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Front Page - Friday, August 11, 2017

Noel building bridges through business

As a child of the civil rights era, Maria Noel watched her parents react with sadness and horror when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy were assassinated.

She remembers her mom and a neighbor watching for her and the other Alton Park students as they came home from school because white people sometimes threw things at the children and spit on them. And she knew better than to head for the public restroom at a gas station on a family trip.

“We’d have to use the bathroom in between the doors [of the car],” recalls Noel, 61, director of diversity and inclusion at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, whose program aids business people from historically disadvantaged groups.

“I remember just going with little muddy socks all the way. I used to hate that, but it was part of growing up.”

But it wasn’t until Noel, her parents and her older siblings visited her grandparents in Alabama one Easter weekend that the reality of prejudice really set in. On the drive through Selma, one of the most dangerous places in the South at the time for African-Americans, partly due to the frequent riots, she sat in the front seat between her parents, with her hands in her lap, looking forward – never to the right or left, or directly at a white person, because that would be asking for trouble – and the windows rolled tight despite the heat and lack of air conditioning.

But her sister, who was concerned that the humidity would mess up her long, freshly straightened hair, opened the back window to cool off. As Noel’s family passed a white man watering his lawn, he turned the hose on their car, blasting her parents.

“Prior to that time, I used to think I wanted to become the first black woman president of the United States,” Noel says. “I remember looking up at my parents, and they couldn’t stop and do anything because they would have gotten killed. Just looking at my parents and seeing the tightness of my father’s jaw and the frustration of my mother, I realized I couldn’t become president.”

Growing up African-American during that tumultuous time had its advantages, too. Noel’s mom and dad, both of whom had graduated from Tuskegee Institute, instilled in their children a desire to work and help others. Their self-contained neighborhood offered everything its residents needed – a dry cleaner, a hairdresser, churches, restaurants and stores – while a doctor, an architect and Noel’s elementary school teachers lived nearby.

Her politically active father taught at Howard High School, did shoe repairs and owned a business on Martin Luther King Boulevard, now Ninth Street.

“So, you were protected by not only your family, but other families,” Noel explains. “We didn’t know we were poor.”

Intending to go to law school, Noel earned an undergraduate degree in English literature with a minor in black studies from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. But a passion for communicating, along with her father’s blessing to become a writer instead, convinced her to nix her legal aspirations.

Over the years, her career experience grew as diverse as the people she now helps at the Chamber. After working in several departments at Provident Insurance Co., she joined the staff of Chattanooga Venture, later became the city’s first black female reporter at The Chattanooga Times and was hired at Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise.

Other positions led to stints at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. When her brother and mom passed away in the late 1990s, she moved back to Chattanooga to be near her nieces and nephews.

While managing the city’s Renewal Community federal tax incentive program as community revitalization manager at the Enterprise Center, she often partnered with the Chamber to bring new or expanding companies to distressed neighborhoods. In 2012, she became the Chamber’s first director of African-American business development and was charged with promoting African-American companies, helping them secure capital, build their customer base, and network with potential clients.

As scattered as it may seem on paper, Noel’s hopscotch experience in various fields proved to be a boon to her work at the Chamber. “I was able to work in a manufacturing company, a non-profit, a place that dealt with technology,” she explains.

“I worked with housing so I understood government agencies. I was able to work with small businesses and major firms in the marketing area. I’ve worked in higher education. I worked at a medical college so I understood about the complexity of health care and that industry.

“I wrote grants so I understood non-profits and workforce development. I understood about downtown development, neighborhood revitalization, and helping to train neighborhood groups.”

For three years, Noel concentrated on offering guidance to minority business owners, many of whom were first-generation and still struggling with longtime barriers to landing contracts, borrowing money and creating jobs. She became a resource for those needing help with their bookkeeping, business plan or technology and recruited diversity professionals to help identify and address their needs.

She also coaxed more African-American entrepreneurs to get involved in the Chamber and introduced them to other people in the community who could help them grow their ventures.

“People had never seen some of these businesses,” she adds. “So, I’m most proud about that.”

Noel cites the example of Dipped Fresh, a food business launched by two African-American women at a small storefront in Coolidge Park.

Although their main focus was catering, most people associated them with their chocolate-covered strawberries and other dipped fruits, and weren’t even aware of their primary product.

Noel asked the culinary entrepreneurs to cater a luncheon with a group of purchasing and human resources representatives. Then, she encouraged them to participate in the Chamber’s first diversify event, a weeklong summer showcase of various businesses at Miller Plaza, and that led to the addition of hot meals to the existing menu of signature gourmet sandwiches and salads.

After Noel invited them to serve Thanksgiving meals at another event, the duo made a connection with the City of Chattanooga, which began hiring them too, and word continued to spread.

“Well, they went from being a business that was pretty obscure, with not many people knowing them to going fulltime with catering,” Noel recalls. “And last year they reported over six figures.”

In 2015, the Chamber’s African-American Business Development program morphed into the department of Diversity and Inclusion. The change was an organic one, Noel explains.

“When I worked with African-American businesses, I made sure I opened all the programs for training or assistance to all Chamber members – women, veterans and others. So, because my approach was about creating inclusion, and I’m very big on relationship building, it just sort of naturally sprung out of that. I was doing it anyway.”

In her current role, Noel oversees an advisory council, secures assistance for diverse business people and develops new programs. She also works with business owners and human resources personnel to create inclusive and welcoming environments for their employees and suppliers.

Recently, Noel has been working with Erlanger Medical Center to beef up the hospital’s diversity department. “They had very good numbers at Erlanger East of minority firms, women-owned firms and veteran-owned firms, but not as many local minority-owned firms.”

Noel introduced Erlanger officials to a large African-American firm with hospital experience, which partnered with the health care center to provide training for local minority contractors. Trainers assist them with bids, paperwork and growth issues.

Embracing inclusion and diversity in the workplace, says Noel, is “good business. You never know who has a major firm or does well in what they’re doing. When you think about doing business with someone, you have a tendency to do business with the people in your circle … or just select the name of someone you heard about.

“You don’t know if you’re missing out on someone that may be an expert, and it’s all because you don’t have a relationship with them. What I’m doing is not just the right thing to do. It’s the economic thing to do.”

A self-described workaholic and Type A personality, Noel loves building bridges between people who might not otherwise know each other. That “connector” trait also extends to her own family, neighborhood association and book club. Gregarious and happy, she laughs and jokes a lot. And she is obviously passionate about what she does for a living.

“It’s important for people to understand that diversity means a lot of things,” she adds. “It’s not just minorities or women or veterans, or how we define people through a certification process. It includes millennials, baby boomers, Generation Xers, people in the urban community, the rural community.

“Diversity is all of us. It’s everything that makes up the people of this community.”