In 2017, when Junetta Everett was asked about lining up to be chair of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce board, she knew it was a history-making opportunity she couldn’t pass up. When she moved into the spot in 2020, Everett became the first African American to lead the historic business organization, and it turned out to be one of the most tumultuous years in the business organization’s history.
Everett’s one-year term as Chamber Chair began Jan. 1, 2020, and about 10 days later, Spirit AeroSystems announced the layoff of approximately 2,800 workers due to the grounding of the troubled Boeing 737 Max aircraft.
“I knew this was not going to be an easy year,” Everett said about the outlook at the beginning of 2020. But she had no idea what else lay ahead.
She could not know a worldwide pandemic would shut down routine activities in March; and the killing of George Floyd by law enforcement in May in Minneapolis would spur marches and protests; and that COVID-19 deaths in Sedgwick County would surpass 265 before the end of the year; and that the economic downturn would persist.
Shift, Pivot, Thrive
“We really had to pivot on a dime with COVID,” Everett said, and the challenges kept coming.
In March, when a declaration of emergency was declared, the Chamber created an online resource center. It attracted over 5,000 views almost immediately, she said.
The Chamber, like other businesses, suffered. They rely on business memberships, but for financially stressed companies, paying Chamber dues became the least of their concerns. The Chamber board started waiving some membership dues, and in other cases, members that had paid dues were extended an offer to roll it forward to the next year.
“I was thinking this is going to be the worst financial year ever for the Chamber and it’s going to be the most unproductive,” said Everett, who did not attend a single ribbon-cutting ceremony for a business opening in 2020.
“It actually ended up being a very productive year,” she said, as the Chamber became more innovative. “We have actually learned that there are different ways to get to where we need to be,” she said. “We ended up doing 32 virtual events, that reached over 24,000 views,” she said. “We are not yet back,” Everett said of the Chamber’s recovery from the economic hits of 2020, but it ended the year better than she expected.
In May, when the murder of George Floyd turned the country’s conversation to racial justice and equity, Everett participated in two marches, but she participated in many more discussions with Chamber members about the organization’s response.
“We were not going to stand for racial injustice,” she said.
There were talks with CEOs and to others in management. Some Chamber board members started supporting minority-owned and women-owned businesses to become members of the Chamber, she said.
“Intentional inclusion” is a phrase Everett uses often. She said her vision at the start of her Chamber term was to see the overall community benefit from the gains she knew could come from being more inclusive. Seeing real gains, she said, would require intentional inclusion.
Among her goals was increasing the diversity of the Chamber’s board, and now there are more people of color on the board.
“The Chamber is walking the walk and talking the talk,” she said.
African-American Kyle Ellison, executive director of Real Men Real Heroes, was an Everett appointment to the board.
“She really, really pushed and encouraged diversity to happen within the Chamber, [to look] the same way you see it in Wichita,” Ellison said. She was “adamant about being inclusive of other people,” he said. The imprint she’s left on the Chamber is that including people of different genders, races, backgrounds, education, and neighborhoods has to be a conscious effort, he said.
“It’s always now top of mind, it’s not something left on the backburner,” Ellison said.
Also during 2020, three political officeholders were linked to a scandal aimed at derailing the Wichita mayoral candidacy of Brandon Whipple. The Chamber and its political action committee called for the resignation of the trio – a state representative, a Wichita city councilmember, and a Sedgwick County commissioner. Everett didn’t want the Chamber to sit on the sideline.
As for the Chamber’s action, Everett said, “You have to take bold stances or bold moves.”
The Road Ahead
Everett turned 65 in December 2020, and is retiring in early February after 33 years with Delta Dental of Kansas. She started her career as a dental hygienist, even though a clinical professor said she probably should consider a different career because there were no Black dental hygienists in Kansas and people would probably have a problem with her working in their mouth, she said.
“My DNA, obviously, is that I take a challenge, I welcome a challenge,” Everett said.
After a successful career as a hygienist, she later transferred to the corporate world and moved up the ladder, finishing her career as vice president of professional relations. She discovered that working in the corporate world was not unlike being a dental hygienist – it’s about building relationships, she said.
Everett’s husband, Victor Everett, retired as a State Farm Insurance agent and serves now as executive of business affairs at St. Mark United Methodist Church, where the couple are members. They have five sons, six grandsons, and four granddaughters.
Everett says she will continue to serve on boards and mentor young women, helping them to recognize their worth and to “walk in the door.”
“My story doesn’t end here. I’ve got plenty more to do,” Everett said.
A lot of boards – corporate and nonprofit – are not diverse, Everett said. “My intent is to figure out a solution to that. I do have some things in my mind,” she said, not yet ready to make an announcement. Everett still serves on the Chamber board.