By the time 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year Michael B. Kennedy stood at the podium quietly weeping with pride to receive the same honor his father had received nine years ago, the St. Louis American Foundation’s 20th Annual Salute to Excellence to Business was thoroughly a family affair.
Kennedy’s two predecessors at the awards podium — 2019 Non-Profit Executive of the Year Cassandra Brown Ray and 2019 Corporate Executive of the Year Bill Bradley — both gave such moving tributes to their families, especially their spouses, that emcee Carol Daniel followed up both of their speeches by sending an imaginary love text to her husband.
Bradley, who is vice president of Community Affairs for Anheuser-Busch, even blew a kiss to his wife Tiffany in mid-speech. “He is putting the other men to shame!” Daniel said.
Daniel also made a family connection to the 2019 Corporate Diversity Award recipient, The Muny. The award was accepted by Managing Director Kwofe Coleman, a young black man. Daniel mentioned that her son is interested in theater. “It means so much for him to see himself in you in his hometown,” Daniel said to Coleman.
Along with family, the other theme that connected the event was God. That keynote was struck in the blessing of the meal by Pastor Larry Lee, leader of Agape Christian Center and a past Salute to Business award recipient (2016 Entrepreneur of the Year as CEO of Andy’s Seasoning). Lee prayed for blessings from the “God of excellence,” a powerful spiritual reference to the Salute to Excellence program.
Ray, who is chief financial officer at the Saint Louis Zoo, made a biblical reference to her employer as the “Noah’s ark of the 20th century” trying to save animal species from extinction. Then she quoted from Ephesians 3:20. The banquet room at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac was transformed spontaneously into a church sanctuary as, from all corners of the audience, people recited along from memory: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.”
Kennedy also quoted from scripture (Mathew 17:20, a testimony to faith moving mountains). But even more spiritually powerful was his testament to the faith of his father, Michael Kennedy Sr., who founded KAI Enterprises and then handed the reins to his son (who since founded and also leads the UP Companies as well).
“I watched my father every day get on his knees and pray before he went to work,” Kennedy said.
He then spoke directly to his father watching him from the audience. “I miss you, Dad,” Kennedy said. “I wish you were in the office more. I need those prayers.”
Four recipients of Excellence in Business Performance Awards also were recognized: Tina Anderson, market head of Community Activation in Community Affairs for Aetna; Paris Forest, director of Strategy Operations Solutions for Information Technology and Data Analysis for Boeing; Kimberly Hodge-Bell, an associate fellow and senior toxicologist at Bayer Crop Science; and Darnell Sanders, director of the Archview Division of Ameren Missouri.
The Top 25 African-American Businesses of the Year also were recognized in alphabetical order: ABNA Engineering, Andy’s Seasoning, At Home Care, BAM Contracting, Brown Kortkamp, Centrex Electrical Supply, Clay Piping Systems, CMT Roofing, Davis Associates, CPAs, Deer Valley Home Health Services, Emerging Wisdom, LLC, Hicks-Carter-Hicks, KAI Design & Build, Kwame Building Group, McKinney Group Wealth, Personal Touches by Jeanetta, Phillips Concrete Services, Premiere Production Choice, Real Estate Solutions, Regency Enterprise Services, Simms Building Group, TD4 Electrical, TW Constructors, The UP Companies and World Wide Technology.
World Wide Technology doubled as lead sponsor, along with the Steward Family Foundation. For all of the family love and spiritual depth of the event, a little business did get done. Ann Marr, vice president of Human Resources for World Wide Technology (and 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year), put the Salute to Excellence in Business in the context of the St. Louis American Foundation’s entire Salute program, including the Salute to Excellence in Education, through which millions of university scholarships have been facilitated.
“These are people we want to hire,” Marr said of Salute scholarship recipients. “Bring them over to us.”