Junetta Everett leads Chamber through unprecedented time

By Amy Geiszler-Jones
The Active Age
When Junetta Everett became chair of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors this year, it was heralded as a historic appointment.
An executive with Delta Dental of Kansas, Everett is just the sixth female and the first person of color to hold that position in the chamber’s 102 years of existence.
In the months since, the appointment has taken on more significance as Wichita’s business community deals with reaction to a worldwide pandemic and America examines racial disparity and inequality issues in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
For Everett, 64, meeting challenges is something she has always done — from starting the first Black Student Union at her community college to being the first black dental hygienist to graduate from Wichita State University to being appointed to help the chamber put its diversity and inclusion efforts into action, not just words, four years ago.
“I’m always ready to take a challenge and I’m always determined to not let the challenge beat me,” said Everett, the vice president of professional relations with Delta Dental of Kansas. “We’ll still accomplish what we’ve set out to do.”
Even before the recent protests, Everett said, her one-year term as board chair was focused on diversity and inclusion.
“Wichita and all businesses have to stand in solidarity and get rid of disparities in education, disparities in economics and the disparities in health care.”
A leader in diversity and inclusion
Having Everett at the board’s helm is a matter of having the right person at the right time, said Gary Plummer, the chamber’s president and CEO.
According to the chamber, its diversity and inclusion committee’s mission is to “champion the competitive advantage of having a diverse and inclusive business climate.”
From the beginning, Everett “showed such leadership and knew how to develop that culture of inclusion,” Plummer said.
In the past few years, the chamber’s 60-plus member board makeup has gone from including two persons of color to 11. The leaders of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Heartland Black Chamber of Commerce are now automatic members of the board. The chamber’s 19-member staff has diversified to include four persons of color, according to Plummer.
The chamber is providing training and resources to help businesses with diversity and inclusion, and it’s working on supplier diversity to help minority businesses build up and compete for contracts.
“If you’re hanging your hat on meeting a goal (of hiring a few people of color), then you’re totally missing the inclusion perspective,” Everett said in a recent KMUW story.
Missed Opportunity
Everett said she missed an opportunity of inclusion as a young college student when she attended what is now Butler Community College in El Dorado in the mid 1970s.
“There was a big racial split,” she recalled. The college had made blind assignments for dorm rooms, not paying attention to the skin color of the young women.
“But after about a week of having mixed roommates, we wanted to separate,” she said – and by choice, the residents segregated.
“We weren’t comfortable with each other,” Everett said. Being uncomfortable is part of the learning process of inclusion, she noted. “If I could do it over today, I wouldn’t do that again.”
Another challenge
The COVID-19 pandemic created another kind of challenge for Everett’s term and the chamber. Eighty-eight percent of the chamber’s 1,700 members are small businesses that employ fewer than 100 employees, and many if not all felt effects of the pandemic.
Everett said the chamber is helping all businesses, not just its members, with COVID-19 business challenges with a comprehensive resource section on its website that addresses both employer and employee issues.
The chamber hasn’t been able to determine the full impact on membership numbers because of the COVID-19 economic effect. Everett said she is issuing a challenge to current members to help recruit at least one more business for the chamber.
Her road to success
Everett credits her grandparents for making sure she took advantage of getting an education and for seeing beyond people’s differences.
Of her nine siblings — seven who share the same mother and two on her dad’s side — she was the only one to get a college education. She was also the only one raised by her grandparents. She went to live with them at age two, when her teen mom, who already had two other children, was getting divorced and needed help.
The family — including Everett’s mother and siblings — moved to Wichita when Everett was in the fifth grade. Her grandfather, the Rev. C.J. Tisdale, was a Baptist minister, and her mom lived just around the corner from her and her grandparents.
“My mom finished high school, but she didn’t go to college and my grandfather wanted that for me,” Everett said. By going to summer school, she ended up graduating a year early, in her junior year, from East High and then went to BCC, earning an associate’s degree.
She went to WSU and enrolled in the dental hygiene program — where a professor told her people like her weren’t in the field. Through mutual friends, she met her husband, Victor, an education major and a standout track and field athlete at WSU. She recalled her friends telling her they knew she would really like him.
“And I didn’t like him,” she said, laughing. “He had a little bit of a naughty mouth and I said, ‘That’s not going to work with me.’” Married for 38 years, they have five sons and seven grandchildren with another on the way. A retired USD 259 teacher and coach, Victor is executive of business affairs at the couple’s church, St. Mark’s United Methodist.
After working nine years as a dental hygienist, Everett joined Delta Dental of Kansas in 1987 and became an executive in 1995. During the interview with KMUW, Everett said she encountered some racism as she would visit the dental offices that had contracts with the insurance company, but that her CEO at the time took a stand against that.
In addition to serving on the chamber board, Everett has also been active with several other community, WSU and nonprofit boards.
With such an active professional life Everett said she relies on “five totally different groups of diverse friends and family members I call my ‘personal nourishment groups.’ These are groups of best friends — who travel together when possible – different industry friends who meet weekly to quarterly, and my family. My sons and daughters-in-law and I stay on chat conversations for hours debating different topics and perspectives virtually every week. It forces me to read, stay sharp and active. To de-stress, I listen to audiobooks or play computer games — coupled with a glass of red wine.”

Contact Amy Geiszler-Jones at
algj64@sbcglobal.net

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