Honoring history and heritage, Insight News, in partnership with the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department, profiles past and emerging leaders from the Twin Cities African American community.
Melanie Allen is an entrepreneur and community leader. A native Texan, she relocated to Eagan, MN in 1998 to work for 3M. Allen joined 3M as a plant level Industrial Hygienist, immediately after receiving her Masters of Science in Environmental Health Science (EHS) from the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama. Allen was introduced to the EHS field by her aunt who was a Public Health professor and researcher. Allen wanted to secure a career in a sector that projected job growth and opportunities for professional development throughout the years.
Even as a child, she recognized that many of the adults in her life, especially her grandparents, were physically limited by injuries or illnesses that resulted from hard labor and hazardous work environments. Following the lead of her aunt, she decided to use her abilities to protect a cohort of workers across the nation, who often go unheard.
Over the last 22 years, she has done just that. She has held corporate leadership positions for EHS with Ecolab and Allina Hospitals and Clinics. In 2003, Allen founded Safety Skill Builders, LLC, an EHS consulting firm that offers compliance assurance audits and employee education in the areas of personal protective equipment, respiratory protection, hearing conservation, ergonomics, hazard communication, hazardous waste management and industrial hygiene exposure assessment.
Establishing this new business provided Allen with the opportunity to continue her career but with the flexibly she needed to manage her growing family. Starting a business was no easy feat, however Allen did it with grace and excellence. Safety Skill Builders provides its services to some of the region’s major corporations including Land O’ Lakes, Carleton College and Stericycle.
Today, Allen treasures the quality of life that the Twin Cities community offers. This was not always the case. Feeling isolated and disconnected, she and her then fiancé Calvin Allen moved to Philadelphia seeking a more diversity-looking and inclusive-feeling community. During their time on the East Coast they enjoyed diversity of cultures, but missed the quality of life that they had observed others experience in Minnesota. Two years later, the couple returned to Minnesota. Convinced, Minneapolis-St. Paul was the best place to grow their careers and begin a family, the Allens were determined to overcome the isolation, create their own community and make MSP feel like the home they saw others enjoy.
It took many years, but eventually Allen became well-established in the community. The hard work of acclimating inspired Allen to establish another business, unlike anything she had done before. In 2008, Allen founded Welcome Matters LLC, which specializes in helping organizations retain the professionals of color they recruit and relocate to Minneapolis/St. Paul. Motivated by her own acclimation journey and supported by her devoted husband and mentors, created a successful model for retaining young professionals of color. Welcome Matters LLC provides its services to some of the region’s major corporations including United Health Group and Greater MSP – MakeIt.MSP project.
Today Allen manages two successful businesses. She says, “I am able to now live out my entrepreneurial passions because my parents and community invested in me. They made it clear to me that because I was African American, I must obtain a good education, achieve the best credentials possible and always pursue excellence in my craft. As an entrepreneur, I treasure my academic training as a scientist. I credit a large part of my success and ingenuity to the scientific methodology for problem solving that I learned in college and the critical thinking skills that I have practiced over my career thus far.”
Allen is deeply invested in community. She is committed to recruiting African American girls into S.T.E.M. careers. She works with Edina Public Schools to help administrators appreciate the new families experience and to develop more inclusive communication and on-boarding practices. Allen serves on the board of the YWCA Minneapolis, and is a member of Minneapolis-St Paul Chapters of Jack and Jill of America, Links Incorporated, and Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She is married to Calvin Allen and lives in Edina with their two blessings Joshua (12) and Noelle (7).
Most Rewarding Work Experience
I enjoy meeting new clients, helping companies solve problems. My work allows me to impact community and raise awareness around issues I’m passionate about.
Beacons of Leadership
I am fortunate to have so many wonderful role models and trail-blazers that I can look to for inspiration as well as call on for advice and support. Three attributes they share that most inspire me are: 1) amazing spirits of perseverance 2) commitment to leverage their position and resources to benefit the communities they serve 3) laser-like focus on results and forward progress.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs/ Regulatory Compliance Professionals
Get to know yourself; your talents, purpose and interests.
Learn to disagree without being disagreeable.
Never stop learning; keep growing the list of things you are good at. Be multi-talented.
Choose hobbies that stimulate your creativity. Ask “what if” often.
Ideas are Easy. Implementation is Hard.
If you want to maintain a career in regulatory compliance become an expert in the things most influential in any community; resource conservation (water) and sustainability and resource recovery (waste management).
University of Alabama at Birmingham, MSPH (1994)
Texas A&M University, BS (1991)
Dr. Brooke Cunningham is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. As an assistant professor, she conducts research on health equity with local health care systems and practices general internal medicine at the Community University Health Care Center. As a young student, Dr. Cunningham excelled at math and science. Because of her success, she was encouraged to pursue a career in medicine. However, Dr. Cunningham’s personal desire was to be an agent for social change. In college, Dr. Cunningham double majored in history and African American studies. After her third year of college, Dr. Cunningham attended a summer undergraduate biomedical research program at New York University School of Medicine. The program allowed her to study the mentoring of African-American physicians and showed her that she could pursue social science research, even as a physician. She realized that, by pursuing academic medicine, she could impact the ways that physicians think about racial disparities in health.
In 1996, Dr. Cunningham graduated from the University of Virginia. She then entered a joint MD/ PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania. There Dr. Cunningham studied sociology and took her qualifying exams in the sociology of race and in medical sociology. After medical school, she moved to North Carolina and completed her internal medicine residency at Duke University Medical Center. Unlike most of her peers at Duke, Dr. Cunningham decided not to pursue a career in specialty medicine. Instead, she left Duke with the intention to practice primary care. Many didn’t understand her choice. Yet, Dr. Cunningham remained true to herself and purpose. She believed the health care system should respond to the needs of the community, and primary care physicians were critical to addressing those needs.
After residency, Dr. Cunningham completed two postdoctoral fellowships at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, including a general internal medicine fellowship and the Greenwall Fellowship in Bioethics and Health Policy. In 2013, Dr. Cunningham was selected as an Academy Health Delivery System Science Fellow. She moved to Minnesota to complete the fellowship at the Medica Research Institute. The Delivery System Science Fellowship offered Dr. Cunningham an opportunity to study the needs and challenges facing health care delivery organizations as they seek to address health equity. She has been working with Allina Health for more than two years and is now also working with Hennepin County Medical Center. This summer Dr. Cunningham will continue her research through conversations with health systems who are leading the nation in addressing health equity. Dr. Cunningham is committed to ensuring that her research leads to true change in community. She says, “I refuse to get knowledge and leave. I don’t want to just publish papers; I want to engage with people on the frontlines and in the C-suite. I want my research to be useful to people as they seek to transform care delivery to be more responsive to the needs of community.”
In 2014, Dr. Cunningham joined the research faculty in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, University of Minnesota. In 2015, the University of Minnesota awarded her two research grants—one to study organizational climates for health equity and a second to promote productive conversations on race in healthcare. As both a general internist and sociologist, she is interested in how physicians and policymakers make sense of race and frame the causes of and solutions to health disparities. She recently gave two lectures explaining the differences between race, ethnicity, and genetic ancestry, first to other researchers as part of the career development lecture series hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute and then as part of the curriculum for first-year medical students. Dr. Cunningham is a devoted professor and provides mentorship, career guidance, and personal development assistance to her students. Her work and research demonstrate a commitment to being part of the next generation of researchers that advances the field of health disparities.
Most Rewarding Work Experience
The best thing about being a physician/researcher/professor is the interactions with people. For example, when I’m in clinic, I try to get to know the people in front of me, to make sure my patients understand that I value their thoughts and feelings. I usually fall behind in writing my notes, but I believe my patients appreciate the connection. I can see it in their faces. I provide them with a space to share. I acknowledge what they’re going through.
I really enjoy the work that I do. I try to be my best self everyday. Some days I fall short and when I do, I strive to do better the next day. I want to create working environments where physicians can be their best selves and provide the best care to all patients.
Advice for Aspiring Finance Professionals
Identify what gives you energy. Identify the things that you enjoy doing that also positively impact the wellbeing of others. Invest in areas where those things overlap and gain the credentials to be effective in those spaces. It is possible to be authentic and strategic at the same time.
Also, listen to your gut. When I went to medical school, despite my classmates telling me that I was “too smart” for primary care, I always knew that it was the right fit for me. That’s why I love my job so much. Yet, I know from experience that it’s not always easy to listen to that inner voice. Take time to figure out your path, what you are meant to do, and then have the courage to follow that path, even if it is the road less traveled.
Beacons of Leadership
I am inspired by people who work for racial justice. As an academic, I appreciate the efforts of black physician scholars, such as Dr. Camara Jones, President of the American Public Health Association, who have dedicated their careers to deepening our understanding of racism. I am also inspired by folks who do not have nor want a formal platform—for example, the grandmothers, mothers, fathers, teachers, who for generations, have done the hard work so that I might have a voice. I am also inspired by my mother, a leader in her own right, and the women-leaders that have been my second mothers, longtime friends, and colleagues.
• Richmond, VA.
• University of Virginia, B.A. (1996)
• University of Pennsylvania, Masters of Sociology (2001)
• University of Pennsylvania, PhD Sociology (2006)
• University of Pennsylvania, MD Medicine (2007)
• Duke University Medical Center, Internal Medicine Residency (2007-2010)
• Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, General Internal Medicine (2010-2013)
• Johns Hopkins University, Greenwall Fellowship, Berman Institute of Bioethics (2010-2012)
• Johns Hopkins University, Fellow, Berman Institute of Bioethics (2012-2013)
• Medica Research Institute, AcademyHealth Delivery System Science Fellow (2013-2014)