The social network: YBPN aims to create community, opportunities for black professionals

Black and professional YBPN members Sober and Zakiah Pierre belong to the rare contingent of young professionals who came to Charlottesville because of UVA and have stayed because they like the place. Sober, a Haitian-American from Homestead, Florida, pursued an MBA at the Darden School of Business. Zakiah, who grew up in Washington, D.C., has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Tuskegee University, where she and Sober met.

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Zakiah and Sober Pierre (pictured here in their kitchen) met while they were undergraduates at Tuskegee University and moved to Charlottesville when Sober decided to attend the Darden School of Business. Sober, a Haitian-American originally from Homestead, Florida, is starting a new business, Pearl Island Foods, which makes a spicy Haitian coleslaw called pikliz. Photo: Elli Williams.

Sober studied mechanical engineering and went to work for John Deere, while she got her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at the University of Illinois. A job offer from Change the Equation took Zakiah back to the nation’s capital, and Sober followed her.

She was inspired by the mission of the organization, a coalition of 100 CEOs working to improve education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Despite Zakiah’s professional potential in the chemical industry, her experiences led her to follow her passion for educating the next generation at College for Every Student, where she became National STEM Director. After the couple moved to Charlottesville, Zakiah got a job as a research scientist for program development at the Center for Diversity in Engineering at UVA’s School of Engineering & Applied Science. For her, the strength of the black professional community is built on a foundation of education. “I am a firm believer that education is the key to solving a lot of problems within our community, but especially within the black community,” she wrote me in an e-mail. “I grew up not so privileged and the thing that changed the trajectory for my life, aside from determination to be the best, is my education.” Her dream is to open her own school, which will focus on STEM subjects. “Every step since getting my Ph.D. has been taken with that goal in mind,” she said. While at Darden, Sober landed an internship at Emerson in its oil and gas division. Over time, he began to reflect on why he’d gone to business school, because his passion wasn’t for corporate America.

In business school, Sober explained, “they’re developing managers. Leadership is important, but it’s about grooming people for corporate America.” Sober wanted to take advantage of his education, but he also wanted to follow his heart. Corporate America, ultimately, was not for him. “I could have lived like that; I had never had that much money growing up, but I wanted to do something I loved on my own terms. There are pictures painted of success, but it’s not the same for everybody,” he said.

He left the plush salary and smokestacks of the “manufacturing lifestyle” to connect with his Haitian roots through his startup company, Pearl Island Foods, which makes a spicy Haitian coleslaw called pikliz. The fact that a well-educated black entrepreneur from Florida is considering opening an Afrocentric cultural business in Charlottesville could be a success story in itself. “This might be the perfect place for me to start my business,” Sober told me. Zakiah agrees. “The people of Charlottesville have been very supportive, unbelievably supportive,” she said. For Sober, YBPN is illustrative of how the black community is proactively rebuilding its image. When I mentioned the history of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, he turned reflective. “The past is always there. How do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?” he said. “It sucks to have to take pro-active measures to protect yourself and it’s good to know your history, but to move forward, you have to face forward.” Janelle Cockrell, who is from Alabama, has no connection to UVA.

Her decision to live in Central Virginia was strategic, because her career necessitates choosing places where biotech companies have built facilities rather than places known for culture and nightlife. Her current company, Merck, has sometimes had difficulty recruiting and retaining young talent because of its location in Elton, Virginia. “My co-workers have been here a long time, but the young people don’t want to be in the area because it’s the middle of nowhere. When people wouldn’t take the jobs, big companies have had to ask, ‘What can we do to make this site attractive?’” she said.

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Janelle Cockrell, who is originally from Alabama, moved to Central Virginia for a job in the pharmaceutical industry. She said, “It feels like if you aren’t a UVA student or a local, you are an outsider.” Photo: Mina Pirasteth.

As an engineer specializing in renewable energy and medical vaccines in the biotech industry, Cockrell’s story may not seem so common, but her reasons for joining the YBPN are.

“Any place I lived had a happy hour for young black professionals,” which was organized by the company. “In other cities, on first Fridays, there would be big social gatherings, where they would rent a hall and hire a DJ. It’s good that YBPN is working towards that.” Cockrell has some of the same concerns about her career path that Sober faced. She values the contribution that her company makes to public health, because Merck produces antibiotics and vaccines, but she worries that the pharmaceutical industry is being restructured to benefit stockholders rather than the end-users of their products. In addition, Cockrell said, “If you don’t want to go the management or business route, your only choice is working from project to project,” which doesn’t offer the same opportunities for advancement. One option she is contemplating is to move into the government side of the pharmaceutical industry, the Food and Drug Administration, which would take her to the D.C./Maryland area. However, another question that will heavily influence her decision about staying in Charlottesville is where she imagines starting a family and raising kids. In short, she’s dealing with the same trade-offs and tensions that white professionals her age are dealing with, with one added factor. “It feels like if you aren’t a UVA student or a local, you are an outsider,” she said. “I do believe YBPN has taken the right steps to rectify the situation.” It is an open question whether Charlottesville has enough social and professional opportunities to keep young professionals like her and the Pierres here long-term.

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