BLUE SPRINGS • As one of the few African American people in Mississippi with a CEO position, Toyota Mississippi President Sean Suggs said he sees it as an opportunity to set an example of how to lead not only in the community, but the state.
“I’ve got to be a beacon of light for others to follow, because there’s just not many of me here, and I’m up for that challenge,” Suggs said.
Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Suggs said he learned a lot about being a black man.
“You learn about some of the advantages and disadvantages you have, real time, with the social economic things that a lot of us still struggle with today,” Suggs said. “... I realized at a young age that education is a really powerful tool to break some of those stereotypical things that we do within our communities.”
Suggs said Black History Month is important in recognizing diversity, offering a better understanding of African American heritage and teaching African Americans to understand their upbringing.
For him, that means living by Toyota Mississippi’s diversity statement and walking the walk.
“Participating in community events, to me, is extremely important to give back. This is the essence of the Toyota way, of respect for people with continuous improvement,” Suggs said.
He noted how Mississippi has been important in helping his growth, as Toyota Mississippi has been able to form state, city and community partnerships. Suggs said when he first moved to Mississippi, it was at the bottom in many ways but is seeing momentum, a lot of which he credits to education. He said it was very important to be selected to the state Board of Education in 2017 and he hopes to show youth they have more opportunities by sharing workforce needs.
“That’s my ultimate goal here, to retain some of the talent here in this state so they believe they can stay here, learn and earn a great living for their families,” Suggs said.
While he did not have role models growing up, he said he found good mentors, both black and white, as he progressed in his career and is a firm believer everyone should have a coach, sponsor and mentor.
In his life, he’s been able to meet many great African American figures he’s looked up to, such as Congressman John Lewis. He’s been in then-President Barack Obama’s office, and even hosted Magic Johnson recently at the Toyota Mississippi plant. For Suggs, Obama’s inauguration brought up a lot of memories about his own family, such as his grandfather, who was a North Carolina sharecropper, or his mother, who cleaned hotel rooms to make a living.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion that we finally had a black president,” Suggs said. “... I didn’t think that would happen until my grandkid’s kids had kids, but no longer can African Americans say that they can’t, it’s not possible, because it is, and we were all living witnesses to that.”
He credits Toyota for offering him an opportunity to grow and hopes to continue doing that. He cited the company’s donation of $750,000 to the Two Mississippi Museums as one example of their commitment to diversity and honoring African American history, and said he was fortunate to work his way up to his current position.
“They took a chance on me, as they do with a lot of people,” Suggs said.
At a recent Black History Month presentation in Indiana, Suggs used the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to remind participants to do more than just celebrate Black History Month, but also participate in making this country better.
“My challenge to everyone ... is because of Dr. King, what can you do differently today than you ever did before? And because of Dr. King, what will you do to bring our communities together so we can work as one to get our goals and objectives achieved?” Suggs said.