Networking with a sisterhood focus

Sister Spokesman keeps growing to meet Black women’s needs and interests

(Steve Floyd/MSR News)

High praise comes from Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder Publisher and CEO Tracey Williams-Dillard when speaking about the Medtronic Foundation, crediting Jacob Gale, the foundation’s vice president of philanthropy, with making a strong effort to support communities of color. The Spokesman-Recorder nonprofit has benefited from Foundation support over the years, especially its Annual Graduation Celebration and its Sister Spokesman program.

Now in its 13th year, Sister Spokesman was the brainchild of Williams-Dillard and Theresa Upton, who at the time worked for American Family Insurance as a marketing manager. The two met through business affairs and noticed that when Minnesota corporations hired people of color to key positions, they often wouldn’t stay. To address the issue, the two looked at how to help corporations be more diverse and keep people of color.

Williams-Dillard and Upton believed that the answer was in building a support system of women professionals. “We really wanted it to be about Black women just coming together, getting to know one another, being in a relaxed environment and having a good time,’ says Williams-Dillard. “We wanted to create an environment where women would feel like they were among friends and a sisterhood network to help them connect to their community and would make them stay here in Minnesota.

Upton says, “We wanted to do something that made connections to the community and got people involved in doing good things. We finally came up with Sister Spokesman.”

Arnellia’s Nightclub owner Arnellia Allen, who passed in December 2017, was the opening honoree for Sister Spokesman, the venue being the Press Box in downtown Minneapolis. “That was the place that we recognized Allen,” says Williams-Dillard. “She was our first sister that we recognized as a Black professional woman, doing business compatible with Sister Spokesman’s mission. She was a beacon.”

MSR columnist Nicole Pillow (l) and Sister Spokesman host Tracey Williams-Dillard (Steve Floyd/MSR News)

Thereafter, Arnellia’s Nightclub became a frequent venue host where crowds sometimes overflowed the monthly Saturday event. In an effort “to go where the sisters are,” in Williams-Dillard’s words, Sister Spokesman has rotated among a range of venues including the Minneapolis Urban League, Sabathani Community Center, Arnellia’s, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minneapolis Women’s Club, Hallie Q. Brown and the Minnesota Café.

Since Sister Spokesman’s creation, the focus has shifted from reaching primarily the professional Black woman to reaching Black women in the community as a whole. In recent years it has grown into an opportunity for women to socialize with a wide range of other women regardless of occupation – whether blue-collar worker, homemaker, professional or entrepreneur, young or old, Sister Spokesman has become an all-inclusive women’s meeting place.

Although Sister Spokesman originated with a sisterhood focus, it has also grown to include events where men are included, such as the Legacy Boat Cruise held in August, a major Sister Spokesman fundraiser now in its fourth year. Men are welcomed to an annual event in December where mothers are honored.

Just as most business ideas never stay the same from conception to realization, so has Sister Spokesman increasingly grown into an opportunity for women to learn about and develop small businesses, getting advice from panel professionals, shopping small business owners, checking on health, providing fitness sessions, and giving new entrepreneurs encouragement and exposure. Mo’s Fitness and Built for Wealth are two examples of smaller companies that have benefited from Sister Spokesman’s Small Business Showcase held October 2017.

Monique Adams started her company, Mo’s Fitness, a year ago after creating a waist trainer and losing 69 pounds through changing her meals and exercise from December to March. Her company is called Mo’s Fitness which focuses on the overall body and health, but what her company is best known for is trimming the stomach area via her products. With Sister Spokesman serving as her first vendor venue last year, Adams has since gained the confidence to attend four other venues as a business vendor.

Rochelle Zanders has a small business called Built for Wealth that she uses as a side income. Zanders says, “It gives people an opportunity to learn how to trade in the foreign exchange market, and how to start their own business between networking and the trade market.

Leticia Alvarez, Williams-Dillard’s daughter, is heavily involved with Sister Spokesman and sees the good that it does in the community for Black women. Alvarez closely monitors the program’s online presence: “Anytime she sees us online and in line with what the young folks are thinking and doing, she [Alvarez] gives us the thumbs-up.”

Says Williams-Dillard, “It’s companies like Medtronic Foundation that get behind initiatives like Sister Spokesman and our Annual Graduation Celebration that help make community-based programs as successful as ours have become over the years. Our success depends on the support of people who believe and put their money behind what they believe.”


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