Mentoring the next generation of women in business is a part of Joe Rouzan’s mission for South Los Angeles.

For communities of color, having mentors has proven beneficial to career advancement. These individuals become the guiding voices that provide direction on our paths critical to success.  

A study of career progression of minorities in US corporations by Harvard Business School Professor David Thomas, revealed that “people of color who advance the furthest all share one characteristic—a strong network of mentors and corporate sponsors who nurture their professional development.” Being a leader in a predominantly minority community, Joe Rouzan III, president and ceo of Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation (VSEDC), mentors five women, Dr. Kay Ramsey, Cassie Betts, Brenda Sanchez, Diana Yanez, and Coleen Witt. I recently joined Joe and his mentees for lunch at Del Frisco’s Grille in Santa Monica where the mentees met each other for the first time to share how their mentor/mentee relationships with Joe manifested, and the growth they have experienced.   

Inspiration to make positive change 

After retiring from LAPD, Joe accepted employment as the General Manager of a local mall where he obtained invaluable insight into the lack of women in business. He took this knowledge with him and made it a priority to mentor women throughout his career and open as many doors to them as possible.   

A friendship to last a lifetime  

Being a former child of the foster care system, Dr. Kay Ramsey understands the experience of maturing without the presence of a constant mentor. “On Facebook, I posted that I needed a mentor and Joe reached out,” said Dr. Kay Ramsey, Joe’s first mentee. She praised the consistent nature of Joe’s mentorship; they would meet monthly, sometimes weekly to navigate her career path and discuss how to achieve her goals. “Having somebody there, who was constant with support in all areas of my life has been essential. I feel like Joe has been that one constant for me.” 

Joe chimed in to note what he expected from their relationship—he expects sincere disclosure of their life such as relationships with significant others, their setbacks, and their financial status. They need to “be ready to go there” because what Joe ultimately seeks to help is their life, overall. For Dr. Ramsey, this guidance helped her grasp the gravity of her decisions, living with them and realize her priorities. Her experiences and benefits with mentorship are now shared in her published book, Persevering Beyond Adversity, where she discusses Joe and his guidance. 

In the nearly 20 years since that mentorship began, Joe has acquired other mentees, and his mentorship style has experienced its own development with each recruit. Reflecting on how he views mentorship, Joe believes, “mentorship is not about knowing everything. It’s about having a relationship with others whom I can bring to a situation where I’m not as astute. I may not have all the answers, but I know who does.” 

Work-Life balance 

Real estate professional Brenda Sanchez first encountered Joe while noting his presence amongst their mutual virtual group meetings for the USC Ross Minority program.   

“He knew everybody. I thought, ‘Who is this guy? He’s well connected’,” remarked Sanchez, who views Joe as her second father. In need of a capable guide, she sought out Joe’s mentorship and the counsel she receives has guided her through numerous important decisions in business and life. When nervous about making decisions, “he’s the one I go to,” she says. “I listened to him and it has changed my financial life, personal life—everything.” 

Opening doors to rooms of influence  

Joe encourages his mentees to embrace life’s tough challenges. Self-described serial entrepreneur, Coline Witt, faced a daunting business prospect when her print magazine faced the wave of digital production competition that has overtaken print media. Unfortunately, she had to close that business. Unsure of her next path, she worked for the Mayor’s Office in the City of LA to stay close to entrepreneurship and business development. The move paid off. It led to her meeting Joe, who helped her with her next steps as an entrepreneur. 

Not long after they began working together, she would consult with him on numerous situations. “He has guided me, supported me, and helped my business grow,” Coleen remarked. Coleen now hosts the popular Eating While Broke on I Heart Radio. It didn’t take long before the benefits of Joe’s mentorship were revealed to Coleen. She was experiencing networking difficulties on a program to address the emergency broadband affordable connectivity during the pandemic and recognized that she had someone in her corner who might be able to assist. Ready to help, Joe connected her directly to the CEO of SRO Housing, facilitating a relationship that continues today.  

More than a teacher  

After starting her tech company while a client of VSEDC, Cassie Betts realized she would need a professional with extensive experience with the City of LA to help her navigate through the city’s red tape. While attending a 2013 Recycling Black Dollars event where Joe spoke, she immediately knew, “he was exactly who I was looking for.” She waited 90 minutes just to speak with him and the rest is history.  Cassie’s tech and media company, M.A.R.T.Y. is thriving, as is her tech education non-profit MISLA (Made In South LA), which aims to narrow the digital divide in South LA through free tech bootcamps and classes for South LA youth.  

Watching how Joe utilizes his network and navigates local politics to help VSEDC achieve its goals has given her insight that has allowed her to better her own businesses. “Having a father figure in my life who only wants to elevate me has been invaluable. And I mostly follow his advice!” Cassie quipped with a wink. She remains close to VSEDC, but no longer as a client. These days, the self-taught full-stack developer is now VSEDC’s lead technology consultant. 

New beginnings  

For Diane Yanez, Joe’s newest mentee, the stories of her fellow mentees illustrated the many ways one can benefit from Joe’s mentorship. She was coasting at her job where she had been for seven years, and was dissatisfied with her career progress and lack of professional development. She felt undervalued, and knew she had more to offer. Joe gave her direction and insight to help her facilitate her own success. Though the relationship is recently formed, Diana has already found herself in a better situation as the receptionist at VSEDC’s South LA Best Buy Teen Tech Center. The  position provides her with healthcare coverage and “opportunity to advance beyond the same cycle” she says.   

That which is inherited  

Just as his mentees have learned from him, Joe learned from his mentors. The culmination of his experiences and the nurturing counseling of his own mentors is baked into the wisdom he imparts to others. “I consider learning from a mentor and incorporating what they’ve taught you as a mental inheritance of great value—especially emulation, something Dr. Kay writes about in her book,” says Joe.  

Guided by the principles learned and taught to him, Joe will continue to implore current and future mentees to “embrace other voices and find their own mentees” to gift what they’ve cultivated to the next generations. Time will ultimately reveal the sphere of influence and success that will spawn from Joe’s mentees, but he is confident in the women he has mentored, and that they’ll trust in what he has shared with them. 

As we were finishing lunch Joe summed up his drive as a mentor. “You ladies have meant so much to me,” he said. “I have three daughters, and while they’re my blood, I felt that I needed to do more. You five ladies have really validated why this is so important, and I just want to tell you, thank you so much.”