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Seven to Watch | This community advocate is building bosses in Grier Heights

dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

There’s giggling coming from a classroom inside the Grier Heights Community Center on a recent evening, as the high-school age ladies line up to practice walking into a room with impact.

They just heard a talk on how to dress for business and present a professional image. Be confident, the girls were told. That’s probably the best accessory that you have.

Earlier, the teens practiced business pitches.

“I like to build race cars,” said Adesia Martin, a Myers Park High senior. “I’ve been building race cars since I was 12...I’m going to have my own business, engineering, when I get out of college.”

Their teacher, Jania Massey, created this entrepreneurial-themed program and named it Stiletto Boss University. Expectations are high for Massey and her eight students. Sometime next year, they’re planning to launch an online business, an inspirational product line featuring T-shirts, mugs, pillows and other home decor items.

The initiative is being closely watched in Grier Heights, and well beyond the mostly African-American community located about three miles south of uptown. There’s interest in what kind of local mark Massey will make as the first U.S.-based global advocate for Mama Hope, an international nonprofit.

The group promotes health, education and employment programs in African and Central American countries. To do this, it teams with existing community causes.

In Charlotte’s case, Mama Hope’s partners are the community center, and CrossRoads Corp., a nonprofit founded in 2008 to help improve the quality of life for families living in Grier Heights area. It’s one of Charlotte’s most challenged neighborhoods due to high poverty and unemployment, and low home ownership.

I see us inspiring other organizations to look towards the youth to making it better.

Jania Massey

CrossRoads redeveloped the historic Billingsville School into the community center with help from Myers Park Presbyterian Church, foundations and the community. Today, the center hosts youth programs, job readiness classes and neighborhood celebrations like barbecues and holiday markets.

The Mama Hope and CrossRoads partnership, and the resulting Stiletto program, illustrates “the power of collaboration, unity, teamwork and sisterhood,” Massey says.

“I see us inspiring other organizations to look towards the youth to making it better ...And I also just see people highlighting this community, because it’s such a gem.”

Leaving the comfort zone

With their thick binders and black tote bags embellished with Stiletto Boss University bedazzling, the ladies met every Thursday and every other Saturday this fall, through Dec. 17.

Massey arranged for them to hear from 17 speakers covering various aspects of entrepreneurship, from wardrobe stylist Stacee Michelle, who gave the professional image talk, to Marsha Barnes of The Finance Bar, who brought her financial-literacy lessons for a session on budgeting.

Every class begins with the students reading the SBU pledge Massey wrote as part of her curriculum. One line of the pledge, “I will step out of my comfort zone,” came to life for 15-year-old Savannah Johnson, when faced with her first networking event.

She and another classmate joined Massey at a monthly mixer with Prosocialites, a group that focuses on good causes. They followed Massey’s directive to mingle, get people’s names, and talk about what they had learned so far at Stiletto Boss University.

Johnson, a Myers Park High School freshman, recalls “it was scary” at first, “because I’m not a people person.” Then she got the hang of it.

“They told me about their business, and what they did,” Johnson says. “It’s not that hard. Don’t always be scared to try something new.”

That’s a description that could fit Massey’s jump into this role, which combines her entrepreneurial and philanthropic interests.

Giving back with mom

Massey points to her mother Janet Driskell as her inspiration.

Not long after moving to Charlotte from Winston-Salem at age 6, Massey would join her mother in her “nurturing” pursuits – volunteering at soup kitchens or the local rec center. “My mom always instilled that the best thing to give back is time.”

Later, Massey’s biology and chemistry studies at Winston-Salem State University helped her land a corporate job in healthcare consulting in Charlotte.

She kept up her volunteering, but also started businesses based on her other interests, including co-founding a fashion styling venture called Ethan and Zoey. Three years ago, she started the nonprofit consulting group Philanthropy Circle 365, which helps other nonprofits grow through marketing.

Still looking to “get out of my circle...to find other people who liked to serve,” Massey joined the women’s nonprofit Junior League of Charlotte, where members work with local agencies toward community improvements.

That’s where she met Hannah Ames Beavers, director of development and strategy for Mama Hope.

The women say they became fast friends over their shared interests. Both had started their own nonprofits. And Massey was inspired by Beavers’ story of leaving her corporate job to pursue her philanthropic interests full time - a move Massey also was considering.

Beavers had been thinking about starting Mama Hope’s first U.S.-based project. Her research ultimately led to meeting CrossRoads executive director, Don Gately, and program director Rebekah Bowen.

CrossRoads spearheads a broad range of programs, which included buying 36 lots in the community to build mixed-income housing. Beavers thought Mama Hope could partner in these Grier Heights efforts.

Wells Fargo Foundation, which already invests in CrossRoads’ work, pledged a $10,000 grant to Mama Hope’s U.S effort if it was based in Grier Heights, according to Beavers.

That left finding the right person – and Massey was intrigued.

“I couldn’t see any cons with it,” Massey said. “Helping the community, it’s going to make me better, push me to learn something outside my comfort zone.” She left her 11-year corporate job in July to train with Mama Hope and craft her Stiletto Boss program.

“I think it’s great and pretty exciting,” Gately says. “These girls are getting exposure to finance, to marketing, a lot of things that kids that age don’t get involved in, much less kids out of high-poverty neighborhoods.”

Once everything is ready, Massey wants her students to debut their accessories line in front of all their supporters, so the community can see how the business is for Grier Heights.

“They have truly changed my life,” Massey says, and “I want everybody that has poured into them to hear what their investment into them did for them.”

Jania Massey

Age: 33

Family: Mom, Janet Driskell, is a volunteer with Hands On Charlotte.

Education: Winston-Salem State University with a degree in biology, University of Phoenix with a master’s in health care administration.

Also: Founder of Philanthropy Circle 365 (also known as PC Group 365), Cofounder with Deidra Young of Ethan and Zoey, a fashion styling consulting business.

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