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Front Page - Friday, February 16, 2018

Leadership through humility

Lowe’s message: Empowering others teaches by example

Donna Christian Lowe clearly recalls the day when, while getting her feet wet in a new corporate human resources job at a major insurance company nearly 10 years ago, she accidentally sat in a male board member’s self-designated spot at a meeting. She and a female executive were the only women in the room.

“You’re in my seat. Who are you and why are you here?” the man brusquely inquired, dispensing with any semblance of politeness.

Rather than watch her subordinate squirm, the woman in the senior position stood up, offered her chair to Lowe and moved to a corner spot.

“She made it known in that meeting who I was, why I was there and that I was welcome to be there,” Lowe remembers. “‘Everybody has a seat at the table’ is basically what she told them.”

Now the co-founder, senior vice president and COO of Main Street Innovations Workforce Solutions, an employment agency with clients across the U.S., Lowe took that moment to heart, noting that leadership is often best demonstrated through humility and a willingness to empower others.

A fast-talking, Type A redhead who is seems more hyped than usual following a birthday celebration at the office she shares with husband Marty and more than 100 employees on Shallowford Road. Lowe, 47, credits much of her business acumen to two role models: her parents. Her mother owned a hair salon, and her father, a firefighter with an entrepreneurial streak, did commercial painting and construction on the side.

Lowe and her three siblings – she and brother Danny are twins, so are older sisters Paula and Carla – learned right away how not to act around customers at the beauty shop.

“Look, women come here to get pampered and be taken care of,” her mom sternly warned. “So, you can’t come in talking about all this nonsense that goes on at the house. And don’t come off the bus looking dirty.”

Whenever the kids played “beauty shop” at home, Lowe was always in charge, running the make-believe cash register. In high school, she told the guidance counselor she didn’t know what she wanted to do for a living, but she was sure of four things. “I said, ‘I want to wear suits. I want to be in big buildings. I want to fly. And I want to be the boss,’” she recalls with a grin.

At age 9, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. But that didn’t stop her from following her destiny and embracing her love of people.

“In the beauty shop, I was the kid that loved to take down the rollers,” she says. “I was the kid that went home with the elderly couples after church on Sundays to clean their house.”

After earning a business management degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Lowe began a human resources career that would ultimately include positions at Life Care Centers of America, Hospital Corporation of America, Optimum, and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Along the way, she developed a passion for recruitment and retention. To her surprise, she also met and fell for an African-American man with whom she shared many mutual friends.

Lowe minces no words talking about her interracial marriage of 22 years and the challenges it has spawned – how her dad refused to give them his blessing but eventually became best friends with Marty, along with her own struggles with prejudice, even the couple’s first date.

After agreeing to meet him at the movie theater inside Hamilton Place Mall, Lowe started to panic. What if somebody saw them and told her parents? What would they say? So, she called him, explained that she was running late, and asked him to buy his ticket and meet her in the theater. Then she forced herself to stall 30 minutes.

When she arrived, he was waiting for her in the front of the mall. “Look,” he told her. “I’ve never had to lie about a girlfriend, and I’m not going to start now.” They wed six months later, in 1996.

In 2013, the couple launched Main Street Innovations, so named for symbolic reasons. “Every city has a main street, right?” Lowe asks. “And typically, that main street is the divide of the haves and have-nots. We are a bridge. We bridge the haves to the have-nots. We’re social entrepreneurs, but our focus is the underserved.

“The underserved does not always mean that you’re poor,” she clarifies. “The underserved does not always mean that you don’t have a home. The underserved is certainly those things as well, but it is the women, minorities and vets. That doesn’t mean you leave out the Caucasian man. It doesn’t mean that at all. It just means that we recognize that there is a deficit, a need to help women, to help vets, to help minorities.

“You can look around in any city and see that is a challenge. So, it just means that we really go above and beyond to help them because we understand that.”

For the record, Lowe adds, she never wanted to own her own business. Before MSi, she was working as manager of academic and industry relations for the Syracuse, New York-based Aspen Dental Management, traveling most of the time and loving the life and six-figure income.

Then one morning, while preparing to give a speech at the University of Kentucky, she got the call that her dad had passed away. Three weeks later, one of her sisters died too. It was time to come home.

Lowe and her husband had run a sideline consulting business for several years and had established solid business connections in the Chattanooga area. “Everybody else has hobbies. We had work,” Lowe says. “But amazingly, we have that in common.”

Right away, MSi landed an account with Erlanger Medical Center, and Lowe began helping some of her former employers. Marty, who is more reserved, became the quiet yin to his wife’s energetic yang.

Together, they provide a gamut of human resources services, from conducting the initial job interview to helping the new hire get acclimated and offering corporate assistance in talent management, job readiness, mediation, workforce development and training, including the more elusive area of emotional intelligence.

Hands-on, empathetic and driven, Lowe oversees day-to-day operations, recruiting and public relations. She pushes for livable wages for all new employees and talks with every person who comes through the office, often pouring him a cup of coffee rather than asking a staff member to do it.

“When you serve somebody and you take the time to fix their coffee, stir it, prepare it, there’s something humbling about that,” she adds. “So, I tend to say I’m a servant type of leader.”

“There are just not too many people that work as hard as she does and that give so much, whether it’s time, energy or resources,” says Marty, the company’s president and CEO. He takes the lead on planning and growth, both internally and with external clients.

The MSi staff continually reaches out to low-income neighborhoods to provide employment. “I’m intentional in making sure that I am in those spaces, not popping in and popping out,” Lowe says. “They see me as a community member. They see me as one of them.”

Workplace inclusion is about much more than just doing the right thing, Lowe points out. “If you think that you can only deal with one type of person – let’s just say, ‘white,’ for easy conversation – you are going to miss out on the richness and the fullness. … I think diversity is a way to ensure that you’re truly creating an inclusive environment of learning, understanding and belonging. That’s critical because when people feel like they belong, they’re going to give more. They’re going to produce more. And they’re going to stay longer.”

Despite her lengthy hours and workaholic tendencies, Lowe frequently volunteers for community efforts ranging from providing backpacks for foster schoolchildren to raising funds for the families of the Fallen Five servicemen killed by a shooter in two separate locations on July 16, 2015.

She has mentored more than 3,000 cheerleaders through the Harrison Recreation League and other groups, served as vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce’s Ooltewah-Collegedale Council, and she currently co-chairs both the economic opportunity committee of the Mayor’s Council for Women and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke’s Family Friendly Workplace Challenge, which debuted in 2016.

She also hosts and produces the local WDEF-TV public affairs show, “Point of View,” and has become a popular speaker and facilitator at area diversity and empowerment events.

Three years ago, Lowe and her husband launched Chattanooga Speaks, a series of quarterly panel discussions on racial issues facing the community and the nation. Local leaders from the non-profit, corporate and entrepreneurial arenas, along with ordinary citizens, gather quarterly to ask tough questions and talk about problems that, according to Lowe, other groups don’t want to go near. An online Chattanooga Speaks show is now in the works.

“When you talk about focusing on minorities and business, there are a lot of great things happening, but there are a lot of things that still need to happen,” Lowe acknowledges. “I feel obligated to give a platform to our city. There’s so much tension between white and black. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, that’s wrong. You should be focused on all these other ethnicities.’

“Well, I didn’t marry a Hispanic man. I didn’t marry a German man. So that’s not my calling. It’s not ignoring the Hispanic community. It’s just saying, ‘Look, I happened to marry a man of color, and in this life, this is going to be my focus.’”

As if she doesn’t have enough on her already-overflowing plate, Lowe is working to open a new inner-city technical school in partnership with Tranco Logistics, a transportation company that shares the building with MSi. The goal is to boost employment among underserved populations.

There are times, Lowe says, when she literally falls asleep, nodding off over her laptop at 2 in the morning and her husband nudging her to go to bed.

“I used to watch my parents do the same thing,” she says. “This is who they were. They were the youth directors, going on trips all the time. This is all I’ve ever known.

“I feel like my life is just blessed. I feel lucky,” she adds. “I get so excited getting up in the morning. I’m just excited to get to my job.”