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Greenville Business Magazine

Black History Month: A salute to 11 African-American leaders in the Upstate

Feb 05, 2020 11:20AM

Greenville Business Magazine salutes Black History Month by recognizing the achievements of these 11 African-American leaders in the Upstate. Seven are spotlighted here; you'll find a full list of honorees at the end of the article.

Over the next year, we will continue to recognize individuals who have impacted our community, as well as those who are working to shape our future. You will find these new profiles at www.greenvillebusinessmag.com.

 If you know of someone you feel needs to be featured, please let us know.

Pamela Askew

Special Events Manager

United Way of Greenville County

Pamela Louise Bennett Askew is the youngest child and only daughter of Eustace and Georgia Bennett. She has one brother, Spencer Bennett. Pamela was born in Durham County, N.C., and raised in Taylors, S.C., where she completed her early education. She graduated from Riverside High School. After high school she enrolled and graduated from Hampton University with a bachelor of science degree in accounting.  

Over the years Pamela has held many positions and is currently a member of the following organizations: Greenville Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Incorporated, where she served as the 18th Mid-Atlantic Regional director;  Greenville (S.C.) Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, where she is the current president; Greenville MOLES, Incorporated, where she is the recording secretary; and Greenville County Section of the National Council of Negro Women, where she is the financial secretary.

Pamela is a member of St. Matthew United Methodist Church-Taylors, where she serves as the outreach coordinator. She is currently employed at the United Way of Greenville County. 

Pamela is married to Curtis L. Askew and they are the proud parents of two sons, Marshall and Bennett. 

In her free time, she enjoys traveling and spending time with family and friends. Her favorite quote is: "If you don't have a plan, you're a part of someone else's." 

Who was the most influential person to you as a child?  

The most influential persons to me when I was a child would be my parents. My 95-year-old father, Eustace E. Bennett, was one of the first African-American police officers for the City of Greenville in 1964. He went on to serve as firsts in other capacities while at the City. He was definitely a trailblazer who didn't mind stepping up and out. He's also a U.S. Army World War II Veteran. 

My 96-year-old mother, Georgia Bennett, is a retired school teacher. I remember her having to pack up her classroom at Gower Elementary School in the middle of the school year and moving to Taylors Elementary as the result of desegregation. She retired after 38 years of service to Greenville County Schools. As a first grade teacher, she impacted the lives of over a thousand children. 

My parents were also active in the community. My mother's membership in the Greenville Chapters of Jack and Jill of America, Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the Moles, Inc.; laid the groundwork and instilled a life of service within me. Each of these organizations has had a positive impact on the Greenville community for decades and is now a part of my life. My parents' lifelong commitment to their careers and civic service make them the most influential persons to me as a child and now.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my sons. My oldest son, an aspiring dentist, is a senior biology/pre-medicine major at Hampton University in Hampton, Va. My youngest son is a fifth grade honor student at Woodland Elementary School in Greer. 

Being the mother of two African-American young men in today's America is a daily struggle for me. Not an hour goes by without me wondering if they are OK. I pray daily that they will be able to live to see all of their aspirations come true. I am proud to have raised two mannerable and intelligent young men who understand that you must work hard to have a good life and that helping those who are in need is a part of the good life: "To whom much is given, much will be required."

Who is your biggest fan?

My oldest son Marshall is my biggest fan. He cheers me on and reminds me that the sacrifices and commitments I've made not only make his life better, but also the lives of others. Marshall tells me that my work does not go unnoticed. I always tell him that we don't serve others for accolade—we serve because it's the right thing to do!

Brittney Brackett

Facilitator & Entrepreneur

b dynamic! Productions

Brittney is an author and voice talent in the Southeast region, focusing on the Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida markets. She has hosted numerous local shows and has been featured on television and radio with Tyler Perry Studios, FOX, DSS and Black Wallstreet Radio. 

Helping young people to understand the difference they make in the world is important to her. As a way to expose children and teens to the encouragement she received from past mentors, she founded the 501(c)(3) nonprofit called The Outstanding Youth Awards Initiative, spotlighting more than 35 young leaders in more than four counties; $2,635 in scholarships have been awarded since June of 2015. 

Brittney's continued work has garnered recognition from our community as well as The Legacy Committee, as she was awarded the 2019 John Gamble Community Service Award last fall. Past honors include awards from Sen. Karl B. Allen, Councilwoman Xanthene Norris and The Olive Branch. 

By motivating the youth with an annual award ceremony, mentorship, advocacy, empowerment workshops, volunteerism,and sponsoring programs, she never stops giving or propelling kids and teens toward excellence. Visit brittneybrackett.com or outstandingyouthawards.com to learn more about her audio books and nonprofit impact.

What is your definition of "happiness"?

Happiness is the mind-to-heart-balance of your soul that helps you glow from the inside out. If I've learned nothing else, I have come to realize that you are as happy as you choose to be during your time on this earth. If we all find ways to serve, actively love people, and become less busy serving ourselves, we can really change the world.

How do you think people will remember you?

I want to be remembered for my resiliency and love for people. I want them to know I gave all I had to those who needed what I had to offer. Life can be the hardest race we've ever run, but we can't tell the story unless we live purposefully by walking in our purpose.

What is your greatest hope?

I hope that my work and actions speak for me and to also make my youth proud. I'm not perfect, but I love what I do to educate kids to become greater than they could ever imagine.

Lee A. Gill 

Chief Diversity Officer and Special Assistant to the President for Inclusion and Equity

Clemson University

Lee Gill brings MORE THAN 20 years of private and public sector experience working with major corporate executives, law firm executive committees, hospital administrators and college presidents. His passionate belief is that no organization can afford not to harness the rainbow of demographic change for a competitive advantage. As he views it, "The Business Case for Diversity" is akin to the education process: "Learn it well and be rewarded. Fail to learn it and be left behind."

Lee received his B.A. degree in political science and sociology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., and his juris doctor from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Kent College of Law, Chicago, Ill., and on April 18, 2016, Mr. Gill was appointed as the chief diversity officer and special assistant to the president for inclusion and equity at Clemson University.

He serves on numerous boards of directors including the Upstate Urban League, NCORE (National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education), the National Conference of Artists, Greenville United Way and Hispanic Alliance. In 2014 he received the National Diversity Visionary Award from Insight into Diversity magazine for his significant contributions to diversity in higher education. In addition, Greenville Business Magazine named Lee one of Greenville's 50 Most Influential People for 2016. In April 2017 he received the Peace and Dialogue award by the Atlantic Institute. 

Who was your greatest influence?

My dad, Mr. Andy Gill, who left Nashoba, Miss., at 15 years of age to start a new life as a young African-American male in South Bend, Ind., where he met my lovely mother, Mrs. Addie Mae Gill, who hailed from Arlington, Tenn. They both taught me tenacity, resilience, fortitude and steadfastness. They also showed me the path to spiritual wellness. I attribute my successes to them. 

What do you value most?

Family. Both formal and informal, it is the glue that holds everything together.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

The work of supporting and sustaining equity and inclusion on a college campus has truly been a calling for me. It is who I am, not just what I do. I know what it feels like to be fortunate enough to find the type of university environment, mentors and role models that challenge and support you to achieve your potential. That awareness fuels my passion to help students thrive and succeed and to help universities create a holistic culture that makes that possible.

Tavia Gaddy 

Project Manager

Greenville Area Development Corporation 

Tavia C.M. Gaddy, is a project manager with the Greenville Area Development Corporation. She is responsible for marketing, recruiting and working with business prospects, both new and expanding, considering Greenville County. Since starting with GADC in 2005, Tavia has been involved in creating an announced 7,308 new jobs and over $731 million dollars of new capital investment into Greenville. She has assisted in the expansions and recruitment on behalf of Greenville County with recognizable names such as Samsung, W.W. Grainger, AVX, Tower Automotive, Fitesa, Proterra and Esurance. 

Tavia is the first African American to serve as economic development project manager on a community level in South Carolina's history. Prior to joining GADC, she served as a manager with the Community and Rural Development Division at the S.C. Department of Commerce. In that role, she was responsible for improving the economic competitiveness of rural South Carolina. She has also worked for the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, Wachovia Bank and Clear Channel Communications Inc. 

She received her B.A. in mass communications from Grambling State University and her master's in mass communications from the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the S.C. Economic Developers' Association and has earned a S.C. Certified Economic Developer (SCCED) status by completing the S.C. Economic Developers' Advanced Symposium. 

Tavia believes in the Honorable Shirley Chisholm's quote of "service is the rent that you pay for room on this earth" and is a volunteer with the Prisma Health-Upstate, Greenville County School District and United Way of Greenville and a member of the Junior League of Greenville and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. 

She has been married to Bernard Gaddy for over 10 years, and they reside in Simpsonville. 

How do I hope people will remember me? 

I hope people will remember me as a God-filled, thoughtful and compassionate leader committed to helping others. I hope that at the end of my home going they will say, "Well done!"

Who is my biggest fan? 

My biggest fan and critic is none other than the greatest person on earth, my Momma! I love her to the moon and back. 

If you could possess one superhuman power, what would it be?

If I could possess one superhuman power, it would be the ability to become invisible. I could go anywhere and hear everything. Talk about a competitive edge.

Derek McGowan 

Diversity Program Manager, Higher Education Institutions, Diversity & Inclusion 

Lockheed Martin

Derek McGowan has been with Lockheed Martin since 2001. Lockheed Martin is a national leader in global security, aerospace, systems integration, training and information technology.

A majority of Lockheed Martin's business is with the U.S. Department of Defense and federal agencies. He is the program manager for Higher Education Institutions, Global Diversity and Inclusion. Primary responsibilities include managing the multimillion-dollar portfolio for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). He drives the implementation of diversity and inclusion efforts in STEM programs, relationship building, student development and recruiting at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). 

Prior to his current role, Derek was the Lockheed Martin campus relations manager. He and his team managed a multimillion-dollar budget that directly impacted branding and securing talent for the multibillion-dollar corporation. He supported the company's commitments to campuses and student organizations that impacted recruiting efforts at both regional and national levels. Derek led and supported key meetings with campus presidents, deans, department chairs, faculty, staff, and student organizations and other critical contacts to build Lockheed Martin's image and brand as the premier Systems Integrator and "Employer of Choice."

Derek has worked in the recruiting profession for more than 33 years, which includes 17 years of diverse Air Force recruiting experience. 

He received an undergraduate degree from St. Leo University and has two classes to complete a dual Masters' degree in HR Management and Training and Development from Webster University. 

He is married to the former Deborah Martin of Los Angeles, and they have two adult children, a son in law, two grandsons and a beautiful granddaughter.

How do you think people will remember you? 

I believe that most people will remember me as someone who would go the extra mile to make sure the job was done, no matter how large or small the task was. 

I always put the needs of people ahead of my own personal needs, and God has always provided. My closest friends know that if I have it, they have it, and if I don't have it, I will work extra hard to help them get it. There is something great about seeing your hand extended to help someone in need and never looking back. 

Last but not least, people who know me also know that I am extremely sensitive to those who are less fortunate. I have an easy spirit that allows me to connect instantly. I want to be a fixer and serve others as much as possible.

Who is your biggest fan? 

My grandchildren are my biggest fans. I thank God for each one of them; they are so special. I love it when they come to the house and know that I have prepared a dinner just for them. The sound of laughter and their presence is priceless. They encourage me when they seek to be understood just as much as they seek to understand.

What is your greatest hope? 

My greatest hope is that someone that I have helped along the way gets to the top. I hope and pray that everyone that I have come in touch with sees enough Jesus in me to accept Him as their personal Savior as well. My hope is also for our black fathers start thinking more about the future of their children and grandchildren than they do about themselves. We must not lose the focus and be sidetracked by societal issues. Our children need us now more than ever before. If we don't engage them now, then when?

Ava Smith 

President & Owner

HR Specialties & Flat Fee Recruiting 

Ava Smith is a leader and entrepreneur in the Upstate of South Carolina. She holds a bachelors of science in human resource management from Limestone College and is a lifetime member of the Sigma Beta Delta Honor Society. She resides in Greenville with her children and her granddaughter. 

Ava Smith has over 20 years of experience as a human resources professional. Her experience includes employee relations, compliance, recruitment, retention and training. She began her career in the non-profit sector and shifted into manufacturing, the corporate arena and staffing. She progressively moved upward in her positions, serving a range of roles from HR assistant to serving as an HR director. 

In August, 2002, Ava began her own firm, HR Specialties, specializing in providing HR services, training, and recruiting. In 2010, she formed a permanent placement agency called Flat Fee Recruiting that has been recognized in business publications. Flat Fee Recruiting received the Minority Business of the Year Award in 2013 through the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. 

She is also a noted diversity trainer. She has delivered hundreds of sessions throughout the Southeast since 2005. Clients have included corporations, manufacturers, non-profits, service organizations, government officials, municipalities, universities, hospital systems, local chambers and faith-based organizations. 

She was the recipient of the 2015 Excellence in Diversity Award, given by the Greenville, S.C., Chapter of SHRM. 

In addition to making an impact through diversity training, she has served as a board member of The University Center of Greenville, Greenville Technical Charter High School, and Junior Achievement, Greenville, S.C. 

Who was the biggest influence in your career? 

The most notable influencer in my career is Susan Lill. She is an awesome human resources professional that served as my mentor for many years. She introduced me to the work of diversity and allowed me to co-facilitate hundreds of training sessions with her. It was her influence that exposed me to the value of diversity and inclusion that lies within every fabric of an organization. Afterward, I decided to become a diversity practitioner and have been a "change agent" for several years since. 

What accomplishment are you most proud of? 

My biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, is how I have chosen to overcome the challenges of being legally blind. I do not let my disability hinder my motivation to be the best at all I do. I believe that I am an example that you can do anything if you set your mind to it, even if you have to do it "differently." 

How do you think people will remember you?

I am told that my authenticity and transparency is refreshing and that my spirit is inviting. Although I think people will remember me for the works I have done, I am confident that they will remember the way I made them feel.

Lenny Gaines 

Pastor| Powerhouse Christian Church

CEO | L Gaines Enterprises LLC

Radio Personality | Rejoice 96.9

Pastor Lenny is known to his members, partners and radio audience as a fire-ball of encouragement and inspiration. Standing only 5'4" in stature, he's been coined as the little man with the big voice. 

Lenny was raised in the Upstate with a childhood dream of radio and media and a strong level of participation in ministry. Pastor Lenny is an example of God having ‘big plans" for those called according to His purpose. He serves as the founding senior pastor of PowerHouse Christian Church in Anderson. The church began with only three charter member,s and over the last 15 years has experienced growth in the hundreds. 

Pastor Lenny is a hardworking entrepreneur, being CEO of L Gaines Enterprises, LLC, the parent company of Expert Realty and Perpetual Real Estate School of South Carolina. He holds a masters in education and proudly attended Clemson University and University of Phoenix. He served thousands of young people during his time as a former teacher, instructional coach, and an interim principal appointment. One of his famous preaching/teaching mottos is "Make It Happen! 

Pastor Lenny can be heard weekdays, locally on Greenville's Inspiration Station, Rejoice! 96-9FM (10 a.m.-3 p.m.) and nationally on the syndicated radio show, "Sundays w/ Pastor Lenny & Comedian Akintunde," currently airing in 10 markets.

What is your definition of "happiness"?

Happiness for me is being totally connected to that which you are designed in this Earth to display and accomplish. We are all created with unique qualities that define our likeness, and for me, inspiring others, working in the world of real estate and traveling throughout this world spreading the Good News is what I'm purposed to do. I know this, assuredly, because whenever I'm in those three elements, I have the greatest passion and focus. One of the many mantras I carry throughout my walk is: No one can out pace me being me, so there's no reason for me to work so hard being something I was never called to be!

How do you think people will remember you?

Honestly, I pray that they will remember the energy, strength and joy that I display to the world daily. It's extremely rare to find me in a space of frustration, being overwhelmed or even without strategic direction because I realize life should be accomplished through a lens of acceptance. Times are filled with swift transition, so our mentalities and physical structure must be built in a posture of readiness to take on life as it's thrown to us. The old saying goes something like, "This is the hand you were dealt, so play it!" I have gone through enough personally, professionally and financially to make a sane man go crazy, but the testimony of my being is that it didn't take me out, it only took me down, so it's my duty to find the way back up!

2020 Greenville Business Magazine Black History Month Honorees

Pamela Bennett Askew, Relationship Manager, Events and Special Projects, United Way of Greenville County

Brittney Bracket, Operations Manager | b dynamic! Productions, Founder | The Outstanding Youth Awards

Vardy A. Freeman, Pastor | Popular Spring Baptist Church

Lenny Gaines, Paster | Powerhouse Christian Church, Broker-in-Charge & Owner | Expert Realty, Radio Personality | Rejoice 96.9

Lee Gill |Chief Diversity Officer & Special Assistant to the President for Inclusion & Equity | Clemson University

Michelle Hunt | Director of Supplier Diversity | Denny’s Corporation

Nyroba Leamon, Director of Programming | Phillis Wheatley Community Center, Artistic Director | Phillis Wheatley-Dwight Woods Repertory Theatre for Youth

Derek W. McGowan | Diversity Program Manager-Higher Education Institutions Global Diversity & Inclusion |Lockheed Martin

Darric Sewell | General Manager Sales & Marketing | Benson Automotive Spartanburg

Tavia Gaddy | Project Manager | Greenville Area Development Corporation

Ava Smith | President & Owner, HR Specialties & Flat Fee Recruiting