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Suzanne Shank’s Commitment to Black Women Was on Full Display at the Mackinac Policy Conference

“Don’t settle for average. Bring your best to the moment. Then, whether it fails or succeeds, at least you know you gave all you had. We need to live the best that’s in us.” – Angela Bassett

The 2024 Mackinac Policy Conference was a watershed moment in Michigan’s political landscape, and the conference chair, Suzanne Shank – President, CEO, and Co-Founder of the largest Black-owned full-service investment banking firm – was the driving force behind so much of its success.

Shank, a renowned business leader and advocate for diversity and inclusion, brought her unique vision to the conference, shaping a program that showcased the state’s most pressing issues and featured a remarkable lineup of speakers, predominantly women, particularly Black women.

“It was a bit more work than I anticipated…but I was very intentional about wanting to have certain types of speakers. I wanted it to be bipartisan. I wanted a cabinet secretary. So I reached out to the governor. I reached out to the mayor a couple times. I reached out to people I trust to help bring in real talent that would give a slightly different view,” Shank said in an interview with Michigan Chronicle during the conference.

“We wanted a lot of Michiganders on the stage, but we wanted people from around the country to inform us as Michiganders. It really is like a village planning this conference, but I’ve been really privileged to serve in this capacity. I run a women-owned firm. I understand that I’m often the only woman in the room. And I felt an obligation, really, to make sure that we…had women – and Black women – well-represented on the big stage, where it gets a lot of attention.”

As the first Black woman in history to chair the Mackinac Policy Conference, Shank was determined to create a platform that reflected Michigan’s diverse voices and perspectives. She worked tirelessly to curate a speaker list that included some of the most influential women in politics, business, and advocacy, including U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to name a few. But she also wanted Black women leaders. In total, 40 percent of the speakers were women.

“We didn’t want the same speakers we’ve always had. We wanted thought leaders, and they happened to be women. We wanted CEOs and they just happened to be women. When you set a goal, it’s not so hard to achieve. Once we decided we wanted to be very intentional about having women on stage, it was really easy to make it happen,” Shank said.

“I felt an obligation to do it even though my schedule is horrendous because I know there haven’t been many African Americans in charge of the conference, and certainly not a lot of women, but never a Black woman. So, I just think to show that to young women that this is achievable is very important to me.

“The women we had there speaking were not just there because they’re women. I mean, we had Valerie Jarrett (CEO of The Obama Foundation). Who has more experience than Valerie Jarrett? Alicia Boler Davis (engineer and CEO of Alto Pharmacy) is constantly discussed in the Wall Street Journal as the next Fortune 500 CEO. She had 800,000 people reporting to her when she was at Amazon. So these are just dynamic leaders who just happen to be Black women.”

There was also a focus on young women. President and CEO of the Michigan Black Business Alliance, Charity Dean, for instance, led a panel discussion addressed the importance of racial equity in Michigan’s population growth. Deanna L. Stewart, Founder and Executive Director of Equity Alliance of Michigan, participated in a session that showcased local examples of philanthropy fueled by trust and economic justice as a way to show how to engage communities in these efforts in non-threatening, inclusive, and data-rich ways. Michigan Senator Sarah Anthony moderated a discussion about how Michigan needs to work to solve its housing supply shortage and the crisis that will come of it if steps aren’t taken for better housing options.

The conference was a testament to Shank’s dedication to equity and inclusion. From the opening remarks to the final session, the stage was filled with women who shared their experiences, insights, and solutions to Michigan’s most pressing challenges. The audience was filled with leaders from various industries, nonprofits, and community organizations, all united by a shared commitment to creating a more equitable Michigan.

“What has been most surprising to me is the diversity of people who are coming up to me and making positive statements about the conference. That’s really rewarding to me because I wanted everyone to feel welcome and I wanted everyone to get something out of the conference,” she added.

The 2024 Mackinac Policy Conference will be remembered as a milestone moment for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the thousands who attend the annual Mackinac Island event, thanks to Suzanne Shank’s unwavering dedication to creating a more just and equitable future.