A Black and Brown-owned national consulting firm that centers Human Equity as the catalyst for change.
Real communities make the best workplace. What makes a community? A community is a space, a shared space made up of people with particular characteristics. They feel a sense of belonging. Together they feel purpose. There’s a shared sense of agreement as they move toward a common goal. A community doesn’t form overnight. It’s not forced or spoken into existence—it can only be formed gradually. And it takes a special group within the community to not only guide it, but to keep it moving forward. Gradient’s story is one of community.
The Gradient Story
Their relationship spans 20 years of guiding one another along their own individual paths—paths that would ultimately form a unique team to apply their training, expertise and lived experiences to lift businesses up and guide people to discover the best versions of themselves. Grounding heads and hearts, today Gradient stands to form a community in the workplace—a Gradient Community that tells a new story for businesses and its people: one of wellbeing, transformation and long-term success. And as they share their new stories—their new narrative, more Gradient Communities will form, more people will be impacted and more business will find a version of themselves they never thought was possible.
Many see DEIB work as a means to a greater end. Gradient sees the journey as an end in itself. Our Human Equity approach is about doing DEIB work differently and helping organizations think through the reality that we live in a world where some people do not feel seen or heard. Gradient creates space to invite conversations to take place and relationships to grow by guiding their clients on their own journey to discovery. This unique method of allowing the client in the driver’s seat has the ability to break down misperceptions and relieve tensions while creating stronger and lasting outcomes—transformational change.
“The old way of approaching these issues with perfunctory, so-called sensitivity training is no longer acceptable. Today, no one is going to “hug it out” after a single lecture about embracing difference. According to a 2016 report from the Harvard Business Review, traditional sensitivity training can be ineffectual and can breed resentment. Even the term itself has fallen out of favor.”
— The New York Times
Within Gradient communities:
- Leadership sees the performance of their employees and the quality of their workplace improve.
- Employers see DEIB as a worthy investment for their business.
- Human Resources see new talent interested in being employed and being able to recruit people they couldn’t recruit before.
- Employees feel psychologically safe in a community – where they can see a better version of themselves, learn from others and grow.
- The Community learns from the importance of DEIB and sees the impact of its value.
Meet Our Team
Robbin Hudson, MBA, CPDC
Founder & Senior Partner
Robbin is a visionary, strategist, builder and connector. At the center of her work is a deep passion for eliminating poverty and eradicating racism. She values both the grassroots and visionary efforts required to build effective pathways for people and organizations to flourish. Robbin has thrived in leadership roles in the business, government, nonprofit and philanthropy sectors. In each sector she developed and managed innovative projects to support strategic growth and sustainability. Robbin holds an MBA from the Weatherhead School of Management and a BA Economics from Mount Holyoke College. She is a certified professional leadership and diversity coach. Robbin is currently a Council on Foundations Career Pathways Fellow.
Jerry E. Peña, CPDC
Founder & Senior Partner
Jerry at heart is a community organizer and social justice practitioner. He has over 20 years of experience advocating for people of color and organizing to change policies that have impacted impoverished communities in this country. This work has helped Jerry understand that you must walk side by side with the people and give voice to those who feel voiceless. Jerry has practiced his craft and worked on social issue campaigns like a pathway to citizenship for the Undocumented, restoration of rights for Returning Citizens and Advocating for Crime Survivors in communities of color all over the country. Working deeply in states like Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Washington D.C., and California around strategy objectives and story of self-techniques. Jerry holds a BA in Organizational Leadership from Baldwin Wallace University with a minor in Communications, is a fellow at the James Lawson Institute and a Network Builder at Neighborhood Connections and is the Founder of Estrategia a consulting firm focused on Leadership Development, Strategies and Coaching.
Victor A. Ruiz, M.ED, CPDC
Founder & Senior Partner
Victor is a courageous leader and advocate with a body of work that spans over 20 years. He is an Executive Director, Coach, Consultant and active member of his community. As Executive Director of Esperanza, Inc., an organization founded in 1983 to advocate on behalf of and improve the academic achievements of Hispanics in Greater Cleveland, the organization has grown tremendously. It has been a leader in addressing the educational needs of Cleveland’s Latinx community. Victor’s coaching and consulting practice focuses on working with individuals and organizations to help them recognize their power and potential and use it to benefit themselves and their community.
Director of Operations
Heather is passionate about helping businesses grow. Especially those that are tackling society’s biggest challenges. The pandemic thoroughly disrupted her life and opened her eyes to what matters. With new intention and purpose and drawing upon her decades of experience with various organizations, she works with startups and small businesses on tasks including business operations, content strategy and public relations. Prior to consulting, Heather spent over a decade working in financial services in both New York City and Cleveland for firms such as Capital Group Companies, J.P. Morgan and Merrill Private Wealth Management. Heather earned a BS in Environmental Policy and Behavior from The University of Michigan and an MBA focusing on finance and entrepreneurship from the Weatherhead School of Management.
Brandi Blessett, Ph.D
Brandi is an associate professor and Director of the Masters of Public Administration (MPA) at the University of Cincinnati (UC). The MPA program at UC is the only program in the country that has a social justice focus. Her research focuses on administrative responsibility, disenfranchisement and social equity. Much of her recent work acknowledges the disproportionate effects the criminal legal system has on people and communities of color. Specifically, she offers insight into the effects of institutional injustice and their implications for underrepresented communities. Dr. Blessett’s research agenda advocates for ethical practices, professional standards, and accountability measures to promote equity, justice and fairness to all factions of U.S. society. Brandi’s areas of expertise include community engaged research, strategic planning, facilitation, DEI trainings and equity audits.
Luis Cartagena, CPA
Luis is President/CEO of Cartagena CPA & Consultants, LLC, a firm that provides accounting, tax, financial management and consulting services to individuals and small to medium size companies. In his previous role as Inclusion Officer for Cuyahoga County, he focused on policy change and creation, diversity spend, outreach and both internal and external communications regarding the County’s inclusion initiatives. Cartagena worked as the Strategic Planning Business Advisor with the Minority Business Development Agency, where he assisted minority-owned business enterprises in creating and retaining jobs via access to procurement opportunities in both the private and public sectors. He also assisted firms in securing access to capital via venture capital, microlending, or government-supported loan guarantee programs. Luis’ areas of expertise include accounting and financial management, equitable spend compliance/evaluation in procurement, and diversity and inclusion business outreach.
Tia Sherèe Gaynor, Ph.D
Tia is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, Founding Director of the Center for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation and Co-director of The Cincinnati Project at the University of Cincinnati. Her research interests explore the intersection of social justice, local government and identity. More specifically, focusing on the varying ways administrative discretion and decision-making can lead to inequitable outcomes for people of color, those who identify as LGBTQIA and people at the intersections of these and other identities. Most recently, her work has centered on policing, race and gender identity. Tia’s areas of expertise are strategic planning, program evaluation, training, DEI in organizational development and curriculum development.
Transferring her love for fashion and her 20 years of experience in the fashion industry into her dream business, Phoebe Lee serves as Chief Executive Officer/President of Acumen Industry, an off shoot of Affinity Apparel, a national leader in the uniform marketplace. She previously oversaw operations as President at VDP Safety & Uniforms, a supplier of safety apparel and equipment. As a consultant, Phoebe is a DEI training facilitator and serves as a Research Analyst for DEI programming. Currently involved in two distinct DEI Projects for Hamilton County (OH), she is serving as the Project Manager for the Development of the Framework for Hamilton County’s Equity Plan. Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Clark Atlanta University in Georgia where she graduated magna cum laude while studying business administration and supply chain management. She also completed studies in Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. A graduate of the inaugural class of the Emerging Young Entrepreneur (EYE) Program sponsored by the National Minority Suppliers Development Council (NMSDC), Lee was selected as one of 13 Millennial CEO’s nationally to participate in this program. Lee has also worked as a model appearing on Good Morning America, The Today Show, NY Live, VH1, among other networks. She has been featured in several magazines including InStyle Magazine. Active in the community, she serves as a mentor for high school students at John Hay High School through ACE (Architectural, Construction, and Engineering) and is active with Diversity Compliance Coalition of Ohio (DCCO). Lee has been profiled in Who’s Who in Black Cleveland as an Interesting Personality and as an Emerging Leader. She has also served as a committee chair for the NAACP Freedom Fund Gala. Appointed to a five-year term in 2018 by then Governor John Kasich to the Board of Trustees at Cuyahoga Community College, Lee serves on the Nominating and Community Affairs/Workforce Development Committees. She also serves on the Board for The Fund for Our Economic Future and Manufacturing Works – Growth & Transition/Leadership Inst. Advisory Committee. She is passionate and actively involved in the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committees and initiatives on all three boards.
Verna Lee has over 45 years of combined corporate and entrepreneurial experience. Lee has been a small business owner since 1986. Lee managed the overall functions for the City of Cleveland’s Community Relations Equal Employment Division and MetroHealth Medical Center as Manager of Employment Opportunity for a combined 25 years. Prior, she was an Associate Account Manager for Burroughs Corporation. As a management/marketing consultant, Lee has advised numerous clients on Human Resources, Marketing, Customer Service, and Business Development matters. Past clients include McGraw Hill, The Ohio Lottery Commission, the Greater Cleveland RTA, Dalad Construction, Solar Testing Labs, McTech Corp, among others. She currently serves as a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion External Consultant to SIRVA Worldwide Moving & Relocation Company. Other current clients include Elsons International and MAC Installations & Consulting. She has written and developed Affirmative Action Plans; coordinated Recruitment activities particularly at HBCU’s; facilitated training programs in Diversity & Inclusions; Sexual Harassment; and other HR topics. In 1990, Lee became one of the first Black female concessionaire as owner operator of London Chocolatier (Harry London Chocolates) at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Other retail operations included kiosks and in line stores at Rocket Mortgage Field House and Progressive Field where she was the first Black female to operate concessions in both entities. Lee was a concessionaire for over 15 years in the respective airport/sports arena. Her company has designed and created a number of successful commercial projects including The David Justice Candy Bar and The Rock N Roll Hall Chocolate CD. Lee is the founder of The Candy Lady & Kids (TCLK), a gourmet chocolate/candy retail and craft activity outlet located in the Van Aken District, Shaker Hts., Ohio. As a published author of five books, Lee’s work has also appeared in numerous magazines/ journals including Ohio MBE Magazine, Ebony.Com, Columbus African American Journal, The Call and Post Newspaper, MBE Magazine, and The Summit Magazine. She hosts a daily blog. A 1974 Magna Cum Laude Graduate of Tougaloo College, her graduate education was obtained from Cleveland State University’s MBA Program. Lee has also received numerous educational and continuing educational certificates from Purdue University, Cleveland State University, Baldwin Wallace University, and Cornell University. She is the recipient of numerous awards/accolades including having been named the Minority Entrepreneur of the Year by the City of Cleveland. Lee is the mother of two adult children who are successful entrepreneurs. Her son oversees the TCLK Retail Operations. Daughter, Phoebe Lee is CEO of Acumen Apparel, a uniform company headquartered in Cleveland. Lee is the grandmother of two.
Ricardo León serves as the Chief Operating Officer of the Cuyahoga Land Bank. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Baldwin Wallace University and a Master of Science in Urban Studies with a concentration in Economic Development from the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. Ricardo’s career has spanned the startup, corporate, and consulting industries, most recently serving as Executive Director of Metro West Community Development Organization. He extends his leadership outside of the office through his participation on the MetroHealth Foundation Board of Directors, Fund for Our Economic Future Board of Directors, Front Steps Housing and Services Board of Directors, Neighborhood Family Practice Board of Directors, Hebrew Free Loan Association Board of Directors, CHN Housing Capital Advisory Board, and various other community centric boards and committees.
Eric is the Director of Organizational Performance & Strategy at Youth Opportunities Unlimited. He is also a Senior Certified Professional with the Society for Human Resources Management and a certified Appreciative Inquiry facilitator with the XChange community. As an experienced practitioner in strategy, operations, and talent management; Eric leverages these skills to help community-based organizations with mission, vision, values, strategic planning and talent engagement/development initiatives. Prior to his work in the non-profit arena, Eric worked for over 20 years in progressive operational leadership roles for the global management consulting firms: Booz | Allen | Hamilton, Booz & Company and Strategy&, where he served concurrently as the Director of Global Real Estate and the North American Director of Administrative Services.
Ashmi is a connector and listener who believes in creating human-centered solutions. She comes with years of leadership development experience and aims to empower others to lead with empathy and their whole self. Her work at Sova focuses on improving the quality and accelerating the pace of complex problem solving in the areas of higher education, led by a commitment to advancing socioeconomic mobility for more Americans. Previously, Ashmi served as the Director of the Center for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity at Eastfield Community College, where she developed programs to enhance students’ social and intellectual development, eliminate barriers to student access and success and develop a culture of equity-mindedness and inclusivity. As a Program Associate at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, Ashmi worked on executive leadership development for aspiring community college presidents. Ashmi holds a BA from Southern Methodist University and an MA from Rutgers University in religious studies.
Yesenia Santiago Martinez
Yesenia is a highly experienced professional in marketing and communications. She has worked with organizations ranging from not-for-profits to small businesses, to large international corporations. She has excellent interpersonal and managerial skills and is committed to developing innovative ideas and strategies for her customers. Her extensive experience includes customer service, logistics, events coordination, brand management, planograms, evaluations and recommendations on points of sale, advertising, media and public relations. Yesenia has a master’s degree in International Marketing, and a bachelor’s degree in Management Communication from the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón. She also has a Certification in the European Forum from the Business School of Navarra, Spain. Some of her most satisfying and rewarding work has been with the non-profits Make a Wish Foundation and Fundación de Niño San Jorge. These experiences made a tremendous impact on her life and has strengthened her commitment to her community. Yesenia has a master’s degree in International Marketing, and a bachelor’s degree in Management Communication from the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón. She also has a Certification in the European Forum from the Business School of Navarra, Spain. Some of her most satisfying and rewarding work has been with the non-profits Make a Wish Foundation and Fundación de Niño San Jorge. These experiences made a tremendous impact on her life and has strengthened her commitment to her community.
Suprotik (pronounced Sue-pro-teek) is a relationship and results-oriented social sector leader with over 25 years’ experience developing the capacity of individuals and organizations to improve communities. For the past 10+ years, Suprotik has focused on systems change, leading philanthropic institutions’ transformations to integrate racial equity consciousness and practice. Throughout his career, Suprotik has served in roles supporting strategy, learning, evaluation, HR/talent, partnerships, continuous quality improvement, community investment, and community organizing. Through these roles, Suprotik has brought diverse partners together to improve outcomes in infant mortality, PreK – college, after-school programs, domestic violence, food insecurity, family economic stability, and philanthropic support for racial equity and justice. Suprotik’s main source of inspiration to join and stay in the struggle for human dignity is his grandparents, Ashadevi and E.W. Aryanayakam who worked with Gandhi to develop the educational system, Nai Talim, that increased literacy and self-determination across India’s poorest villages and played a critical role in India’s successful independence movement. Suprotik’s approach to people, community, and injustice is based on non-violent direct-action and integrates anti-racism, intersectionality, intercultural sensitivity, living systems, truth and reconciliation, consensus building, and facilitative leadership frameworks.
Dr. Ahmed Whitt
Dr. Ahmed Whitt is the managing director of Recover Fund, a social enterprise that advances solutions to concentrated disadvantage through impact science, consulting services, and strategic investments. Since 2013, Dr. Whitt has held academic posts first as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and most recently as the Resident Scholar at the Center for African American Public Policy at Norfolk State University, where he has led research projects including a DOJ-funded policing intervention, an environmental health analysis on regional wind energy conversion, and a state-commissioned study on voting integrity. Ahmed holds a BA and MSW from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in Social Work & Geographic Information Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.