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Valerie Patton says activism is in her genes.
As Chief of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and President, Greater St. Louis Inc. Foundation for, Greater St. Louis, Inc., she is driven by “purpose, passion, perseverance and persistence” or as she calls them “the four p’s.”
She credits her maternal grandfather for teaching her early lessons in helping the oppressed and marginalized; her mother’s family was living in an area of Miami called “Colored Town.” Patton’s grandfather taught men of color, coming over from the islands, how to read and write. “It was amazing to me because he had a severe stutter. The only time he didn’t was when he read the Bible,” adds Patton.
Her paternal grandmother was one of the first Black women to own her own business in Milwaukee…a beauty shop.
Patton’s mother arrived in St. Louis in the early 50’s to attend college. Aside from leaving home to go to college herself, work in the greater DC metro and a 2-year stint in Dallas, Patton has lived here her whole life – and being a champion for those who have been marginalized and oppressed was her calling from the start.
At Normandy High School, at the time 10% Black, Patton excelled. It was the early 70’s, on the heels of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. “Everything was in transition. Kids were walking out of high school, a lot of unrest. I was challenged every day.”
Her first love was theatre – and she earned a full-ride scholarship to Northwestern University, known for its theatre and speech program. But her father insisted Patton go to business school and major in accounting. “You need to be able take care of yourself,” he told her.
Patton’s mom had attended an HBCU, so off she went to Howard University to study accounting and computer science--and paid her own way. “It’s where I learned and lived what King was saying to all of us. It’s about the content of your character.” Patton says going to Howard was one of the top experiences that made her what she is today. “Everyone looked like me. It was all about truth, excellence and service.”
Patton returned to St. Louis shortly after graduating and landed a job at Southwestern Bell, selected for its graduate management development program. It was a fast-track management training program for newly minted college graduates, and soon she was supervising people older and more experienced than herself. “One person [I worked with] that I hold in high esteem is Joyce Williams, who said 'you are a good kid, but these are things you need to do.'
Patton says the advice Williams gave her was golden:
If you want people to work with you, you are going to have to treat them with dignity and respect. “You can't come in barking and think people will produce.”
It's okay to break the rules and bend if you want your people to go the extra mile.
The third thing is to have empathy. “Everyone is not where you are.”
When Southwestern Bell relocated from St. Louis to San Antonio in 1997, Patton passed on the invitation to move to Texas, and instead was recruited by Bank of America where she worked with supply diversity—seeking minority contractors to work for bank and helping them perform successfully. “It wasn’t my first role supporting diversity, but it was the first time I got paid to do it.”
When her position at Bank of America was eliminated, it was a turning point for Patton. A woman of faith, she considered going to seminary to earn a degree in divinity. She instead joined the St. Louis Regional Chamber and in 2006, earned her master’s degree in social work from Washington University’s Brown School with an emphasis in social and economic development.
Asked to describe her current position at Greater St. Louis, Inc., Patton puts it this way: “I help people have better lives thorough transformation and change. We do that through work force development strategies, multicultural leadership development, diverse business acceleration, whatever needs to change,” she adds, "I love what I do. I never have any two days that are alike."
Patton is also active in her church, Episcopal Church of All Saints and Ascension in Northwoods. And “for fun” just completed all of her course work for seminary. Her capstone was on food insecurity.
She spends her spare time caring for her mother, now 88. Patton’s first love is still the arts and live theatre. She’s also a movie buff and was happy to share three of her favorites:
"The Woman King” with Viola Davis. “It’s a great story about the power of women, that women have the power to do anything they need to do or have to do. Especially when it comes to leadership.”
“The Wizard of Oz” is a lesson in “empathy, leadership and developing relationships.”
“The Imitation of Life” with Mahalia Jackson. “You need to be true to who you are.”