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Valoria Armstrong

The first black female president of Tennessee American Water company challenged on Friday an audience of local business leaders to consider what diversity means to them and why they should bring more diversity into their businesses.

"We have to recognize the talent that is all around us," said Valoria Armstrong. "And that talent is not going to always look like you."

Armstrong, president of Tennessee American Water, the largest investor-owned water utility in the state, spoke to more than 800 people at the convention center attending the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce's third annual Diversify marketplace and luncheon.

The event also included another 200 people who visited the event's marketplace, which included 150 vendors, almost 50 percent more vendors than the event had when it started in 2014.

"Support, connect and start doing business with these diverse vendors that make up our community," said Maria Noel, director of diversity and inclusion for the Chattanooga Chamber.

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More than 42 percent of Chattanooga's population is black, Hispanic, Asian or some other ethnic minority and more than half of the population is made of women, she said.

The event's goal is to encourage and illustrate the importance of a diverse marketplace, said Noel.

The city includes people with various backgrounds who may have the answer to a company's problem, but the potential employee may look or speak differently than people already in the company, she said.

Armstrong worked 15 years at Food Lion and applied three times for a top role in human resources at the company. After being overlooked the third time, she determined to leave. She joined Tennessee American Water in 2011 and was eventually named president of the company.

She encouraged the crowd to start immediately becoming more diverse by investing in and mentoring people who are different than they are, not just in race, but also in age and abilities.

Larry Buie, director of Chattanooga Gas Co. and next year's Chamber president, introduced Armstrong and commended her on her leadership of Tennessee American Water.

"It's been said that diversity without inclusion is like being invited to a party but never being asked to dance — why go?" asked Buie. "But our speaker today, not only has she been invited to the party but she's been honored. She's leading the dance."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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