Tell us about your role at Southern Company.

I lead the accounting team at one of Southern Company Gas’ non-regulated businesses – SouthStar Energy Services. I also serve on the Board of Directors for the company’s sponsored credit union, as well as Treasurer of the Southern Company Gas Charitable Foundation.

How have you seen your work change in the last 18 months?

We embraced the new dynamic during the first few weeks of remote work in 2020 by ensuring personal connections for long-term and new employees remained strong. This included having dedicated time to connect in person or by video for purposeful conversations to celebrate together the milestones of life that we used to do in the office. I found that many of us actually know more about our work colleagues, as work and personal was blurred together on our screens. Clearly the future of in office work will be different than before and being flexible to a hybrid work model will be important to our success as many of my colleagues thoroughly enjoy less time in the office.

Southern Company Gas also embarked on meaningful and challenging DEI discussions, which I have heard others describe like climbing a mountain, and you look down and say we have come so far and we are proud of ourselves, but then look up and see how much further we have to climb and we have a long way to go.

You have been supporting United Way for almost 20 years! What inspires you to Live United?

One of Southern Company’s values include total commitment to the success of our communities. This is important in who we are as a company. I also recall my first United Way Campaign in 2001, and through each subsequent year the personal stories of those in the community that have benefited from the United Way motivates me to continuing my support. I believe one of the reasons for the success of metro-Atlanta is due to the United Way.

United Way recently launched the Unite for More campaign. What do you want to see more of in our community?

At this point in the pandemic, we need to advocate for more housing assistance for those who are at risk of losing their homes.

What is your favorite book?

Usually the last one I read, which happens to be historical background on Greece and the island of Santorini, which I hope to visit later this year.

Of the 4,500 people signed up for the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, hundreds are Cole Society members. We asked Beth Keller from Habitat for Humanity, Richard Tyler from Rollins, and United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Lauren Rock to weigh in about their impressions of the 7-week self-guided learning experience.

How did you find out about the 21 Day Racial Equity Challenge and what made you want to sign-up?

Richard: I heard about it through the United Way email. I thought it would be interesting to see what the topics were and that I could learn some things and possibly share with others.

Beth: I found out about it from Ginneh Baugh at a Cole Women United Cabinet meeting. It is a simple way to educate myself in order to be a stronger advocate, empathetic ally, and a compassionate human-being.

Lauren: I had the opportunity to collaborate with United Way of Greater Atlanta leaders like Kim Addie and Ginneh Baugh to share my perspective and contribute content ideas for a meaningful challenge experience. My first challenge experience was with the YWCA, however, I learned about it at a conference from Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. and Debby Irving, the educators who originally developed the program. Any opportunity that fosters my continued learning and journey to promote equity I will always sign up.

What lesson have you learned so far that you want more people to know about?

Richard: It has reaffirmed the unfortunate reality that so many things have been baked into our society that have put those already disadvantaged in an even more disadvantaged position, but that good-minded people have been and are still working to correct the courses when and where possible.  But also, that the situation in these aspects is not static but rather are dynamic – that other not so good-minded people are also constantly working to push back progress.

Beth: Redlining in the United States. White Flight in Atlanta. The history of systematic/purposeful housing segregation by the government in the United States and its lasting impact.

Lauren: I am always moved by the moments in history, most recent and distant past, that my fellow BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) brothers and sisters have faced. This challenge elevates how generations in Atlanta have faced inequities and other discrimination that we often do not read about in articles or see on social media. I’m grateful that this challenge includes these experiences.

Jennifer Sparks is the Founder and CEO of Vacmobile Corporation.  She has been successful as a marketing and communications professional with agency, corporate, governmental and non-profit organizations.  Sparks graduated Cum Laude from the University of Chicago with a degree in European History. She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Paris, France. She earned her master’s degree from Northwestern University.

Sparks began her professional career working at Young and Rubicam advertising agency in Chicago. Sparks later served as New Mexico Governor Richardson’s Public Information Officer for the 89 school districts managed by the New Mexico Public Education Department. Sparks was the creator and producer of a popular family travel and recreational segment for New Mexico’s NBC affiliate show, “Good Day New Mexico.”  From 2012 to the 2017 Sparks continued her career as a public relations and marketing consultant and legislative advocate doing work for Habitat for Humanity International, the Pew Center for the States, Save the Children and the USDA.  From 2018-2019 Sparks served as Director of Marketing and Communications for a Georgia based healthcare IT company, Clearwave Corporation.

As a parent of three children and stepmother to another son, the paper management of vaccination records had always been a source of aggravation to her. Following the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic, Sparks is determined to bring vaccination records into the 21st century.  She formed Vacmobile Corporation, a Delaware Corporation, and filed a patent for her innovative suite of vaccination records solutions. Vacmobile is a mobile app that obtains digital vaccination records from state registries and enables individuals to digitally transmit those records or have a QR code generated from the app for on-demand proof of vaccinations or covid-19 test results.

Why did you decide to get involved with United Way of Greater Atlanta?

There’s great power in people uniting together as a community to help children and families cope with the challenges of poverty including homelessness and food insecurity. I got involved with United Way of Greater Atlanta because I felt our charitable dollars would have the greatest impact by giving to the United Way of Greater Atlanta. I was very moved by United Way’s Child Well-Being Campaign.

Who or what inspires you to give back to the community?

At a certain point in my life, I was a single mother raising three children on my own. Now that I am in a different place, I am thankful that I have the ability to give back.

Why did you decide to become a Tocqueville Society member?

People can’t reach their full potential unless they have their basic needs met. I decided to join the Tocqueville Society because I wanted to be part of a group dedicated to creating long lasting meaningful changes in the communities being served.

What is something unique about you that most people wouldn’t know about you?

I have a black belt in Tae Kwondo, and I speak four languages: English, French, Italian and Spanish.

What are the top priorities of your business/industry at the moment?

At Vacmobile, our top priority is helping people navigate the pandemic. We are bringing vaccination records into the 21st century. We are deploying our Vacmobile app solution to help schools, universities, and all types of businesses large and small create “safe bubbles” for their employees and their customers. The Vacmobile health pass allows individuals to get back to face-to-face interactions.

What advice do you have to navigate the COVID-19 crisis (from a personal and/or corporate perspective)?

The truth is, there are ways we can protect ourselves and our families. The good news is that companies like Vacmobile and others are developing new, innovative strategies to fight the virus. We have seen unparalleled challenges during this pandemic, but we have also seen astonishing scientific breakthroughs. So, my advice to navigate the Covid-19 crisis is the same advice I have repeated to myself throughout my adult life in both my personal and professional life—stay focused– let data not emotion drive decisions. I was a history major in college, so I tend to look for historical clues. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic lasted from 1918 to 1920. As time went by, people let their guard down and that pandemic fatigue paved the way for 2nd and 3rd waves of infections. Let’s not make the same mistakes. Let’s stay vigilant. In 2021, let’s leverage all the tools and knowledge at our disposal to bring our communities back together again safely.

Thank you, Jennifer, for being a Tocqueville Society member and a key leader in the healthcare community!

To get more involved with the Tocqueville Society, please contact tocqueville@unitedwayatlanta.org.

Lou is the Vice President and General Manager, McDonald’s North America, The Coca-Cola Company. Lou is currently the general manager for the Coca-Cola McDonald’s North America business. The team she leads is responsible for strategy and sales, marketing, finance, supply chain and operations. Prior to that she was responsible for the Coca-Cola North America Natural Channel strategy. Lou began her career at The Coca-Cola Company in Finance, providing North America P&L forecasting, management and oversight. Before joining The Coca-Cola Company, Lou was at Federal Express Corporation.

Lou served on the board of the United Way of Greater Atlanta on the Executive Committee as well as the Marketing Committee Chair and continues on the Marketing Committee, post-tenure limits. She served on the board of Girls Incorporated of Greater Atlanta for seven years including two years as the Board Chair. She received an MBA from the University of Georgia and a BA in Anthropology from Duke University. We connected with Lou to find out why she supports the community.

Why did you decide to get involved with United Way of Greater Atlanta?

I had been a long-time supporter of United Way through workplace campaigns at both Federal Express and Coca-Cola. When the opportunity came to join the board after chairing the board of a partner agency I jumped at the chance because I knew so well the impact that United Way had in the community and directly on child well-being.

How have you used your investment of time and treasure to support United Way of Greater Atlanta?

From a time standpoint serving on the board and chairing the marketing committee have been extremely rewarding. I’ve enjoyed connecting United Way of Greater Atlanta to my network of marketing capability and expertise. But truly that has given me more back in terms of satisfaction and learning than I have given. I’ve been proud to support financially through workplace giving, special event support and most recently through giving to the COVID 19 Relief Fund and the United for Racial Equity and Healing Fund as well as fundraising on my social media channels. I know the money has been well spent.

What has been your best experience serving as Board of Directors member?

Seeing the organization come together to focus on the critical mission of improving Child Well-Being in Atlanta while at the same time adapting and growing in a time of tremendous change. I’m also very gratified to still work with the marketing committee and to see that committee provide terrific support to the mission.

Why did you decide to become a Tocqueville Society member?

I value the clarity I have with United Way of Greater Atlanta that my giving can make a true difference in my Greater Atlanta community. Because my dollars are united with other dollars and United Way’s efforts are united with other community organizations efforts… for more. Because everything I have been given allows me to give back.

What is something unique about you that most people would not know?

My husband and I have been on a BBQ team that competes in the World Championship BBQ cooking contest. Spanish was my first language because I am the child of Cuban immigrants.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

I look forward to a little something in every day, the opportunity of Monday, the celebration of Friday, the reflection of Sunday and all the days in between. 2020 taught me that. I look forward to more variety of ways to find joy in 2021, but ultimately I choose joy every day.

To get more involved with the Tocqueville Society, please connect with tocqueville@unitedwayatlanta.org.

What was your first introduction to United Way? What inspired you to become involved with LINC?

I first became involved with LINC when I participated in a HoliDAY of Service volunteer event. After spending the day volunteering, we were all invited to a LINC networking event at a local brewery. It was an absolute blast. At that time, I had recently moved to Atlanta and was looking for ways to get involved in the community and meet like-minded professionals. LINC seemed like a great way to tackle both of those goals (spoiler: it was!).

What aspect of United Way’s work in the community are you most passionate about supporting?

It is hard to pick just one aspect, since United Way does a great job of supporting so many different facets of our community. That being said, the work United Way has done around its Strong Learners investment priority is particularly notable. I support United Way’s mission of emphasizing how early, preemptive action in children’s education can positively impact our community. I can’t wait to see the downstream effects of this investment priority.

How do you incorporate giving back into your free time? How are you continuing to stay involved in the community during a pandemic?

I find the easiest way to incorporate giving back in my free time is to find organizations that I’m passionate about. When you’re passionate about a cause, I find it is easier to make the needed time. Additionally, finding a group of people who are just as passionate as you are (hint: LINC!) makes giving back all the more fun and enjoyable.

It has been more difficult to stay involved with the community during the pandemic, but I have been pleasantly surprised at the creative virtual volunteer opportunities available. For example, I’ve been able to stay involved with the community by joining a virtual “hackathon” where we compiled educational resources for those struggling during the pandemic and have also served as a virtual mentor for high school students going through the college application process.

What would you say to someone who is considering joining LINC?

Sign up for a virtual networking or volunteering opportunity! These events are a great chance to meet our wonderful members and learn about United Way’s work. Plus, if you join now, you’ll be in a great position to get rolling once we get back to hosting events in-person. I personally can’t wait for the next Volunteer Day of Service!

Who do you consider an inspiration and why?

There are so many folks who have inspired me, it is hard to pick just one! At the moment, I’ve found inspiration from Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His works have helped me think differently about our world and provided a valuable perspective. Check out The Black Swan if you have a chance!

What inspired you to become involved with Young Professionals Leaders?

I have always had an affinity for finding ways to give back to the community. Being able to volunteer with like minded individuals to promote volunteerism of young professional leaders is a dream come true.

What aspect of United Way’s work in the community are you most passionate about supporting?

My passion is making sure every child and youth is college or career ready. I believe if we help equip youth and center them on a career that aligns with their strengths and passions they will succeed at what they do. I had a strong network to guide me as a young adult, but know that many do not have this. I believe as a community we can make sure that every youth has access to the right resources to succeed.

What was the turning point that made you realize the importance of giving back?

I am a firm believer that it is every generation’s responsibility to teach the next generation so they can achieve more than that generation was able to. I’ve had an affinity for learning and was surrounded by volunteerism early in my life. Once I graduated and realized I had skill sets that were needed in the community, I channeled my desire to learn into a passion for teaching the skills that I had learned.

How do you balance your professional life with giving back? How are you continuing to stay involved in the community during a pandemic?

This is a challenge we all face of finding the right balance with family, work and community. However, it comes down to being willing to sacrifice personal time out of my schedule. My work is very demanding, yet can be very flexible. So if I spend a few hours in the morning volunteering, likely I will end up working later that evening, but these are worthwhile sacrifices. A few hours out of my evening is worth it, every time, to impact the youth of tomorrow.

The pandemic has shifted my involvement into virtual volunteering, which has actually made it easier to work into my schedule.

What would you say to someone who is considering joining Young Professional Leaders?

Do it! The network of individuals at YPL are among the brightest in the city. You will be surrounded by a network of like minded individuals that are passionate about their careers and community. What are you waiting for, join YPL!

What aspects of your life motivate you to thrive and why?

I am motivated by business and finance. I channel these passions to help provide ways for me to give back into the community. I believe we are blessed to bless others. What we are given, has been given to us to give back to others in need. This can be tangible or intangible gifts. People should not feel they have nothing to give if they lack material wealth but our story and skills can be a gift to others as much, if not more than finances.

Why did you decide to get involved with United Way of Greater Atlanta?

I have been a long-time participant in United Way campaigns throughout my career path in Corporate America. For over 35 years, United Way and area grantees have been the focus of my annual giving initiatives.  All through the years, no truer words echoed with each year’s campaign – “it’s the right thing to do”.

Who or what inspires you to give back to the community?

As a child, my parents instilled the importance of ‘giving back’ to those in need.  Our small family of 4 was not considered wealthy, but what little we did have, we shared with other friends and neighbors.  Each year, my sister and I bagged the clothes that we had outgrown and we took them to family friends who had children our ages.  When we arrived with the bags of clothing each year, I can vividly remember them running out to the car in anxious anticipation of tearing open the bags to find the clothes their size.  To this day, the image of those happy children and the smiles on their faces are etched into my memory.  To me, those clothes were old and worn; to them, they were brand new and beautiful.

Why did you decide to become a Cole Society member?

Genuine Parts Company has five Operating Principles and one of those is Giving Back to the community. By participating in the Cole Society Level, I know that my contributions are making a positive impact. I am assured that every dollar is utilized in the best way possible in making a difference in the lives who receive those funds.

What advice to you have for others who are thinking about becoming a Cole Society member?

It is a personal choice and financial sacrifice but give what you can. Always be assured that any amount you contribute will be allocated to organizations in your community that make the most difference in the areas of health, education, and income.

What advice do you have to navigate the COVID-19 crisis (from a personal and/or corporate perspective)?

We may be apart physically, but in our hearts, we are all in this together.  If every contributor would rise to the call of helping those in need, together, we can have a huge impact on those communities in which we live, work and play.

What inspired you to become involved with Young Professionals Leaders?

Although I have lived in the Greater Atlanta area for 5 years, I still felt disconnected from the community. Community service has been an important aspect in my life, and since moving to Georgia, I saw that YPL provided engaging and impactful opportunities in multiple spaces that allowed me to be amongst my peers. Interestingly, United Way’s positive impact has touched my life so many times and its initiatives have run parallel to my core beliefs for years now – I see it as a welcomed destiny to align my efforts with YPL.

What aspect of United Way’s work in the community are you most passionate about supporting?

All of it! I love teaching children, being involved with financial and health education, as well as organizing uplifting professional and entertainment events with the purpose of bringing the local community together. A connected community is so powerful that it can uplift and grow successful members of society for generations to come.

What was the turning point that made you realize the importance of giving back?

I hold a philosophy of Ubuntu – “I AM, because we ARE”. I have always felt that we are all tied to one another. My experience with hardship as a youth was a driver to push for better socio-economic conditions using education early on. However, the turning point to expand my efforts in the community was when BOTH of my parents died consecutively and unexpectedly while entering my 1st and 3rd year of college. That initial feeling of “losing everything”—my mind and spirit—was earth-shattering. All I could do was grasp from the depth of my beliefs to get through the next day, which was to help heal myself through helping others. I imagined that if I was going through this, someone was going through something worse and who could bear that alone? My empathy allowed me to just KEEP. PUSHING. ON. I looked up and I realized that dropping out of college or taking a break was not an option. And as the haze faded, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. The people around me helped tremendously, and most were total strangers! That encouragement and support lit a fire in me to continue using my gifts and time to help others in need.

How do you incorporate giving back into your free time? How are you continuing to stay involved in the community during a pandemic?

I prefer to choose work that I really like to do; therefore, my efforts flow around me and are an extension of who I am. During the pandemic, I elected to engage in various uplifting opportunities, such as reading to children, or planning community events.

What would you say to someone who is considering joining YPL?

Why not have fun and engage with the most awesome people in town?

What aspects of your life motivate you to thrive and why?

I’ve learned to sit still, listen and love myself. In addition, my practice of gratitude has opened the joy and opportunity in each day. Why? Because life, itself is a gift.

What was your first introduction to United Way? What inspired you to become involved with LINC?

As a recent graduate I was looking for a young professional group to join where I could network and engage in community initiatives. After doing some research I stumbled upon United Way and connected with Lauren Rock. Sitting down with her over lunch really gave me the opportunity to express to her what I was looking for in a young professionals group and she was able to outline all the amazing things the United Way does for me. It was the perfect fit!

What aspect of United Way’s work in the community are you most passionate about supporting?

I am most passionate about improving educational outcomes for youth. I believe having a solid education can provide children with a path forward and an opportunity to follow their dreams. During the pandemic I think it has been challenging to offer the same type of educational outreach to youth but I am hoping once the pandemic is over to have more chances to tutor kids.

What was the turning point that made you realize the importance of giving back?

Ever since I was younger I’ve wanted to find ways to give back I think because I had a longing to make the world a better place. So whether that meant walking dogs at the pet shelter or donating clothes to others in need, I always found ways to be a part of my community.

How do you incorporate giving back into your free time? How are you continuing to stay involved in the community during a pandemic?

During the pandemic I have tried to lean on safer ways of giving back that I was already incorporating into my life. Instead of my normal in person volunteering I have given back monetarily to help my favorite non-profits stay afloat. Much of the work they do has increased, yet the funds have continuously been diminishing so I do my best to try and help financially.

What would you say to someone who is considering joining LINC?

If you are looking for a community of like-minded young professionals who care about their communities then join LINC!

Who do you consider an inspiration and why?

Building community and seeing positive change is an inspiration to me. It is one thing to want to solve a problem but it’s always beautiful when you have the opportunity to see things come to fruition.

How long have you been involved with United Way?

More than 15 years.

Why did you decide to get involved with United Way and Women United?

I love how the United Way helps in the community. Their approach to support low-income families in every aspect of their lives and to help them have a sustainable transition is admirable. The United Way really “gets it”. I love the affinity groups that the United Way offers and having the opportunity to serve with Women United has been an awesome experience. It feels special to work with a group of women who have the same passion as you do to support women in the community.

How do you link your professional and philanthropic interests?

I recently transitioned from a role of 17 years to a position more aligned with my passion to work in the community.  During this time, I have had the opportunity to work closer with organizations like the United Way and engage others by sharing how the United Way helps our community and how they can be a part of their mission.

What advice would you give to someone considering inviting the women in their life to get involved with Women United? 

I would share that Women United is a group of focused, like-minded, generous, women who have a mission to change the lives of all women, by providing support and encouragement.