas for House of Gaia members to paint on. They express themselves with colors and brush stokes of their choosing, then Carter takes the canvas with her on her journey.
When she returns, the canvas has been filled in by children and adults from other countries. She hangs it proudly at the community center.
It’s her way of demonstrating that even in a world so big, people can still come together and create something beautiful.
SMALL BUSINESS, JAVED KAPADIA
Javed Kapadia first joined State Farm Insurance as a summer intern working in auto accident claims before being hired fulltime in 1998 and eventually running his own business within the corporation.
Kapadia, whose heritage is Pakistani and religion is Islam, says perhaps people looked at his initial employment as part of some sort of affirmative action plan, noting that some companies were participating in this practice during the late 1990s.
“When I found out about that, at first I was like, ‘Did I just get hired because of my skin color?’ But that being said, I was like, ‘Well, it’s kind of a good thing, because there are customers of all walks of life and you want your business to represent everybody.’”
And that’s what Kapadia strives for within his own operation. “I want to make sure employees I hire represent the community, especially here in Naples because we’ve got a very diverse community.” His agency, which comprises four fulltime staff members, has offered different language-speaking services for customers, including Spanish, Creole and Portuguese.
Outside of the office, Kapadia has been involved in many diversity-related endeavors. He’s part of an interfaith panel that holds a ceremony each year to celebrate different religions—from Islam and Christianity to Judaism and Hinduism—and has sponsored Naples events such as the India Fest, Asia Fest and Greek Fest.
“We’ve been so instrumental in being part of the community and recognizing all the diversity and uniqueness that every group represents,” Kapadia says.
Part of Kapadia’s keenness in other cultures stems from his own background, the other part comes from lessons he’s gained through his travels. In all, he’s visited each continent and more than 40 countries.
“Having traveled to so many different places, I’ve learned so much more about the world and about other people, cultures, values and everything from food to religion. I’ve seen how different we are in so many ways, but yet similar. Everybody has the same belief. I think it has definitely made me a better person,” Kapadia says.
It’s helped him become a better businessperson, too. “I have clients from all walks of life, and I can immediately have some kind of rapport with them,” he says. “The greatest form of education is through travel. It really teaches you so much.”
MEDICAL, LEE MEMORIAL HEALTH SYSTEM
A Guatemalan woman once brought her 2-year-old daughter in need of immediate surgery to a Lee Memorial Health System facility. The presiding physician needed consent from the distraught mother, who seemed confused at the physician’s questions, which were being asked in Spanish.
With little time to waste, the physician and unit director contacted the hospital’s diversity office, which concluded the mother knew only bits of Spanish and primarily spoke Mam, a minority indigenous language. Staff tracked down an independent Mam interpreter who came to speak with the mother. She consented to her daughter’s surgery and the little girl was operated on that same day.
That’s a taste of the situations regularly facing Lee Memorial, the largest public health system in Florida and the U.S. without a local tax or local government support. Each year, members are exposed to more than 100 different languages, spoken by employees, patients and family members, says Jim Nathan, CEO and system president.
“It’s important to communicate effectively when talking about health care issues and to be able to understand the patients effectively as to what their needs are, so we’ve got quite a department of language experts and we have the capability to access languages for pretty much every language that comes remotely,” Nathan says.
It’s a significant way Lee Memorial embraces the colorful community in which it serves. But it’s not the only way. The health system has created a network of clinics that partner with United Way to provide medical care for underserved, often minority, populations, in addition to coalitions such as Healthy Lee, which encourages people of all circumstances to live healthier lives through nutritional and wellness education.
But what Nathan says he’s most proud of is the health system’s internal culture of more than 12,000 employees and 4,500 volunteers. “We are clearly one of the most diverse organizations in Southwest Florida and have become more so over the last decade,” he says.
From 2005 to 2016, the health system has seen a 30 percent increase in African American employees, 14 percent increase in American Indian/ Eskimo employees, 40 percent in Asian employees and 86 percent increase in Hispanic employees.
“We all bring something to the table and everybody has a challenge,” he adds. “I believe that we are all people and we should all work together to the best of our abilities.”