It was love from the beginning; a celebration of two dynamic African American professionals being ushered through by a legion of sisters-in-success, “passing the torch” in solidarity, sisterhood and leadership. Despite the rigors of heading corporations, balancing family life and entrepreneurial endeavors, African American businessmen and other top executives gathered on Monday, August 12, at the LA84 Foundation in the West Adams neighborhood of South L.A. They united and rejoiced in sharing the successes of businesswomen Cynthia Guidry, the new director of the Long Beach Airport, and co-honoree, Stephanie Wiggins, the new CEO of LA Metrolink.
The spirit-filled event included a who’s who list of business executives, commissioners, public officials and representatives, who used the opportunity to reconnect, laugh, embrace, celebrate, exhibit love and rejuvenate. As elite businesswomen, they are forging through history on their own terms but not forgetting who they are and where they come from. The event’s theme, Sistering, was hosted by Jacqueline Dupont-Walker, Member, LA Metro Board of Directors, and her protégé, Kelli Bernard, Chief Executive, AECOM. The Sistering theme was derived from a concept of women uplifting and supporting other women.
Dupont-Walker welcomed the guests and acknowledged the accomplished women in the room, recognizing Fabian Wesson, assistant Deputy Executive Officer, Public Advisor Legislative, and Public Affairs & Media for South Coast AQMD. She is also the wife of LA City Council President Herb Wesson. Dupont-Walker also recognized Alejandra Hernandez, District representative for Senator Holly Mitchell of District 30; Pamela Bakewell, COO of Bakewell Media, producers of the LA Sentinel newspaper and the Taste of Soul Family Festival; Seleta Reynolds, general manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, and Heather Hutt, recently appointed by Senator Kamala Harris as the first African American State Director.
Dupont-Walker thanked the city’s leading businesswomen for overcoming the challenges of racial and gender inequality, and for being a symbol of women advancing in business and social change. She also expressed her gratitude to Mayor Eric Garcetti for appointing her as a member of LA Metro’s Board of Directors. She reiterated how committed Garcetti and his administration is in assuring that all qualified women are afforded fair opportunities in serving leadership roles.
Dupont-Walker introduced co-host, Bernard, as “a woman who is not on her way, but soaring already,” she said of Bernard. “More important than anything, she has carried her roots, and wherever she goes, she remembers how she got there and what she is there to do.” Bernard recalled receiving substantial encouragement and support from Dupont-Walker during her early ascent in the corporate world. Understanding the challenges Wiggins and Guidry faced, Bernard wanted to extend to her sisters-in-business, a devoted support system similar to her own experience with her mentor, Dupont-Walker.
Bernard suggested that with success, social challenges are imminent. “As we rise to top organizations, it can sometimes be lonely.” Centering in on Dupont-Walker, she said, “We need to do for them, what you’ve done for me; which is, lift them up and support them as they step into these new roles as CEOs.”
Among the accomplished women, two African American men, Bob Gilbert, Chief Development Officer, Los Angeles World Airports, and Phil Washington, CEO LA Metro, were included on the program. Both have made a major impact on the honorees and their past transportation colleagues – Bernard and Gilbert left successful careers with Metro before accepting their current execute positions with other companies.
Dupont-Walker pointed out Washington’s impact in transportation. “Across the country and indeed, around the world, he is known as a leader in innovation; one who takes the bold step; one who is not afraid to recognize people for their talents,” she said. Washington saluted the women, particularly thanking Dupont-Walker and Bernard for their exceptional service throughout their careers and for reaching back and making a difference.
Referencing Wiggins, Washington said, “The first thing I think about is how much of an honor public service is. Stephanie is a great public servant.” He lauded her ability to accept the sacrifices, demands and criticisms that come with such demanding positions. “It’s rare to master both strategic and tactical ability; she has done very well, not only at Metro but throughout her career,” he said. “Stephanie was my deputy at Metro but I actually worked for her,” he kidded.
“A part of building structure is also making sure you build people,” said Dupont-Walker, when mentioning a common trait shared between Wiggins and Washington. Wiggins was awed by the number of attendees as she gathered her thoughts. She humorously referred to her early years with LA Metro. “Everyone yelled at me,” she joked. “Heather was yelling, lots of people … [and] Maxine Waters!” she said. “But, then someone said, ‘you have to get to Jackie Dupont-Walker; that’s who you need to get to know,’ and they were so right.”
“Empowered women, empower women, and [Dupont-Walker] is a reflection of that, and so is Kelli Bernard,” she said. But Wiggins said her path to survival was indeed through the support of Washington. She shared Metrolink’s newest milestone yet, of hitting the highest ridership numbers in the company’s history at 11.9 million. “I’m so filled with seeing people from our community coming out,” she said. Inspired by the careers of Washington and Gilbert, Wiggins pledged to make her imprint in the field of transportation and vowed to give back to the community.
Guidry’s former colleague, Bob Gilbert informed the guests of the rarity of African Americans in her field of aviation. “There are more mayors in the United States than they are executive directors of airports,” he said. He mentioned that the number of women of color is even fewer. “This lady will set the standard for other women in her profession,” he said, highlighting that Guidry’s commitment to her career never stifled her commitment to family. “I think we should all celebrate a woman who is a professional in her career … as a woman of color and a family woman who has managed to match it all together.”
Guidry thanked Dupont-Walker, Gilbert, and Bernard for being supportive leaders in her life. As she reflected, she thought to include her co-honoree, Wiggins. “I stand here, we’re humbled. We know it’s not within our own power … to put me where I am today, she said. “It’s been so many things … other than grace, there have been men and women who have supported, who have pushed and challenged, who have believed,” she said.
She mentioned that the event wasn’t just for recognition of Wiggins and her, but for all of the achievers in the room. “I look at Stephanie’s position, my position, and all of us who are in top leadership positions, she said. “It’s not just about us —we represent a community, she said.”
The event culminated with Guidry and Wiggins participating in the traditional passing of the torch ceremony. The dynamic duo accepted and embraced the actual Olympic torch lit by Rafer Johnson in the 1984 Olympic Games. They were bestowed a commemorative framed envelope, displaying an image of President Barack Obama. In addition, the honorees were given a collector’s stamp of Motown legend Marvin Gaye, delivered by Alvitia Smith, retired ambassador for the U.S. Postal Services. Afterwards, the guests enjoyed delicious food, solidified their bond, and took lots of photos of the epic and historical day.
Photos by E. Mesiyah McGinnis