Kenasha Paul was in her last year of law school at Nova Southeastern University when she decided to take action on a growing problem she had encountered: African-American graduate students and professionals didn’t have an established network for career development.
“I wanted to create an opportunity to educate black career professionals about their personal and professional development,” Paul said. “Also, to provide a platform for people who have the knowledge and expertise to come back and share the information with their community.”
Paul, who is president of Florida International University’s Black Alumni Association, decided to approach her undergraduate alma mater with her idea to create a conference to provide African-American professionals with career development tools and networking opportunities.
In 2014, FIU became the first sponsor of the Black Professionals Summit, which was designed to assist black professionals in all aspects of life from finances to housing. The Black Professionals Network, a nonprofit organization that Paul founded, was the catalyst behind the event. The summit’s mission is to develop motivated and goal-oriented black professionals into industry-ready leaders for the organizations and communities they serve.
“Kenasha is very driven and ambitious with a big heart,” said Duane Wiles, associate vice president and executive director for the FIU Alumni Association.
“It didn’t surprise me when she decided to take our black alumni chapter to the next level and create the Black Professional Network,’’ he added. “She always had a vision to reach out to the broader community because she felt there was a void in career development and networking opportunities for black professionals.”
More than 200 people attended this year’s summit, which featured panel discussions, breakout sessions and a trade show designed to assist black professionals in career development and networking.
This year’s summit, which was held Oct. 14 at the Roz and Cal Kovens Conference Center at FIU’s North Campus, featured professionals and elected officials including Felecia Hatcher, White House Fellow and CEO of BlackTech Week and Code Fever; Starex Smith of Hungry Black Man; Russell Benford, deputy mayor of Miami-Dade County; and Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness
The year’s theme was “Own Your Voice: Leveraging Your Authentic Self,” which focused on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“Professionals in corporate America have had to deal with micro aggression and people not understanding different backgrounds and being culturally sensitive,” Paul said. “Being your authentic self adds value [to an organization] and goes further than being a clone of what your employer wants you to be.”
Nona Jones, strategic partner manager of communities for Facebook; and Michael A. Finney, president and CEO of Miami-Dade Beacon Council, served as keynote speakers.
In her role, Jones promotes strategic partnerships between Facebook and communities of faith, color and youth. During her keynote address, she advised professionals to grow beyond their role to advance in their career.
“Don’t just know your job — know the business you are in,” Jones said. “Most people become experts at their functional role. But business leaders are the ones that understand the big picture and galvanize their functional roles toward a vision.”
Paul definitely had a vision in mind when she created the Black Professionals Network Summit, which now has sponsors including FIU, the Knight Foundation and the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce.
She created the summit while juggling being a full-time law student and working a full-time internship as an administrative policy clerk for a Miami-Dade School Board official.
“That was a nightmare,” Paul said. “My dean thought I was going to flunk out of school but my faith propelled me. At first, [the network] was supposed to be a labor-of-love project. Now, it has become a full-time occupation.”
After graduating with a law degree focusing on nonprofit and business management, Paul accepted an offer that turned her internship into a permanent position. She left her job in January 2017 to work full time with the Black Professionals Network and expand its programs and services.
Throughout the year, the network offers programming on various topics including financial literacy and first-time home buying. Monthly workshops are held at Venture Café to help professionals who want to become entrepreneurs.
The organization also offers opportunities for professionals to help in the community such as by reading to students at a North Miami library or volunteering to work at the state attorney’s office.
This year marked the first year the network provided $250 each to two public school teachers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to bridge the gap in funding resources teachers need in the classroom.
Next year, the network plans to roll out a civil engagement program where professionals can work with legislators to learn and become invested in the political process.
“It is important for professional development to understand the political process because it affects you in so many ways you don’t realize,” Paul said. “We have to be invested in the political process beyond the national election. It can also become a pipeline for young black professionals who are interested in running for office.”