Dynamic diversity: The changing look of N.C. executive power

 In February 2021

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North Carolina’s executive suites are diversifying, our first list of power brokers from historically underserved communities shows. Look for the pace to accelerate.


Valecia McDowell’s path from east Charlotte’s Independence High School to a management committee post at Moore & Van Allen — the largest law firm based in North Carolina — is a rarity. But becoming its first Black female partner reflects the fulfillment of a goal that the late Bill Van Allen had when he co-founded the firm in 1951, she says.

“Bill wasn’t doing much legal work by then. But the day when I made partner, he was sitting in my office, holding a note that he had written,” McDowell says. “He told me how proud he was to have me as a partner. It meant so much to me that he would come to my office for that express purpose.”

McDowell credits her mother, who was a teacher, and other educators with giving her the confidence to excel. As a Duke University freshman, she was impressed but not intimidated with classmates who spent summers traveling to Europe or attending great education programs. “What I had was a lifetime with books, arts, imagination and the confidence my teachers had given me that I was as good as everyone around me.” She earned bachelor’s and law degrees at Duke before joining Moore & Van Allen in 1998.

Powerful positions in North Carolina’s business and professional communities are increasingly filled by people with diverse backgrounds, thereby becoming more reflective of the overall community. That’s clear from Business North Carolina’s report on many of the state’s top nonwhite leaders who are building significant companies or exerting major corporate clout.

We developed the list after asking for suggestions from various sources and reporting by our editorial team. While Black executives dominate, we also included Asian and Hispanic leaders. The list doesn’t include government and political officials.

Diversifying corporate America is a national priority, accelerating following last year’s death of George Floyd that sparked a national race-relations debate. Black employees held 3.3% of executive and senior management roles in the U.S. in 2018, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Fewer than 1% of the CEOs of America’s 500 largest companies are Black, while ethnic minorities overall made up 11%, The Wall Street Journal reported in September. One of them is CEO Marvin Ellison of Mooresville-based Lowe’s (Page 46.) Black people make up about 13% of the U.S. population.

A few people on the BNC list are prominent figures in North Carolina, including CEOs Ellison, Tunde Sotunde of Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Gene Woods of Atrium Health. Many others have lower-profile but critical roles in the ninth-most populous state.

“With all the turmoil, there’s been significant progress, and that should not be lost,” says Donald Thompson, CEO of the Raleigh-based Walk West digital-marketing company. “There are racial inequities and systemic racism, but there are also points of progress where your lantern can shine if you are doing great work.”

Thompson grew up in eastern North Carolina and dropped out of East Carolina University before graduating because he wanted to start making money.

A similar list of nonwhite powerbrokers 10 or 15 years ago would be much shorter, says Thompson, who has led two companies that were sold to larger firms. “That’s not because African Americans were not creating opportunities in business and pop culture and sports and life. But we’ve evolved to where there’s enough of a voice that we have an opportunity to let our talents shine.”

Many work for large companies, which underscores a concern of Walter Davis, co-founder of Peachtree Providence Partners, a private-equity and management advisory company in Charlotte and Atlanta. “How many really successful Black entrepreneurs do you know in Charlotte?” he asks. Davis previously had senior lending posts at Bank of America and Wachovia.

“We’ve done a decent job of diversifying the high-profile roles in the public sector,” he says. The Queen City’s mayor, police chief and city manager and Mecklenburg County’s commission chairman and public school superintendent are Black. “What we haven’t done is hit the economic inclusion piece, especially from an entrepreneurial level.”

The timing for ethnic executives to emerge may never have been better. After Floyd’s death on May 25, many companies issued statements pledging to boost their racial diversity and address injustice. The Nasdaq stock exchange is suggesting a rule change that would require its listed U.S. companies to have at least one director who identifies as an “underrepresented minority” or as LGBTQ+. The change also includes a requirement that an additional director be female. Most companies would have as many as two years to make the change.

None of the people interviewed say the path to power is easy. After paying $192.5 million to settle a race-discrimination class-action lawsuit in 2000, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola expanded its ratio of Black workers in executive posts from 1.5% in 1998 to 15% in 2010. The ratio then declined to 8% last year, despite big changes in its hiring, promotion and compensation practices, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

Likewise, the number of Black executives in Charlotte-based Bank of America’s executive ranks “did a lot of backsliding” after Hugh McColl Jr. left as CEO in 2001, despite significant efforts by his successors, Davis says.

Timing is a big factor. Davis left Wachovia in 2011 to help found CertusBank based in Greenville, S.C. The group of Black bankers raised $500 million and grew to $2 billion in assets with a couple of acquisitions but fizzled within four years amid dissension with its key investors. At the time, Davis says he concluded that “not everyone is pulling for you when you look like us.”

Had CertusBank survived, however, it could have been well positioned in the current environment in which many companies — and megabanks such as Bank of America — are creating partnerships to assist Black-owned financial institutions.

Moore & Van Allen’s McDowell says she’s gained the confidence to expand her influence in ways different from the Southern tradition of developing relationships through country club memberships and golfing dates.

“A lot of people encouraged me to blend into that world, but it’s not who I am,” she says. “I am not a golfer, and I don’t live in [Charlotte’s] Myers Park [neighborhood], I live in Plaza Midwood. I get the call because of the quality of work that I do and the way that I do it.”

For Thompson, invitations to be a conference panelist for major marketing and corporate director groups and a recent three-hour dinner with the CEO of a $2 billion revenue company suggest top executives are seeking diverse voices.

“More CEOs want to build great cultures, and they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history,” he says. “They understand that you need diversity of thought and multiple viewpoints at the table to create a better company.”

Profiles were written by:  Shannon Cuthrell, Vanessa Infanzon, Edward Martin, David Mildenberg, Michael Solender and Taylor Wanbaugh.

D. STEVE BOLAND


President of retail, Bank of America
Charlotte

After 30 years at the giant bank or its predecessor companies, Boland heads one of its eight lines of business, is on the executive management team, and is a vice chair of the Global Diversity and Inclusion Council. His unit serves 33 million U.S. consumers who borrow through mortgages, credit lines, credit cards and auto loans. His oversight includes the lending officers who support Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Private Bank clients.

Boland, 52, is a New York City native who earned a bachelor’s in organizational studies from Northwestern University. During his career, he has lived in many cities for a range of assignments including stints with Fleet Financial Group and Countrywide Financial, which were acquired by BofA. He has spent the last five years in Charlotte after moving from New York.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t depressed consumer interest in homebuying, says Boland, who has spent much of his career in mortgage-related roles. “Many first-time homebuyers are entering the market or considering it, and we are helping them through educational tools, grants and low down-payment loans in many markets. These trends have underscored our commitment to providing accessible digital tools, financial education and affordable resources to help consumers improve their financial lives.”

Boland represents BofA as a member of the Executive Leadership Council, a Washington, D.C.-based national group that promotes Black leadership in business. He is also chair of the Greater Charlotte Cultural Trust Board and serves on the National Urban League board of trustees.

Malcomb Coley

MALCOMB COLEY


EY central region growth market leader, Charlotte managing partner, Ernst & Young
Charlotte

Goldsboro native Coley developed an interest in accounting while in high school, which led to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from UNC Wilmington. He’s been with Ernst & Young, an international accounting firm, for 17 years and oversees approximately 1,700 professionals across tax, assurance, strategy and transaction advisory. The company’s 200,000 clients in 150 countries include 84% of the Fortune Global 500. Coley’s focus is on mining and minerals, manufacturing, retail, consumer products and distribution companies. As central region growth market leader, he’s engaged with entrepreneurial companies, family enterprises, and businesses backed by venture capitalists and private equity.

Coley, 55, also has a full slate of civic gigs. He’s in line to be chair of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance in 2022 and was appointed to the North Carolina Ports Authority in 2020 by Gov. Roy Cooper. He’s also involved with the United Way of Central Carolinas and advisory boards of the business schools at UNC Charlotte and UNC Wilmington. In late 2020, he joined with former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. and former Duke Energy executive Lloyd Yates to form Bright Hope Capital, which plans to invest in Black and Hispanic-owned companies in the Charlotte area.

On PBS’ Roadtrip Nation program, Coley was quoted: “There is nothing wrong with saying these three words: ‘I don’t know.’ We don’t expect everybody to know everything. But be willing to work hard to get to the point where you do know.”

Todd Collins

TODD COLLINS


CEO, Red Hill Ventures
Charlotte

The Houston native started his real estate and technology investment company in 2005 after working for nine years at the Accenture consulting firm, where he advised clients on business strategy, change management and business processes. A Charlotte resident for 12 years, Collins has made real estate investments in North Carolina, Maryland, Texas and Washington, D.C. Collins developed Red Hill Capital as an “angel investor” fund to support assets historically overlooked by other groups. In particular, he looks for minority- and founder-led businesses, he says. “Our typical investment shows promise and is undercapitalized or undermanaged, and we come in with great management and an operational focus on the long term. Ours is patient money.”

A recent acquisition is The City Kitch, a shared commercial kitchen operation that Collins refers to as a “WeWork” for food entrepreneurs. The City Kitch has two locations in Charlotte and another coming in Greensboro. “How we consume food will change through technology, and our business model is well positioned to play a large role in these shifts,” he says. Collins, 47, has a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College and an MBA from George Washington University.

Walter Davis

WALTER DAVIS


Founding member, Peachtree Providence Partners
Charlotte

Davis’ inspiration to become a businessman came from his grandfather, Leroy Davis, who owned a grocery store, service station and cemetery, he told a Greenville, S.C., newspaper in 2011. After graduating from the University of South Carolina, Davis worked in Charlotte for Bank of America’s real estate syndicated lending unit and later Wachovia as an executive vice president of retail credit and direct lending.

In 2011, he joined with three other veteran Black executives from Wachovia and BofA to form a holding company and raise $500 million with a goal of building CertusBank into a $5 billion-asset, Greenville-based institution within two or three years. A series of rapid acquisitions, including taking over some institutions that failed during the 2007-09 recession, helped CertusBank reach $2 billion. But steady losses prompted dissension with the bank’s investors and Davis’ departure in 2014. CertusBank liquidated a year later.

Davis, 56, then joined former CertusBank partners Milton Jones and Angela Webb to build Peachtree Providence Partners, a management-consulting and private-investment firm with offices in Atlanta and Charlotte. Davis works with boards and management teams to improve performance, gaining a particular expertise in Opportunity Zone investments that target economically distressed areas. A focus of the firm is helping build minority businesses, which Davis says often requires a strong commitment from CEOs of larger companies and government purchasing officers.

Sri Donthi

SRI DONTHI


Executive vice president, chief technology officer, Advance Auto Parts
Raleigh

Originally from Hyderabad, India, Donthi came to the Raleigh-based retailer in 2018 to lead the organization through a major business and technology transformation. He’s a member of the company’s executive leadership committee and responsible for Advance’s overall IT organization, technology platforms and strategic initiatives. Prior to joining Advance, Donthi held several leadership positions at PepsiCo during his nearly decadelong tenure there, including chief information officer and senior vice president of Frito-Lay North America. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from India’s Osmania University, a master’s degree in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology, and an MBA from Northwestern University.

“CIO’s are in a unique position when it comes to helping businesses unlock growth,” Donthi said at a recent National Association of Software and Service Companies conference. “There are enormous opportunities in cognitive computing, leveraging [big] data, and learning from it.”

Since joining Advance, Donthi says, his team has modernized the company’s legacy technology platform. “Technology is at the helm of everything we do. … We are building engineering talent, culture and bringing ‘tech’ into our technology organization. Over the last few years, we’ve seen customers increasingly shift to e-commerce for purchases, a trend that has accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic began and one I think will continue in the longer term. As a result, we have continued to invest in and prioritize new digital capabilities to benefit our customers.”

Derek Ellington

DEREK ELLINGTON


Triad market president, mid-South business banking executive, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Greensboro

Ellington was the voice of experience when he recently described his bank’s million-dollar pledge to N.C. A&T State University as a step toward “dynamic careers.” He’s had one.

Not long after, other A&T alumni again popped up in prominent national roles, including Michael Regan, nominated by President Joe Biden to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Ebony Thomas, who was named late last year to head BofA’s racial equality and economic opportunity initiatives.

Ellington, 50, has risen to a prominent role in a region that encompasses Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem, with more than 1,600 BofA employees. He has inserted himself deeply in civic affairs in a career that is both dynamic and built on solid ground.

He earned degrees in computer science and business administration from Alabama’s Troy University in 1992 and a master’s in international business from Birmingham-Southern College. He later completed the North Carolina Bankers Association three-year banking school at UNC Chapel Hill and graduated from Leadership North Carolina.

His community involvement has also been hands-on. Ellington is secretary-treasurer of East Greensboro Now, the city’s effort to improve economic opportunity, housing and other aspects of life in one of its stressed communities. He is a former chair of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and Guilford County Economic Development Alliance. He’s married with four children.

His supervisors have recognized Ellington’s efforts, awarding him the 2017 Bank of America Global Diversity and Inclusion Award.

Marvin Ellison

MARVIN ELLISON


CEO, Lowe’s
Mooresville

The first Black person to be CEO of two Fortune 500 companies, the Brownsville, Tenn., native is enjoying terrific success at the giant home-improvement retailer. Lowe’s shares have increased more than 60% since he became CEO in July 2018 and had a mid-January market valuation of $120 billion.

Born to sharecroppers, Ellison, 55, held convenience store and janitorial jobs while paying his tuition at the University of Memphis. He then spent 15 years at Target, working up to a corporate job before moving to Home Depot for 14 years. His last post was as executive vice president of U.S. stores. He left the Atlanta-based company after he wasn’t chosen as CEO and took the top post at J.C. Penney in August 2015. He had little success reviving the troubled department-store chain before he was named Lowe’s top executive.

In his first two years in North Carolina, Ellison boosted the number of Black employees with titles of vice president or higher from eight to 15. He also has invested heavily in improving the company’s digital offerings. With more consumers opting to avoid stores because of the pandemic, Lowe’s online sales have more than doubled in the first three quarters of the 2021 fiscal year.

One of four Black CEOs on the Fortune 500 list of largest U.S. companies as of late 2020, Ellison has consistently urged other corporate leaders to fight racism. “I didn’t have to see the horrific murder of George Floyd to understand that there was racial injustice in America,” he said at a conference last year. “I live it every day.”

Frank Emory Jr

FRANK EMORY JR.


Executive vice president, chief legal officer, Novant Health
Charlotte

Emory is an example of leadership emerging from adversity. He grew up in Wilson in the 1960s when the tobacco town was foundering as real estate, banking and job opportunities slipped away. Decades later, he has left a major imprint on the state’s public and private affairs.

After a lengthy legal career at large Charlotte law firms, Emory joined Winston-Salem-based Novant Health in early 2019. CEO Carl Armato said he hired Emory because “he has more than 30 years in practice, with extensive experience in the financial services industry, as well as publicly traded and privately held companies.”

Now, Emory oversees Novant’s risk management, legal affairs and government relations at the fast-growing hospital system, which posted $5.4 billion in revenue in 2019.

Emory is also a civic leader, having been appointed board chairman of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, the state’s primary economic-recruiting agency, in 2017.

Before moving to Novant, he was managing partner of the Charlotte office of Hunton Andrews Kurth and is a past president of the Mecklenburg County Bar. He spent eight years on the N.C. Board of Transportation and has been chosen a top lawyer by several publications, including Business North Carolina.

Emory is a 1979 graduate of Duke University, majoring in public policy and economics as an Angier B. Duke Scholar — that’s the school’s top academic scholarship. He later earned a law degree at UNC Chapel Hill. On the personal front, he’s married and has two sons and in 2001 received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest civic honor.

Geoff Foster

GEOFF FOSTER


CEO, owner, Core Technology Molding
Greensboro

Connections literally explain how the N.C. A&T State University graduate has copped awards for entrepreneurship while building a 30-employee plastics company into a burgeoning supplier for automotive, pharmaceutical, medical and other industries.

Foster’s injection-molded electrical connector, for which he and his former employer share a patent, has been used in more than 31 million vehicles built by Ford Motor. “They owned all the rights,” he says, which convinced him that he should create his own company. It wasn’t easy.

Five frustrating years lapsed after he got the Ford connector patent, but his commitment to founding his own business remained solid. “I didn’t want to go to my family and friends to borrow, so we used what money my wife and I saved up and tried to get a loan,” he says. “It was tough. It was always like, ‘How many customers do you have?’ and the answer was that we were a startup. Then crickets.”

Originally from Freehold, N.J., Foster came to Greensboro to attend N.C. A&T. He married Greensboro native and nursing student Tonya Oliver, which anchored him in North Carolina. They have a daughter, a Clemson University graduate and high school teacher in Charleston, S.C., and son at A&T who has a baseball scholarship.

Between receiving his first patent in 1999 and starting Core Technology in 2006, Foster was an operations manager at Becton Dickinson’s Durham manufacturing plant. “That’s how I learned clean-room, medical-sterile technology.” He also earned a Wake Forest University MBA.

Foster’s business has grown to include clients in 150 countries such as BMW USA Manufacturing Group and its 11,000-employee plant in Greer, S.C. “We’re making parts — connectors — for every X3 and X4 in the world,” he says, citing BMW’s biggest-selling SUV models. Other high-profile clients are Hewlett-Packard and Merck & Co., for whom Core makes millions of plastic plungers for syringes. It’s the kind of product Foster hopes to cash in on as drugmakers produce coronavirus vaccines.

Already, Core Technology is working multiple shifts in its 30,000-square-foot new plant, an anchor tenant at the Gateway Research Park joint venture of UNC Greensboro and N.C. A&T. “We’re working around the clock and worked 350 days last year,” he says.

Foster was named Launch Greensboro’s entrepreneur of the year for 2019, has twice been chosen as minority supplier of the year by the Carolinas-Virginia Minority Supplier Development Council and recently was chosen as Southeast Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, which cited the company’s ability to “pivot quickly during COVID-19.”

Michimasa Fujino

MICHIMASA FUJINO


President, Honda Aircraft
Greensboro

It’s not the biggest employer — nearby repair and maintenance operator Haeco Americas has 2,100 people — but Honda Aircraft isn’t far behind with 1,500, and few will dispute it puts the glamour in the Triad’s bustling aviation industry. It was Fujino, 60, whose original pencil sketches for his HondaJet have turned into a remarkable success for the Japanese company.

Fujino may be best remembered by his high school classmates for his pingpong skills. But he gave up a potential pro career and graduated from the University of Tokyo with an aeronautical engineering degree in 1984. He soon landed a post as chief engineer and then project manager for HondaJet a few years later.

Already, he was playing with the idea for a fast, relatively inexpensive light business jet in the back of his mind. One day, he says, in a fit of inspiration, he tore the back off a calendar and began sketching. What emerged was a sports car of the air with its twin engines mounted on stalks above the wings that looked essentially like today’s $4 million-plus, 450-mph HondaJet.

Honda already had a small-engine plant in nearby Alamance County, so Fujino steered the fledgling Honda Aircraft to nearby Piedmont Triad International Airport when corporate headquarters authorized commercial production of the jet in 2004.

Today, more than 150 jets have rolled off the assembly line, and Fujino has rolled up numerous awards, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Aircraft Design Award. (He was the first designer of Asian descent to get it.) The plane has won such honors as the Foundation Award for Excellence from the same organization.

Fujino hasn’t forgotten his past, however. In the conference room of his Greensboro office, when staff meetings are held, members meet around a pingpong table.

Kimberly Bullock Gatling

KIMBERLY BULLOCK GATLING


Partner, chief diversity and inclusion officer, Fox Rothschild
Greensboro

Gatling is a household name in Triad legal and civic affairs. She’s been recognized with several esteemed titles such as the Citizen Lawyer Award by the North Carolina Bar Association, Outstanding Woman of the Profession Award by the Women’s Law Association at Elon Law School, and the Distinguished Advocate Award by the Guilford County Association of Black Lawyers. She is a member of Business North Carolina’s Legal Elite for intellectual property law. She grew up in Hampton, Va., then earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at N.C. A&T State University, where her father was a graduate. She later earned a law degree from George Washington University and joined Greensboro-based Smith Moore Leatherwood in 2001 after working for two years at another firm. Smith Moore combined with the 950-attorney Fox Rothschild firm in 2018.

Outside the courtroom, Gatling, 46, serves as chair of the board of the United Way of Greater Greensboro and vice chair of the Cone Health Foundation board. She also serves as a trustee for N.C. A&T, where she formerly chaired the board of visitors. She also taught public law and leadership at Elon University Law School as an adjunct professor from 2014-16.

Robert Harrington

ROBERT HARRINGTON


Partner, Robinson Bradshaw
Charlotte

Having chaired his firm’s litigation department since 2015, the Florence, S.C., native spends most of his time representing clients on various complex disputes. He joined Robinson Bradshaw in 1999 after earning undergraduate and law degrees from Duke University and working for a large New Orleans law firm. Harrington, 58, is on the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion and Recruiting committees.

He’s developed a specialty in representing consumer-finance companies and earned many industry kudos, including N.C. Lawyer of the Year from the N.C. Lawyers Weekly publication. He’s also active in civic affairs, formerly chairing the Charlotte Arts & Science Council, Mecklenburg County Bar (he was the fifth Black president in the bar’s history) and the county’s public library board. For many years, he’s been a board member of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national nonprofit organization that has recently focused on promoting equal opportunity voting.

Kodwo Ghartey-Tagoe

KODWO GHARTEY-TAGOE


Chief legal officer, executive vice president, Duke Energy
Charlotte

The first case that Ghartey-Tagoe was assigned in 1988 after leaving Duke University Law School was assisting a group of North Carolina cities in suing Carolina Power & Light over cost overruns at its Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant in Wake County.

More than 30 years later, Ghartey-Tagoe, 57, is chief legal officer at CP&L’s successor company, Duke Energy, ranking among the most powerful executives at the giant utility. No one holds a grudge, he says with a laugh.

He became the Charlotte-based company’s top lawyer in October 2019, having joined the company in 2002 as chief regulatory counsel. At that time, Duke was investing heavily in less-regulated energy businesses that appeared to have more potential than the traditional utility business. After the collapse of energy-trading powerhouse Enron showed the risks of deregulated energy investments and a series of leadership and industry changes, Duke has shifted over the years back to a concentration on its regulated businesses that keep the lights on in six states.

Ghartey-Tagoe has kept it interesting by shifting to the litigation department, returning to his original focus as vice president for state regulatory and legal affairs, then serving as South Carolina state president for nearly three years before taking his current post. Running Duke’s business in the Palmetto State was probably his most fun job, he says, because he got to see how so many people and businesses were affected by the utility’s work.

“It’s been the honor of my life to be part of all that Duke has done since I got here,” he says. “We have a mission that I truly believe in.”

Assuring reliable electricity is more than a slogan for Ghartey-Tagoe, who grew up in Ghana. His mother lives in a small city in the African country where outages remain a constant problem. Ghana has 4,400 megawatts of energy capacity serving 28 million people. By comparison, Duke Energy owns 33,000 megawatts of energy capacity in the Carolinas, serving 8.6 million people.

Among his current challenges is working to change North Carolina’s utility regulatory approach, which tends to be more restrictive than in other states in allowing Duke to recover costs from new capital investments that promise environmental benefits. A wide-ranging group of private and public officials are holding talks about the issue.

“We get criticized for not moving fast enough, and we get criticized for our rates being too high,” he says. “The regulatory construction in the Carolinas needs some modernization.”

The son of a journalist, Ghartey-Tagoe earned a bachelor’s degree at Canada’s McGill University before moving to North Carolina to attend Duke. He worked on utility regulatory issues for law firms in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va., before joining Duke. He and his wife, Phyllis, have three grown daughters who are graduates of Davidson College, Rice University and Vanderbilt University.

For many years, Duke has challenged its outside law firms to add more diversity to their ranks, Ghartey-Tagoe says. The utility grades firms on various metrics and has reduced assignments or dropped firms entirely for not meeting its standards.

“I firmly believe a diverse group of people will come up with a better solution than a nondiverse group. It’s a matter of using all the resources and talent available to come up with the best solutions.”

Nasser Hassan

NASSER HASSAN


CEO, Breakthrough BioAssets; COO, Atsena Therapeutics
Raleigh

Hassan is the founder and CEO of Raleigh-based life science and health IT firm Breakthrough BioAssets. The company licenses and develops science and technology assets, and its holdings include Raleigh startup InnovaAi and Cary-based PharmaBio.

Hassan also is chief operating officer for Durham-based Atsena Therapeutics, a clinical-stage gene-therapy startup focused on reversing or preventing blindness. In December 2020, the company raised $55 million for clinical trials related to a therapy for a leading cause of blindness in children. The investment led by Sofinnova Investments will also fund a manufacturing unit and expand research for other therapies, trials and technology.

Hassan brings more than 30 years of experience to his current roles, including past jobs as global head of regulatory operations at Merck KGaA, senior director of regulatory affairs at AstraZeneca, and chief operating officer at Pfizer subsidiary Bamboo Therapeutics. He also held senior roles at VIRxSYS, Gilead and GSK. In 2008, Hassan founded RegSource Consulting, focusing on biopharmaceuticals, medical devices and generic industries.

Hassan is also the executive director of the Foundation for Commercializing Innovation, which partners with companies, nonprofit organizations and governments on global health innovation and policy initiatives.

Terrence and Torry Holt

TERRENCE AND TORRY HOLT


Co-founders, Holt Brothers Construction
Raleigh

The brothers, who grew up in Gibsonville, have followed up their football success with a growing construction business. Torry, 44, who played football for N.C. State University and the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots, founded Raleigh-based Holt Brothers Construction with his brother Terrence, 40. Terrence, another N.C. State alumni, played for the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints. Torry serves as vice president, while Terrence is president. Holt Brothers, which has 26 employees, has grown significantly over the last decade. Recent projects include the $65 million City of Raleigh Central Communications Center and the $58 million Raleigh Union Station.

The Holt brothers’ mother, Ojetta Holt-Shoffner, battled cancer for 10 years before passing away in 1996, inspiring the pair to start the nonprofit Holt Brothers Foundation, which supports children who have a parent with cancer. Holt Brothers Construction has also made significant donations to several local organizations such as Boys & Girls Club of Durham and Orange Counties, Communities in Schools of North Carolina, Meredith Autism Program, Eastern Guilford High School, Gibsonville Elementary School, and Gibsonville Parks & Recreation. Torry is a finalist in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021, which will be named on Feb. 6.

Timothy Humphrey

TIMOTHY HUMPHREY


Vice president, IBM Chief Data Office; senior state executive, IBM in N.C.; senior location executive, IBM Research Triangle Park
Durham

The Fayetteville native’s first round at IBM started in 1995 while he was an electrical engineering student at N.C. State University. He initially worked as a technical support professional, then gained product engineering and software-development manager roles. In 2005, Humphrey joined Lenovo following its acquisition of IBM’s personal computing division. There, he managed software development and battery technology teams.

Humphrey, 47, rejoined IBM in 2011, managing strategy for the integrated supply chain team, then holding executive vice president positions focused on analytics for IBM’s enterprise services and chief data offices. In 2018, he became vice president of IBM’s Chief Data Office, where he leads more than 100 professionals worldwide to build IBM’s data and artificial intelligence backbone. The team also works on the Cognitive Enterprise Data Platform, which provides real-time insights on the company’s applications for more than 100,000 IBM analysts, data scientists and others.

As senior state and site executive for IBM’s North Carolina and RTP operations, Humphrey develops executive relationships with state and local governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations and academic institutions. The company’s RTP site is IBM’s biggest North American employee base. Last year, the company named him its Senior Location Executive of the year, while the NC Tech Association also gave him its Tech Executive of the Year honor.

During the pandemic, Humphrey chaired IBM’s local crisis-management team response and employee-safety initiatives and led an expanded amenities program — including providing free snacks and beverages in the workplace. The result was a solid improvement in employee engagement.

This year, Humphrey and a team of IBM employees worked on an automated alert service that assesses supply chain risks and identifies threats in about 25,000 supply chain data centers and IBM sites worldwide. Though developed for internal use, the project has expanded to nonprofit organizations including Save the Children and North Carolina’s Day One Disaster Relief.

As a member of IBM’s Black Executive Council, Humphrey leads a corporate-wide initiative to eliminate culturally offensive or discriminatory terminology in the company’s learning, videos and documentation guides. Humphrey has hosted discussions on social justice and racial issues in America. “As an engineer at heart, I tend to look at it all from a scientific perspective: We need to consider the root cause of the problem, develop and apply hypotheses, and measure results,” Humphrey said. “Combining that way of working with a collaboration between business and government, we can help bring real, actionable change.”

Humphrey is a member of N.C. State’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Alumni Hall of Fame.

Cornelius “CC” Lamberth

CORNELIUS “CC” LAMBERTH


CEO, C2 Contractors
Greensboro

Computers are the brains, but Lamberth’s cabling company, Greensboro-based C2 Contractors, creates the nervous systems without which they’re high-tech paperweights. Electronics and computer technology were his passions when he graduated from N.C. A&T State University in 1989, but he quickly found room for another.

CC Lamberth has crusaded for minority business and industry for a quarter of a century. He helped create and has headed N.C. A&T’s advisory board of visitors, and he’s a member of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Advisory Council on Historically Underutilized Businesses.

His company, which includes a general contracting branch, is certified as an historically underutilized business with the state of North Carolina and as a minority business enterprise by Greensboro. It also holds small-business and disadvantaged-business enterprise certifications with the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Such certifications underscore the leg-up status minority businesses often need, he told a Greensboro conference last year, because they face difficulty getting financing and are sometimes stymied by local governments. They often must overcome the tendency of potential clients to do business with contractors like themselves – often non-minority.
“The system itself is not set up to do business with Black people,” Lamberth told Triangle Business Journal.

Lamberth has served as an executive-board member of the Greensboro Chamber and chairman of the local NAACP’s economic development committee.

It’s been 25 years since Lamberth founded CoMor Corp., the forerunner of today’s C2 Contractors, he says. With a history of such clients as Hewlett-Packard, he says, his company holds itself accountable for the “quality of our work and the results we achieve.”

Karen LeVert

KAREN LEVERT


Venture partner, Pappas Capital
Durham

LeVert is a longtime leader in the Triangle’s startup scene. In early 2020, she joined Durham-based Pappas Capital, an investment firm focused on life-sciences companies spanning biotech, biopharma, drug delivery, medical devices and other technologies. The firm formed in 1994 by Managing Partner Art Pappas wanted LeVert to expand its specialized fund management business.

LeVert brought lots of business experience to Pappas. In 2003, she co-founded Southeast TechInventures, an innovation lab focused on bringing university-developed technologies to market.

LeVert started the organization with Kristina Johnson, the former dean of Duke University’s School of Engineering who is president of Ohio State University. Southeast TechInventures has several portfolio companies, including development-stage protein therapy firm Lindy Biosciences, along with a few exits, such as Advanced Liquid Logic, sold to Illumina in 2013.

LeVert came to North Carolina during a 15-year career at Nationwide Insurance, where she started as a computer programmer. She worked through a variety of posts, including leading a 500-employee service center in Raleigh. She later bought the franchise rights to a bioremediation firm, which she sold in 2001. She then joined San Francisco-based startup Level Edge, a recruiting service for high school athletes that raised $10 million during the late ’90s tech boom but later fizzled. She also ran a business development consultancy before starting Southeast TechInventures, where she remains president.

In 2014, LeVert launched Ag TechInventures, which focuses on commercializing research and technology in the agbiotech, infotech and precision agriculture markets. The company consults industry partners on promising candidates for spinoffs and assists with raising funding. Its spinoffs include Biotality, which develops sustainable crop protection products, and Edison Agrosciences, focused on alternative rubber crops.

An Ohio native with a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University and an MBA from the University of Dayton, LeVert is also a board member for the N.C. Biotechnology Center, the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, the N.C. School of Science and Math, and the NC IDEA Foundation.

Kenneth Lewis

KENNETH LEWIS


Member, attorney, Nexsen Pruet
Raleigh

Lewis, 59, has been a trailblazer in the North Carolina legal community. After earning a bachelor’s at Duke University and graduating from Harvard Law School, he worked as a law clerk for Associate Justice Henry E. Frye of the N.C. Supreme Court. He was hired in 1987 as the first Black lawyer at Charlotte’s Moore & Van Allen, the state’s largest law firm. He later co-founded his own firm and worked for another big N.C. firm before joining Nexsen Pruet in 2014. The firm has more than 180 attorneys at eight offices in the Carolinas. Lewis has worked with companies in various industries such as financial services, health care, insurance, manufacturing and technology.

Highlighting women and people of color in his profession is a priority for Lewis, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010. “[I am] assuring that highly skilled diverse and female attorneys receive their fair share of opportunities to display their brilliance and value-add in serving clients,” he says, “and contributing their perspective and experience to complex problem-solving.”

In a December Triangle Business Journal column, Lewis urged N.C. businesses and citizens to do an “economic apartheid audit” to assess whether they are using Black professionals or supporting Black-owned businesses. “How can Black people achieve significant economic progress if those with 10 times their wealth fail to do business with them?” Lewis wrote.

James Li

JAMES LI


Founder, CEO, Cellex
Research Triangle Park

With decades of experience in medical-diagnostic technology development, Li, 59, was quick to jump into action at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. His Research Triangle Park-based company, Cellex, developed a rapid test to detect the presence of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Cellex’s antibody test was the first of its kind to secure an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

Li, who earned a Ph.D. in genetics and cell biology from Washington State University, founded Cellex in 2002 to develop instruments and assays for point-of-care diagnostics. Eighteen years later, the company has developed rapid tests for influenza detection and other major viruses and blood tests. The company has partnered with California-based medtech firm Gauss to launch a COVID-19 rapid antigen test.

In 2009, Li co-founded Avioq, a Research Triangle Park-based diagnostic-device manufacturer and contract organization that markets virus diagnostic assays. In 2016, the company was acquired by China-based Oriental Ocean Sci-tech for $65 million.

Prior to Cellex and Avioq, Li worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a regulatory scientist for the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

Gina Loften

GINA LOFTEN


Chief technology officer, Microsoft Corporation US
Raleigh

A star alumnus of Greensboro’s N.C. A&T State University, Loften has spent her career at two tech powerhouses. After about 27 years at IBM, she moved to rival Microsoft in September 2019 as chief technology officer for the company’s U.S. Enterprise Services unit. In her current post, which she assumed last July, her work includes operating 15 Microsoft Technology Centers in the U.S. that help customers envision how to deploy the company’s products and services, she told a Colorado technology group last year. Her team “helps customers reimagine their business and achieve successful outcomes and delivers on the promise of digital transformation across their enterprise,” according to a company bio. Loften’s many posts at IBM included leading global initiatives for its Watson artificial intelligence and natural learning program and helping small and large businesses, universities, and others develop apps on the system. She also was chief technology officer for IBM’s North American Consulting Services and Hybrid Cloud.

An electrical engineering graduate of N.C. A&T, she has served on the boards of the George Mason Research Foundation, N.C. Museum of Life and Science and Rise Against Hunger. She has written articles on how artificial intelligence can improve the mental health of veterans and the true value of data for government use. Loften has described herself as a “passionate diversity and inclusion leader.”

Valecia McDowell

VALECIA MCDOWELL


Management committee member, Moore & Van Allen
Charlotte

When she joined in 1998, McDowell was the only Black female lawyer at the largest law firm based in the city. She’s made a big mark earning key leadership roles at the firm and in the community. McDowell, 47, heads the firm’s White Collar, Regulatory Defense and Investigations practice.

Her assignments include leading a team of 80 people to provide risk analysis for a big bank, representing companies affiliated with convicted Durham insurance company owner Greg Lindberg and overseeing the sexual harassment investigation of a Charlotte City Council member. She’s also a founding member of Moore & Van Allen’s diversity committee.

With bachelor’s and law degrees from Duke University, McDowell is also a key civic leader, chairing the board of the Charlotte Arts and Science Council and previously serving as general counsel for the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance. She’s a trustee of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Foundation Board and is on the Charlotte Center City 2040 Vision Plan Steering Committee. She earned the Julius L. Chambers Diversity Champion Award in 2017 from the Mecklenburg County Bar and was also recognized on the Lawyers of Color “Nation’s Best” list in 2019.

“Yes, we want to create environments where everyone feels included,” McDowell said in a Business North Carolina report last year. “And yes, we want to create environments that mirror the overall population. But the actual outcomes of the work will be so much better if you have people who are bringing those different lived experiences to the table. To me, that’s really what matters for our business model beyond the fact that it’s just plain the right thing to do.”

Tino McFarland

TINO MCFARLAND


CEO, president, McFarland Construction
Charlotte

The Indiana native launched the Charlotte-based construction firm in 2010 with his wife, Tamara. Ten years later, 45 employees report to the Charlotte office and McFarland, 45, holds an unlimited general contractor’s license in seven states.

The company has offices in Fayetteville and Virginia Beach with clients including Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties, Central Piedmont Community College, UNC Charlotte and Virginia Tech. The company helped build Novant Health’s $166 million Heart & Vascular Institute, a seven-story building on the system’s main Charlotte campus.

Through his role as a business owner, he wants to remove gaps in inclusion and disparity. “Community, commitment and collaboration drive everything we do at McFarland Construction,” he says. “These three key considerations align our behaviors, influence our business strategy and enhance how we show up in the marketplace.”

McFarland graduated from Purdue University and earned an MBA at Indiana University. He has participated in the Bank of America Supplier Development Training, Bell Leadership Institute and Leadership Charlotte and supports several organizations including the Architecture Construction Engineering Mentor Program and the National Black MBA Association. The McFarlands have three children and are members of the local chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a nonprofit organization assisting African American children.

Damian Mills

DAMIAN MILLS


Owner, Mills Automotive Group
Pineville

As a student at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro in the early 1990s, Mills went looking for summer work. Jobs selling cars were plentiful, so he walked from dealer to dealer along Wendover Avenue because he didn’t have his own vehicle. Finally, Crown Dodge gave him a chance.

Mills was good at it. Good enough that his Mills Automotive Group, with more than a dozen Ford, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Nissan and Hyundai dealerships, was chosen as Black Enterprise magazine’s Auto Dealer of the Year last year. The magazine says the Pineville-based chain is the nation’s fifth-largest Black-owned auto dealership, with more than $470 million in sales at outlets in the Carolinas and other states.

The Louisiana native, 47, came to North Carolina to attend A&T, where he majored in business economics and graduated in 1995. He says he had a knack for sales, but Crown Automotive Group figured his talents lay elsewhere. He was quickly promoted to finance and insurance manager and, in 1998 at age 25, he became a partner in Crown Dodge. Two years later, after Greensboro businessman Royce Reynolds sold a majority stake in Crown Automotive to Duluth, Ga.-based Asbury Automotive, Mills became sales director for 22 dealerships.

His climb to the top ranks of U.S. minority dealership owners began in 2004 when he bought a Ford dealership in Smithfield. Mills Automotive has grown steadily since with its brands including Chrysler, Jeep, Ram, Ford, Lincoln, Kia and Chevrolet, among others. Mills is a former president of the Chrysler Minority Dealers Association.

Mills was appointed last year to the board of visitors at High Point University, where two of his three children are graduates. He has a reputation as a details manager but also a risk-taker who continued expanding during the 2008 recession. One of his employees says he breaks the mold of a CEO of a business pulling in a half-billion dollars in sales a year. Stuffy? “That’s not him,” he says.

Pam Oliver

PAM OLIVER


Executive vice president, Novant Health
Winston-Salem

The Rocky Mount native learned a lot while spending summers on her grandfather’s farm, but mostly that she didn’t intend to wind up on the business end of a hoe in steamy tobacco and cucumber fields. Instead, she cultivated educational and health care credentials that led to being named president of Novant Health’s 2,500-member physician network in 2019.

The not-for-profit enterprise has more than 30,000 employees and 15 medical centers in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, serving 4 million patients annually. It expects to complete its purchase of New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington this year, pushing its annual revenue to about $7 billion.

Oliver, 46, and her husband, Mark, have three children. She says she grew up wanting to attend UNC Chapel Hill to study medicine. After excelling in high school in Rocky Mount, she received Morehead-Cain and Board of Governors scholarships. In her junior year, family tragedy gave her even greater motivation: Her father was diagnosed with fatal leukemia, and his care reinforced her desire to go into medicine.

She graduated in 1996 with a biology degree, followed up in 2000 with a master’s in public health and a medical degree in 2001. She completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Wake Forest School of Medicine. That work and her own parenting has been essential training, she says, providing perspective on down-to-earth basics such as breastfeeding and the difficulty in obtaining child care.

She started her practice at Novant Health’s WomanCare in 2005 and has risen in the system’s leadership while maintaining a high profile in community affairs. She’s chair of the Forsyth County Infant Mortality Reduction Coalition and a member of the UNC Chapel Hill board of visitors.

Tony Parham

TONY PARHAM


Vice president of innovation and strategy, Fidelity Center for Applied Technology
Durham

Since moving from Boston five years ago to join Fidelity’s big Research Triangle Park operation, Parham has helped the investment giant’s Center for Applied Technology take on innovative projects and new business opportunities. The center works with the Fidelity Labs incubator to study emerging technologies and socioeconomic trends that can boost the company’s growth and improve customer satisfaction. He also has managed a program for employee patent filings.

Earlier in his career, Parham worked for Crosstech Ventures, IBM and Lotus Development. Before joining Fidelity, Parham worked for three-and-a-half years as Massachusetts’ first government innovation officer after being hired by former Gov. Deval Patrick. A key project included improving the data warehouse for the state’s health and human services offices with a $1 million investment yielding a $9.8 million return in the first year and $7 million annually thereafter, state officials have said. The broader benefit was infusing new thinking and attracting talented staffers to state government, he says.

Parham has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s in management from MIT, along with a master’s in computer science from the University of Southern California. He is a board member at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development and William Peace University. His wife, Lynda Morris Parham, is a psychologist who operates a private practice.

Craig Parkin

CRAIG PARKIN


Senior managing director, Atlantic South Regional GM | Institutional Relationships, TIAA
Charlotte

The Long Island native started at Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America in 2004, ranking among the top leaders at the New York-based company’s big Charlotte operation. Parkin, 48, served on TIAA’s Charlotte Leadership Council and is the executive sponsor of the Empowered (African American & Caribbean) employee resource group. He’s taken an active role in the company’s “Be the Change’’ initiative, a corporate-wide effort to combat racism and boost appreciation of different cultures. While organizations can always do better, Parkin said in a local news interview last fall, employees’ reactions shows him that TIAA is on the right path. “Hearing reactions from employees saying, ‘I thought I knew but I really had no idea,’ or ‘I thought I was supportive of people of color or I wasn’t racist, but I can be anti-racist,’ [was powerful].”

Prior to joining TIAA, Parkin spent seven years with Bank of America. He has a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University and an MBA from Queens University. Parkin serves on the board of advisers at the Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte.

Dhruv Patel

DHRUV PATEL


Senior vice president of technology, Signature Bank’s Venture Banking Group
Durham

In March 2019, New York-based Signature Bank launched a Venture Banking Group to serve venture capital firms and their portfolio companies. Patel was one of several executives who left Durham-based Square 1 Bank to join Signature’s new venture unit.

From 2016 to 2019, Patel was a vice president leading Square 1 Bank’s technology banking team. The company was acquired by California-based Pacific West Bank in 2015 for $849 million, creating an entity with more than $21 billion in assets. The Square 1 brand was dropped in 2019 and transitioned into a new venture banking group.

Patel focuses on new relationship development with startups and investors throughout the Southeast. In November 2020, the Venture Banking Group signed its 100th client, exceeding expectations for the first 18 months of operation.

For more than 15 years, Patel has built relationships with high-growth entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and other members of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Before Square 1, Patel was an executive for a decade at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, a Triangle-area organization serving startups and investors. He joined CED in 2006 as program manager of capital and technology development. He then served as senior program manager of CED’s life-sciences program, then program director of its annual plan and programs. He also founded and directed CED’s investor relations team.

Patel, who lives in Cary, earned an undergraduate degree at India’s Mumbai University and an MBA at UNC Greensboro.

Vinay Patel

VINAY PATEL


President, equity owner, Sree Hotels
Charlotte

After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 1992, Patel stretched his legs, working for various hotel franchises for nearly a decade. “Then,” he says, “the family called and said, ‘It’s time to come home.’” Family is important at Charlotte-based Sree Hotels. Eight of 11 top executives are Patels, a name common in the hotel industry, according to the Raleigh-based N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, considering that more than half of the state’s 1,700-plus hotels are owned by Indian Americans.

Vinay Patel, 51, president, says more than nepotism is a factor in the growth of what has become one of the largest chains of hotels in the South. It has more than two dozen in the Carolinas and Ohio with brands such as Courtyard by Marriott and Fairfield Inn.

The chain was started by his Uncle Ravi Patel and friend Chandra when they bought a small roadside motel in South Carolina in 1980. Vinay had grown up on the Pacific Island of Fiji, where his family was involved in grocery, lumber and hardware businesses. They moved to Charlotte in 1985, and he graduated from Charlotte Country Day School before going to UNC.

Sree recently had more than $40 million in hotels planned for the Triangle area and, despite being battered by the pandemic, was forging ahead while fighting to avoid layoffs among its more than 800 employees.

Founders Ravi and Chandra are in nonexecutive roles as chairman and vice chairman, with active Sree management passing to younger Patels such as Vinay.

Omar Jorge Peña

OMAR JORGE PEÑA


CEO, Compare Foods
Charlotte

By age 10, Peña was learning the ropes in father Francisco Jorge’s Brooklyn supermarkets. “Then from about 14 to 21, I was in a grocery store every single day, doing the same work my employees do now every day,” says the Charlotte-based head of one of the nation’s largest ethnic food chains.

Peña, 39, took a break to earn a 2003 degree in government and politics from New York’s St. John’s University and a 2007 degree from Yeshiva University’s law school, then practiced business law in New York for a couple of years. But the pull of the produce was too strong.

“I jumped back into the grocery industry,” he says, moving to Charlotte to become a partner in Compare Foods in 2009.

Today, Peña is CEO of Compare Foods in Charlotte and chairman of Aurora Grocery Group, a marketing organization that serves about two dozen Compare, GalaFresh Farms and Gala Foods stores on the East Coast. The stores cater to Latinos, including Dominicans, his family’s origins, but increasingly are known as multiethnic, with a wide range of international foods. The enterprise practically gives family business a new definition.

The immediate Peña family consists of 15 brothers and sisters of his father’s generation. In 1980, his Uncle Eligio bought a small, dilapidated store in New York City and several years later, another uncle, Ismael, bought another store in Freeport, N.Y., that would become the first under the Compare banner. His mother, Ursula Peña, was among the first wave too. His father goes by Jorge, a Dominican practice when the last name is also a common first name. The stores began popping up in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and elsewhere.

The first Compare in North Carolina opened in Zebulon in 2000, followed four years later with the initial Charlotte location.

“Since the 1970s, all my family has been involved in the grocery industry,” Peña says. “It’s quite a large family enterprise. Each store is independently operated by a family member or an independent licensee. I have a cousin that owns three, an uncle that owns one. We have some fun family reunions.”

After moving to Charlotte as a partner in Compare Foods and to manage the brand’s regional stores, Omar and other family members in 2012 created Aurora Grocery Group, serving all the affiliated stores.

“Aurora is not really a holding company but rather a service provider for all the stores,” he says. He compares it to the co-op model similar to Keasbey, N.J.-based ShopRite Supermarkets, which serves 50 different members with more than 300 stores in six Northeast states. “We negotiate vendor contracts to get better pricing because of the volume, and we can negotiate our financing to get better rates and schedules. We combine the buying scale of all these independent entities to leverage better deals for each store.”

In more than a decade in Charlotte, Peña has served twice as chairman of the Latin American Coalition, one of the state’s largest Latino advocacy groups. He is a former member of Charlotte’s Immigrant Integration Task Force. He’s on the board of advisers of UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business and has been president of the Carolinas Food Industry Council.

He and wife, Miriam, have twins, Michael and Gabriel. And an eye on the future.

“Our goal is to make sure we’re serving customers the right way,” he says. “But yes, there are other cities where we could do that, in other surrounding states such as Georgia and Tennessee.

We always keep our eyes open. With our family, we have plenty of room to continue expanding.”

Marvin Riley

MARVIN RILEY


President, CEO, EnPro Industries
Charlotte

A former General Motors executive, Riley joined the Charlotte-based global manufacturer and diversified technology company in 2007 and was named chief operating officer in 2017, then CEO in July 2019. The company employs 5,000 in 27 plants around the world, with annual revenue of $1.2 billion from products and services sold to about 40 industries. He holds a bachelor’s in electrical and electronics engineering from Howard University and an MBA from Johns Hopkins University. He’s also a director of Canton, Ohio-based TimkenSteel.

“Marvin has a deep level of strategic acumen and operational expertise, not only with our Fairbanks Morse division, which he led for six years, but also with each of EnPro’s other businesses,” David Hauser, EnPro’s non-executive board chair, said when Riley was promoted to CEO.

Riley, who is in his mid-40s, spoke about leading his organization through the pandemic during a podcast in mid-2020. “It’s been important to think not only about our people and stabilizing our business but about supporting our community as well,” Riley said. “We’ve distributed N95 masks to hospitals in the U.S. and overseas and helped connect hospitals and institutions to our supply chains.”

Sepi Saidi

SEPI SAIDI


CEO, Sepi
Raleigh

The N.C. State University grad and Iran native founded her 300-employee Raleigh-based engineering company in 2001 after more than 16 years of working in transportation-engineering design and management. SEPI now has offices in Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, Beaufort, S.C., and Charleston, S.C., has earned top industry awards and is frequently ranked among the nation’s fastest-growing businesses by Inc. magazine. It recently acquired two planning and design firms in Florida, expanding its reach in a fast-growing state.

Saidi, 58, is active in her community, having served on the boards of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, N.C. Chamber, N.C. Banking Commission, Dogwood State Bank, Duke Raleigh Hospital, Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, FMI Corp. and Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences named her an outstanding alumni in 2016.

Appearing on Business North Carolina’s Power 100 list in 2020, she said one of the state’s biggest challenges is creating a “more inclusive culture that provides equal opportunities for all, regardless of race, gender, national origin or sexual orientation — and having more women in leadership roles.” Women only account for about 15.7% of architectural and engineering careers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The numbers are even lower for people of color: 6.8% Black, 13.3% Asian, and 9.2% Latino.

Natalia Sanchez

NATALIA SANCHEZ


President, Norsan Media
Charlotte

Atlanta-based media mogul Norberto Sanchez named his daughter, Natalia, as president of his company’s Charlotte-based media business in early 2020. The elder Sanchez developed restaurant, food distribution and broadcast units after immigrating from Mexico in the 1970s to Atlanta, where he earned engineering degrees from Georgia Tech University. Norsan entered the Charlotte radio-station market in about 2006 and became a major force in the Hispanic community by sponsoring large festivals and partnering with many institutions including the Carolina Panthers. Norsan broadcasts the team’s games in Spanish.

Natalia Sanchez, 30, oversees three TV stations including Estrella TV Charlotte, the city’s only local Spanish-language TV station, and 28 Spanish-language radio stations in the Southeast and Texas. The company also publishes three Spanish-language newspapers, has a digital marketing arm, and organizes events and festivals targeting the Hispanic community. It has 80 employees in North Carolina.

Late last year, Norsan bought an AM radio station and FM translator in Austin, Texas, giving the company a combined reach of more than 2.5 million Hispanics in the U.S., the company said in a press release.

Sanchez is a graduate of Santa Clara University who has taken part in the Leaders Under 40 program run by Charlotte’s Community Builders Initiative. She also serves on the national Hispanic Scholarship Foundation’s Charlotte Advisory Council.

Rasu Shrestha

RASU SHRESTHA


Chief strategy and transformation officer, Atrium Health
Charlotte

Being born in Kathmandu, Nepal, is just one distinction of Shrestha, who is playing a key role as Atrium Health expands into one of the nation’s most powerful health care organizations. The radiologist and medical technology expert came to North Carolina in January 2019 after an educational path that started in India and continued through Brunei, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and the University of Southern California, where he received an MBA in 2007. He has an MD from CCS University in India. He then spent 11 years at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a leading innovator in health care with annual revenue of $21 billion. As chief innovation officer, Shrestha also helped start UPMC’s investment arm that has had several big financial successes.

Atrium proved attractive to Shrestha because of CEO Gene Woods’ vision for “reinventing the specifics of how it continues to do business across the regions here in North Carolina, South Carolina now [and] increasingly in the Georgia market as well,” he said in a podcast with the American College of Radiology. He played a key role in Atrium’s decision last year to take charge of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, a move that is prompting expansion of the Winston-Salem-based university’s medical school into Charlotte.

The Healthcare Dive newsletter named Shrestha as Executive of the Year in 2018, citing his “vibrant voice and original take.” Shrestha has become a social media expert, attracting 32,000 Twitter followers and issuing more than 74,000 tweets. “Social media, used right, can bring back trust in what matters,” he noted on Jan. 5. “Social media has always been about connecting at an exponential scale. The value of Twitter has evolved from basic information sharing to meaningful engagement and much deeper dialogue.”

James Sills III

JAMES SILLS III


CEO, Mechanics & Farmers Bank
Durham

Sills came to North Carolina in 2014 after serving as the chief technology officer for the state of Delaware. He has deep N.C. roots as his grandfather is a Shaw University graduate, his father was born and raised in Wake County, and he has other family members who live in Henderson and Louisburg.

Before his Delaware post, Sills was CEO of Memphis First Community Bank in Tennessee, chief operating officer at Alabama’s First Tuskegee Bank and an executive vice president at MBNA, a large credit card lender acquired by Bank of America in 2006. He also started an employee verification business.

Started in 1897, M&F is the second-oldest minority-owned U.S. bank and among only 21 remaining Black-owned depository institutions. It has five offices in North Carolina. Social justice protests over the treatment of Black people, sparked by police-involved violence, prompted a record inflow of deposits to M&F in 2020. “I’ve never experienced this with so many people calling us,” Sills says.

Kimberly Smith

KIMBERLY SMITH


Senior vice president, head of research and development, ViiV Healthcare
Durham

Smith is the head of R&D at ViiV Healthcare in Research Triangle Park. The company, which is headquartered in the U.K., is majority-owned by GlaxoSmithKline with industry giants Pfizer and Shionogi Ltd. as limited partners. Its portfolio of 13 HIV treatments generated about $6.6 billion in sales in 2019, according to GSK.

A graduate of the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine, Smith joined the pharmaceutical industry after 20 years as an HIV physician and researcher at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. She entered the job at the height of the HIV crisis in the early 1990s. At the time, the virus was having a particularly devastating impact on communities facing gender and racial disparities. Observing the stigma encountered by individuals suffering from HIV, Smith says her greatest accomplishment during that period was ensuring those patients were cared for and felt respected. She also has a master’s in public health from Michigan.

“It’s an experience that informs my life and approach to care that I’ve taken with me to ViiV Healthcare, where we won’t stop innovating and developing new medicines until HIV has been eradicated,” Smith says.

ViiV Healthcare is working on an HIV cure in collaboration with UNC Chapel Hill, a $20 million, five-year partnership renewed last March.

Despite pandemic challenges, ViiV Healthcare in 2020 secured regulatory approvals for a new, life-saving medicine for people living with HIV who are out of treatment options. The company also presented positive data for medicines that may reduce daily treatment doses to an injection taken once every month or two. In a rare event for the industry, the trials ended two years earlier than anticipated because of the treatment’s superior efficacy.

Tunde Sotunde

TUNDE SOTUNDE


President, CEO, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina
Durham

Third World or our world, similarities abound, says Sotunde, the pediatrician-turned CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. “[In Nigeria] you often don’t have advanced diagnostic equipment like MRIs or sometimes even supporting infrastructure such as running water and electricity,” says the Nigeria native. “It’s like that in some rural areas of our country.”

Sotunde, 55, took the job last June in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which reflected higher infection and death rates among minorities. The executive’s international roots and accomplishments as a physician and businessman should enable him to help “reshape health care,” Blue Cross Chair Frank Holding Jr. said at his hiring. It’s the state’s largest insurer with more than 3.7 million members.

Predecessors at Blue Cross have for decades sparred with hospitals, doctors and other providers over reimbursement rates and other issues. A plan to partner with Cambia Health Solutions of Oregon to share administrative, operational and other services was scuttled after the abrupt departure in 2019 of former CEO Patrick Conway, who resigned after being arrested for driving while impaired.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, and the son of a middle-class couple, Sotunde attended boarding school in the United Kingdom, then graduated from Nigeria’s University of Ibadan College of Medicine in 1988. He spent his residency at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “The U.S. has such a solid reputation for the most advanced health care system. I was thinking about what I wanted to get from my health professional experience, and there was no question I wanted to get my training here.”

After medical school, Sotunde was pediatrics chief at Syracuse Community Health Center in Syracuse, N.Y., and practiced medicine at Port of Spain General Hospital in Trinidad. He trained medical students in Syracuse and at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

He later entered the insurance industry, joining UnitedHealthcare in 2001 as senior medical director in Arkansas and Tennessee. In 2008 he moved to Amerigroup, which became part of Indianapolis-based Anthem, a public company that is the largest Blue Cross operator in the U.S. In his last two years at Anthem, he oversaw its $33 billion Medicaid business unit.

William Spruill

WILLIAM SPRUILL


Co-founder, CEO, Global Data Consortium
Raleigh

Spruill, 53, is a staple in the Triangle investment scene, previously serving as a board member on the Council for Entrepreneurial Development and as a past member of the $2.6 million early-stage angel fund Triangle Angel Partners. Spruill has more than 20 years of experience in global enterprise data management. In 2011, he and Charles Gaddy co-founded Global Data Consortium, a Raleigh-based electronic verification solution company, after the two previously worked together at another startup company. Global Data raised about $3.5 million in equity and options in mid-2020 and boasts customers such as Stripe, Mercado Libre and DHL Global. The company has grown at an average of 120% annually over the past five years, Spruill says.

Spruill currently serves on the board of nonprofit Triangle Family Services, which focuses on solutions for local families in crisis. He is also an active donor to the Durham Nativity School and the Daniels Center of Raleigh; both programs aid in education efforts for minority and financially challenged youth.

In a Business North Carolina round table discussion on diversity and inclusion, Spruill said that Global Data deposited about $3 million from its fundraising into Black-owned Mechanics & Farmers Bank to help boost local businesses. “It costs us nothing to do that. … [The bank is] doing North Carolina-based lending in communities that are not reached by traditional banks.”

Willy Stewart

WILLY STEWART


CEO, Stewart
Raleigh

Growing up in Barranquilla, Colombia, Stewart aspired to become an engineer in the United States. Decades later, Stewart, who earned his master’s degree from N.C. State University, is the CEO of his more than 200-employee Raleigh-based engineering, design and planning firm. The company is responsible for projects across the state and beyond, including Raleigh’s The Dillon, East Carolina University’s Coastal Studies Institute, Carolina Panthers practice fields in Charlotte and the Durham Innovation District. It was named one of Engineering News-Record’s 500 largest design firms in the U.S. in 2019, with revenue of $32.5 million.

Over its 26 years, Stewart, 61, says diversity and inclusion have remained at the forefront of the company’s values. Last year, the company launched a racial equity committee of 20 people focused on educating employees about the present and historical struggles of people of color, identifying organizations that are aligned with racial-equity initiatives, creating financial scholarships at historically Black colleges and universities, improving the hiring process to increase diversity, increasing purchases from minority-owned companies, and influencing policy and legislation that promote racial equality.

In addition to his work at the company, Stewart also spends about 20 hours a month chairing the board of WakeMed Health & Hospitals, which has about $1.4 billion in annual revenue. He also joined the N.C. Museum of Art Foundation board and previously served on the N.C. Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic/Latino Affairs, the N.C. Small Business Development Fund board of directors, and the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors.

Aaron Thomas

AARON THOMAS


CEO, Metcon
Pembroke

Starting his business in 2000 after earning a bachelor’s degree from UNC Pembroke, the Lumbee Tribe member has built the largest minority-owned construction company in the Carolinas. Initially focusing on housing projects, Metcon has expanded into commercial contracts with a major focus on K-12 and university structures. The company’s main offices are in Charlotte, Pembroke and Raleigh. It has completed more than 800 projects, and the U.S. Department of Commerce has twice named the company as its National Minority Construction Firm of the Year. Among its biggest projects was a 1,276-bed dormitory at N.C. Central University in Durham. The $95 million housing site is the largest contract that the state has awarded to a minority-owned company.

Metcon specializes in constructing sustainable buildings with 12 “energy-positive” projects that generate more power than is consumed. Those buildings include the first energy-positive public school in the U.S. in Jones County in eastern North Carolina.

Thomas, 44, is a past chairman of the N.C. State Building Commission and is an executive board member at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

Donald Thompson

DONALD THOMPSON


CEO, Walk West
Raleigh

Since joining the digital-marketing company in 2016, the veteran Triangle technology executive has overseen rapid growth at Walk West — which has been on the Inc. 5000 list of fast-growing companies for three straight years — with a variety of clients including UNC Rex Healthcare, North Hills and N.C. State University. He left East Carolina University as a junior to work full time, gained a knack for sales and was a top executive at two Triangle companies that were acquired by software giants Adobe and India’s KPIT.

More recently, Thompson has gained a higher profile because of his outspoken promotion of racial equity and increased diversity in senior business leadership. Last year, Walk West started a unit, The Diversity Movement, to train businesses on inclusiveness. He’s on the board of Vidant Medical Center, the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and TowneBank’s Raleigh division. He’s also a frequent angel investor and director for emerging Triangle companies.

In an interview last year, Thompson said one of his key motivators is to “grow financially and spiritually enough to where I can invest enough time, effort and money into businesses that are led by women and people of color.”

Angelique Vincent-Hamacher

ANGELIQUE VINCENT-HAMACHER


Shareholder, co-chair of employment and labor practice group, co-chair of the diversity and inclusion committee, Robinson Bradshaw
Charlotte

An employment law specialist and certified mediator, Vincent-Hamacher partnered with clients across the state and nation to navigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Early on during the pandemic, I helped many clients deal with real crises in that they were forced to implement employee pay cuts, reductions-in-force, layoffs and furloughs due to the impact of COVID-19,” she says. “That was a difficult and stressful time. That period taught me to have even more compassion in the work that I do — more compassion for my clients and for their employees. It also served as a reminder to have more gratitude for so many basics in life that I took as a given. Happily, I have helped many of those same clients reopen their businesses, recall their employees and restore employee pay.”

Vincent-Hamacher, 46, was born in Greensboro but moved to Rock Hill, S.C., in fourth grade. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Duke University and a law degree at Harvard University in 2000, then joined Robinson Bradshaw. She is now on the six-member board of directors at the 60-year-old law firm that has about 155 attorneys in Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Rock Hill. She’s won a bevy of legal industry honors while earning a rising profile in civic affairs. She’s on the newly created 13-member Atrium Health Enterprise Board, which oversees the giant Charlotte-based health system and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. She chairs the Quality and Equity of Care Committee of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority Board, and she’s outside general counsel to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

Derek Wang

DEREK WANG


Founder, CEO, Stratifyd
Charlotte

The Beijing, China, native is among Charlotte’s most dynamic technology executives, leading a company that has raised about $55 million in debt and equity since its founding in 2015.

Stratifyd’s investors have included Winter Park, Fla.-based Arsenal Growth and Toronto-based Georgian Partners. Wang came to Charlotte in 2006 to work on a doctorate in computer science, which he earned at UNC Charlotte in 2011. During his doctoral work, he consulted with Bank of America, Microsoft and other companies. He also joined UNCC students Li Yu and Thomas Kraft in conducting government-sponsored research on using artificial intelligence to analyze massive amounts of data, which evolved into Stratifyd.

Wang has become a big advocate of Charlotte and its growing research university. In 2019, Wang announced plans to move Stratifyd to a 30,000-square-foot office in west Charlotte and add at least 200 employees over the next few years. Last year, Wang named Kurt Trauth, a former executive at USAA and Lenovo, as senior vice president of customer experience strategy and analytics. Thomas Ephraim, formerly of Qualtrics/SAP, joined as senior vice president of sales. The company’s customers include financial-services giants Ally and Capital One and drugmaker Eli Lilly.

“The importance of understanding and optimizing the customer experience has never been more important,” Wang said in August. “Yet, with companies drowning in significant volumes of human-generated, unstructured data, this is increasingly challenging.”

Fred Whitfield

FRED WHITFIELD


President, vice chairman, Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte

Whitfield, 62, joined the Queen City’s NBA team as president in 2006, overseeing business operations for the Charlotte Hornets and the Spectrum Center. It continued a friendship with Hornets owner Michael Jordan that started in the late 1970s when the duo met at a basketball camp at Campbell University, where Whitfield played on the varsity team. The N.C. Central University law school grad, who earned an MBA from Campbell while serving as an assistant basketball coach, oversaw the team’s rebranding from the Charlotte Bobcats in 2014 and Spectrum Center’s rebranding in 2016. He also helped secure $40 million in renovations at the team’s downtown arena, the 2019 NBA All-Star Game and the 2019 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament. He is one of two Black CEOs or presidents of business operations in the 30-team NBA, a league in which about 80% of the players are Black.

Whitfield was named 2019 Citizen of the Carolinas by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance for significant contributions to the area’s business growth, economic development and the community at large. Whitfield’s other recognitions include the Thurgood Marshall Award of Excellence, YMCA George Williams Volunteer of the Year award, and the key to the city of Greensboro. As the founder of Achievements Unlimited basketball program and camp, the Greensboro native has provided educational programs to more than 10,000 disadvantaged children in Charlotte and Greensboro over the last 35 years. His nonprofit HoopTee Charities assists in providing scholarships for disadvantaged kids to attend camps and educational programs. Whitfield also serves on the executive committees of the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, Charlotte Regional Business Alliance and Charlotte Sports Foundation.

Eugene Washington

EUGENE WASHINGTON


Health affairs chancellor, Duke University; president, Duke Health Systems
Durham

As their careers advance, some professionals narrow their focus. Washington has broadened his through his role overseeing three Triangle hospitals, Duke’s medical and nursing schools, and its clinics.

He earned a reputation as a health-policy expert, clinical investigator and executive at the University of California system before coming to Durham in 2015. He is renowned for his research and teaching in gynecology, obstetrics and women’s health, including studying cervical cancer and other devastating illnesses, prenatal testing, and racial and ethnic disparities in treatment outcomes.

At Duke, Washington, 69, has to protect and expand Duke’s turf in Tar Heel health care. Competition is ramping up, including in some new areas for Duke, which boasts one of the nation’s highest-ranked medical schools. It has less revenue than three competing systems, UNC Health, Novant Health and Atrium Health, which are expanding regionally and in medical education. Atrium and Winston-Salem-based Wake Forest School of Medicine have linked, as have Novant and UNC’s medical school. Last year, Novant outbid Duke and others in the sale of Wilmington’s New Hanover Regional Medical Center. The deal is pending regulatory approval.

Nevertheless, Duke has gained national attention for its innovations, including coronavirus research and policies. For example, researchers have developed procedures that allow patients to share ventilators, which have been in short supply. Also fewer students at the Durham campus have tested positive for the virus than at many other universities.

Washington is a 1976 graduate of the University of California at San Francisco, with other degrees from Howard and Harvard universities and the University of California at Berkeley. He is married with three adult children.

Dontá Wilson

DONTÁ WILSON


Chief digital and client experience officer, Truist Financial
Charlotte

Wilson, 44, has had a rapid rise at the sixth-largest U.S. bank, serving since 2016 on the 13-member executive leadership team that directs the company’s vision and strategic plan. Wilson, who has an MBA from the University of Maryland, oversees client experience, digital banking, innovation, marketing and venture investments. His work prompted Savoy Magazine to cite him among the Top 100 Most Influential Blacks in Corporate America. Under Wilson’s leadership, Truist’s mobile banking app for Apple and Android has earned a top rating from market research company J.D. Power. Truist’s Innovation and Technology Center, scheduled to open in Charlotte this year, will promote research, design thinking, testing and delivery for original digital products. “Helping clients achieve financial confidence is more than a career; it’s a calling,” Wilson says. “We want to be there for our clients, wherever and whenever they need us.”

Wilson was born at Fort Bragg and grew up in a military family, moving 12 times before the 10th grade. He joined BB&T while attending UNC Charlotte. After various operations jobs, he oversaw the bank’s business in Alabama and Georgia. He oversees the Truist Foundation, which provided about $80 million of community giving in 2020. He founded I Am My Brother’s Keeper, an inner-city mentor program, and serves on its board. He’s on the board of advisers for the Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte and Samaritan’s Feet.

Gene Woods

GENE WOODS


CEO, Atrium Health
Charlotte

Three years ago, not too long after becoming head of the state’s biggest health care system, Woods revealed in a Business North Carolina interview a side unknown to most. “Music has always been a great escape, a great way to decompress,” the sometimes blues guitarist said. “It’s always been a part of my life.”

Today, the 56-year-old is hardly singing the blues, having presided over, among other things, last year’s partnership of Atrium with the Wake Forest School of Medicine and Wake Forest Baptist Health and the rebranding and growth of Carolinas HealthCare System as Atrium. It’s one of the nation’s largest systems, with more than 40 hospitals, 70,000 employees and nearly $10 billion a year in revenue. For his efforts, he earned $7.3 million in 2019.

The Wake Forest deal is slated to put a full-blown medical school in Charlotte, which for years has been among the largest U.S. cities without such an institution. It’s a big coup for the Rhode Island-born Woods, coming more than 50 years after state lawmakers chose to put a med school in Greenville at East Carolina University rather than in Charlotte.

Woods, whose mother from southern Spain married a U.S. Navy sailor, grew up in the projects of Philadelphia as his family scrambled to pay light bills. He traces his roots to a North Carolina slave family and is the first member of the family to go to college, graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 1990 with an MBA and master’s in public health.

A three-decade industry veteran, Woods came to Charlotte from a post as president of Texas-based Christus Health. He’s gained a prominent role in the industry, serving as a past chairman of the American Hospital Association and appearing on national news outlets.

He’s also lobbied for affordable housing and serves as a member of the state’s Economic Recovery Task Force.

Jane Wu

JANE WU


President, Panorama Holdings
Charlotte

Wu, 39, founded Charlotte-based real estate developer Panorama Holdings in 2012 after roles at Wells Fargo Securities and its predecessor, Wachovia Securities. The company’s projects include the 309-unit Lumeo Apartments adjacent to the University City Boulevard light rail station near UNC Charlotte and a 14-story mixed-use tower in the Ballantyne area. It will include an AC Hotel by Marriott, office space and a rooftop restaurant.

She formed the North America Chinese Chamber of Commerce to work with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Embassy in China to attract and guide international investment. Wu also founded American Alliance for Economic Development, which advocates for people looking to invest in U.S. projects that create jobs in return for receiving a green card required for immigration. She moved to Charlotte in 2007 to earn her master’s degree in mathematical finance from UNC Charlotte. She has an executive MBA from the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China.

Upon receiving the Outstanding Young Alumni Award in late 2020 from UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business, Wu shared a secret to her success: “Think big, and work hard.”

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