The New South Carolina: A New Leader
By Phil Noble
This column is part of a continuing series on The New South Carolina, about the changes that are transforming our state.
February 15, 1956, Silas C. McMeekin, President of the South Carolina Electric & Gas Company got together over lunch in Columbia with four of his business friends and decided to create a nice private club where they could have lunch and do their business. They went to work selling membership, picking a name, buying a site and building the club.
Finally, in February 1961, with grand celebration, the Palmetto Club at 1231 Sumter Street opened its doors to the business elite of the city. Of course, all the members where white and male. For years, the only African Americans or women allowed in the Club were the black waiters, servers and cooks thru the back door and the white wives of members through the front door.
In time, these white leaders decided to create a more exclusive group of business’s leaders that would include men from outside of Columbia as well. Thus, the Palmetto Business Forum (PBF to insiders) was founded in 1975 as a “non-partisan group of business people, selected from major businesses in South Carolina, organized to formulate positions and voice opinions on state and national issues bearing on the survival and health of the American Economic System.”
Selected is the key word here in that one cannot apply, but only be selected by existing members. Even today, the PBF doesn’t even have a website; if you are a member, you know about things, and if you are not a member, well…
Beginning with 25 members (it has now grown to 40), the PBF was and is a veritable who’s who of major business leaders in South Carolina. Above all else, they are a safe, judicious, responsible, solid, sober group of (white) men. They have since selected a smattering of women, but best I know they have never had an African American member.
In researching for this column, I found a transcript of a November 1976, presentation to the PBF by then Governor James Edwards. (It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.) It provides insight into how the PBF operated then – and largely still today. Edwards brought with him the state’s treasurer, comptroller general and several other state officials and he began his presentation with ritualistic language about cutting taxes, reducing spending, reducing the number of state employees and ‘responsible’ management of state government.
His presentation had the feel of a company president making a report to the board of directors – and in a sense, that is exactly what it was. For years, the PBF was (and perhaps still is) the de facto board of directors of the state.
So, fast forward to the present.
Picture a commanding, slightly intimidating, African American woman named Joan Robinson-Berry walking into a PBF meeting not to serve lunch but as a new member – as the General Manager of Boeing South Carolina, the largest private sector employer in the state.
Welcome to The New South Carolina.
So, who is this woman who became one of the most important business leaders in South Carolina the moment she set foot on the tarmac of Charleston Airport in June of this year?
Joan Robinson-Berry grew up in La Puente, Calif., a gang ridden suburb of Los Angeles where violence was the one constant in her community. In a recent SC BizNews interview, she said, “I have literally been through every major drama you can have — watching your brother die (he was killed by a relative), learning about your father’s death on the news (he was a policeman), having my sister die (of Lupus), having the Watts Riots in our city and seeing bodies in your neighborhood from gang violence. We had a lot of tragedy.”
In the same interview, she talked about how she reacted and how she found her way out. “I didn’t focus on that (the violence) …You cannot give obstacles power. You have to really focus on using that as the strength of building character, perseverance and the desire to want more.”
She said of some of her friends growing up, “We were all in the hood, and we made this little club. We said, ‘This is who we are today, but it’s not who we can be.’ We said that, even though we couldn’t see ourselves in other people yet. … There were no black Barbies. There were no girls in engineering. … The Cosby Show wasn’t out yet. We were still watching The Brady Bunch.”
Her father introduced her to mechanics at an early age – and something clicked. She was good at math and traveled the area competing in math competitions. Despite her obvious talents, at school she was discouraged from pursuing math and engineering and was told that these subjects were for boys and she “could never compete.”
But, she did.
She went to California State Polytechnic University and was one of the few women, particularly black women in the course; they didn’t even have a women’s bathroom in the engineering department building. She has said of her time there, “It was a miracle from God that they brought in this career counselor…I remember thinking, ‘I can see the vision out of the neighborhood. It’s there.’”
Robinson-Berry got a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology and two master’s degrees. Even while in school, she worked for General Dynamics part time and with seven other students launched an engineering start up that grew to 19 employees. She then went to work for McDonald Douglas which in 1966 merged with Boeing and she’s now been with Boeing for over 30 years.
She has worked all over the country with Boeing in engineering, human resources, supplier management, business operations and program management positions. She held jobs in Boeing’s commercial, defense, space and corporate divisions.
But as impressive as this personal and corporate resume is, it’s only part of her story.
At a recent Urban League reception in Charleston to introduce her to the community, she made clear her commitment to “change the reality in Charleston.” She cited the all too familiar stories about our failing education system, the issues of racial equality and the divisions within our community and state saying, “…we have work to do.”
And, clearly this woman intends to go to work and she challenged us all to work alongside her.
South Carolina’s business and political leadership is not used to dealing with a woman like Robinson-Berry – and it’s pretty clear that she does not really care much.
She is a woman who knows how the world works, has risen to the top in an unfriendly if not downright hostile environment – and she intends to have a real impact not just in business but in the life of our state. We should all be thankful she’s here.
The boys in the Palmetto Business Forum back at the Palmetto Club had better take notice.
Welcome to The New South Carolina.