When Stephanie Summers-O’Neal was a child, she traveled the globe with her father on mission trips for the World Mental Health Organization.
Developing relationships with people on every continent except Australia from an early age laid the groundwork for Summers-O’Neal to establish one of the state`s most successful domestic and international business development companies. Now she wants to expand Mississippi`s role in the global marketplace by representing the second congressional district.
If elected, Summers-O’Neal, 34, who served on Gov. Haley Barbour`s inaugural committee, would become the first female African-American Republican elected to the U.S. Congress. She will need to defeat Clinton B. LeSueur of Greenville, who earned 44% of the vote in the 2002 election in the March 9 primary election before facing incumbent Bennie G. Thompson (D-Bolton) in the Nov. 2 general election. Since he won a special election in 1993, Thompson has represented the second district, which stretches from Jefferson County to Tunica County and includes a predominantly black and impoverished Delta region.
“There are so many ways to help the Delta,” said Summers-O’Neal, CEO of Jackson-based Diversified Trade Company, LLC (DTC). “For example, an underutilized existing program – the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program – could be used by many Mississippi companies and producers. This Department of Commerce program assists companies that have lost revenue due to imports regain some of those monies and find new opportunities for their products. Catfish farmers in the Delta especially come to mind because of the importation of Vietnamese fish, which has seriously affected catfish processing. If they knew about it, and took advantage of it, a lot of Mississippians could benefit from the program.”
DTC works closely with U.S. government agencies, the Department of Commerce, Export-Import Bank of the U.S. and OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation) to provide project and trade financing for its clients. The firm, which represents a dozen or so U.S. companies in numerous countries, is well known for its export management and export strategy development services in the agriculture, aerospace, oil and gas, specialty chemicals and telecommunications industries.
“We had a client in the telecommunications industry that operated in 140 countries but no African countries,” said Summers-O’Neal. “They were finding it difficult to engage in relations with those countries because African nations do a lot of intra-regional trade. Tribal warfare made it difficult. Within 18 months, we increased this company`s market share into 15 countries on the continent of Africa.”
Summers-O’Neal comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. Her paternal grandfather, W.J. Summers, owned Summers Hotel and Subway Lounge. Her maternal grandfather, George W. Stutts Sr., was a farmer, philanthropist and oil businessman.
“Summers Hotel was the first hotel where blacks could stay in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” said Summers-O’Neal. “My paternal grandfather also owned several other businesses, such as hotels, pharmacies, apartments and grocery stores. He also started the first black bank and was instrumental in establishing the Masonic Temple. My maternal grandfather was a Yazoo County farmer with a sixth grade education. But he owned a lot of land, and the first oil wells in Mississippi were built on his land at Tinsley. He was one of the wealthiest men in the South, and owned restaurants, a race track and housing developments. He created a lot of jobs for people, and that made an impression on me.”
Summers-O’Neal attended St. Joseph High School in Jackson, and earned a biology degree from Hampton University in Virginia. Her father was a psychiatrist who established the only black-owned mental healthcare company of its kind in Mississippi.
“I was first interested in medical school so I could come back and relieve my father,” said Summers-O’Neal. “As the healthcare industry changed, and there was uncertainty over the role of managed care, I decided not to become a physician. At the same time, my family still needed me to help them with the healthcare company. I came in as secretary and moved up to billing clerk and then to COO. During the four years I was COO, we grew by 500%.”
In 1998, Summers-O’Neal was mulling her next career move when she thumbed through her Rolodex and noticed how many relationships she had developed with people in various states and countries.
“I had always wanted to own an import/export company,” she said. “I realized I could use those relationships to help others increase their market share.”
When DTC was first formed, Summers-O’Neal and her husband, Willie O’Neal Jr., an industrial engineer whose expertise was quality assurance, established two business units: business performance and international trade.
“Once we helped companies improve their efficiency and receive additional certification to increase their market share, then my side of the company would help them do business in overseas markets,” she said. “Now we focus more on international trade activities.”
Even though she has supported some Democrats, Summers-O’Neal said she had always been a Republican.
“I believe in self-sustainability,” she said. “My family has always lived that way. We believe we can be creative energizers in the community. The government is not responsible for taking care of people, but it is responsible for making sure everyone has access to quality education and healthcare, and that we all have an opportunity to reach our potential.”
Bridge building is the key for change, said Summers-O’Neal.
“The Delta has never lacked the ability for people to succeed, in spite of its limited resources,” she said. “We need to reacquaint our people with who they are and instill the benefits of collaborations between family, community, schools, churches and business. We’ve suffered from separatism and divisiveness for so long. But it`s never too late for change. Leadership that motivates people and finds new resources will take us forward.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.