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Photography by Flint Chaney / Tennessee American's Valoria Armstrong

Valoria Armstrong, VP, National Government and Regulatory Affairs at American Water, steps in this month as the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce 2020-21 Board Chair.

She brings HR, advocacy and community development expertise to the role, with a splash of charisma and style. Armstrong launched her career with Food Lion, moving through their ranks for 15 years, and continued that growth over nearly a decade with American Water, where she recently served as Tennessee American Water president before transitioning to her VP role at the parent company American Water last year.

Today she advocates at the national level for legislation that enables American Water to take care of customers across the country by providing safe, sustainable water. She also leads the company's inclusion and diversity initiatives as co-executive sponsor of its I&D Advisory Council. A dedicated community volunteer, she gives her time to support a range of causes, with a special passion for mentoring young women.

We sat down (virtually, of course) to chat about the Chamber's year ahead, Armstrong's career advice and what she missed most during quarantine (hint: it has salt on the rim).

 

Why are you excited to chair the Chamber's board for 2020-21?

I commend the hard work JV (Jim Vaughn, 2019-20 Chair) has done and I learned a great deal from him around Chattanooga Climbs and our Chamber's significant impact on our community. I know we'll continue that positive influence as we address issues around economic development, growth and unity.

There is a direct business case for diversity. Study after study demonstrates that bringing people with diverse backgrounds together strengthens businesses' bottom lines and advances economic growth. In fact, a report from McKinsey in 2015 states that companies with the highest proportion of ethic and cultural diversity are 33% more likely to outperform their competitors. This philosophy ties directly to the Chattanooga Chamber and the Chattanooga Chamber Foundation's mission of championing member businesses and promoting regional economic growth.

Inclusion and diversity are crucial for our mission, our members and the community because we're so diverse. Our ability to continue to bring cultures together, learn and grow from each other and create opportunities for equity is critical. We are facing so much turmoil as a nation at this time and open, candid dialogue is more important than ever. I look forward to what the year holds.

 

How do you think we'll see COVID-19 continue to impact our business community?

Our Chamber is being proactive with the resources we're offering as we venture into reopening our state and continuing to see the growth of our region as we recover. One of the things I love about Chattanooga is our ability to bounce back from challenges.

Schools will look different. Students will need different resources from a workforce standpoint and so will new graduates. Some companies will probably have hiring freezes. They're in the midst of laying off and/or bringing employees back. It'll be challenging, but I trust in our community's resiliency. We've seen the community rally together to provide relief and resources where they are needed most.

 

What brought you to Chattanooga? In my research I read your story about the NAACP and meeting your husband. Can you tell me more?

I relocated working for Food Lion. I lived in Knoxville for a year, my first time living out of Georgia, my home state. Part of my role at that time was connecting with minority groups in Food Lion's footprint. I formed a relationship with the NAACP in Chattanooga, and it felt like home to me whenever I visited the city, like somewhere I could live long term.

That's what brought me here. My husband (Lawrence Armstrong) and I met through our NAACP work. He was president of Cleveland's branch (Cleveland, Tennessee) and I was president of Chattanooga/Hamilton County's. We worked together and I guess love blossomed. We're celebrating 14 years of marriage this year.

 

Any advice or motto you live your life by?

I love inspiring young ladies with this message: Don't allow your current circumstances to determine your future aspirations. Many aren't privileged with parents being married; or being able to go to private school. In some cases we are brought up in a single-parent home, our dynamic is different and we don't have a choice about that. I was raised by a single mother.

The world is open for anybody's taking. It's a matter of having courage and pressing through the difficulty. Weave in and out, stay true to who you are, but be flexible and willing to move on a track that's uncomfortable. You will succeed.

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Photography by Flint Chaney / Armstrong's pins represent (left to right) Inclusion Starts with Me, American Water's commitment to inclusion and diversity; her sorority Delta Sigma Theta; her PHR HR Certification and her NAACP involvement.

 

You're clearly passionate about mentoring others. Who have been your significant mentors?

First, my mom. She was a young single mother raising four kids. When I was about 10, I'd go into her room at night and see her with books on her bed doing homework like me, working toward her GED. Even while working multiple jobs, my mom continued to move forward in the things that were goals for her. She inspired me.

Someone I've looked to for career advice and who has been an inspiration while I've been at American Water is Nick Rowe, a leader in our industry for over 30 years. He's one of the few great leaders who truly cares about people, who you are, your aspirations. He has taught me a lot about servant leadership.

Lastly, my husband. Not only does he support me through all I want to do and my community commitments, but he's someone I can lean into for solid advice. I value our quality time and tough conversations about life.

 

What have been the biggest challenges of your career?

Anytime I've changed jobs or companies. Leaving Food Lion after 15 years was the hardest career decision I've made, but also the best as I look back on how I've grown.

Two years after joining Tennessee American Water, I was promoted to director of human resources for our central division states. That required me to relocate to St. Louis, and my husband wasn't able to join me because he had a stable job here. For two years he and I lived apart. I thank Lawrence so much for his support because that was a tough time for both of us.

I came back in 2015 to be president of Tennessee American Water — a wonderful job opportunity leading over 100 employees delivering quality water to Chattanooga.

 

You've grown your career working with only two organizations. Is it more difficult to be promoted within your company or start a higher level job elsewhere? How do you know which to strive for?

When you come into a new space, it's easier because nobody knows you. They haven't developed an idea of who you are based on how they've worked with you in the past. Being promoted from within a company, comes with higher expectations. The more you move up, the more you want to supersede your last success. And the more you are expected to be better and deliver more than from the job before.

At Food Lion, I knew it was time to move on when I didn't feel I was getting internal support and guidance around my career aspirations. Coming into a new company, I used my learnings to build relationships. That's key entering into a new organization.

Let people know who you are; be your authentic self. Look for mentors with values similar to yours as you lean into your trajectory for growth in that company. Relationships evolve into sponsors, people who speak for you when you're not in the room and recommend you for opportunities. You have to turn out a solid work product and meet deadlines, but that's not the only thing that elevates your career.

 

What's some of the worst career advice you've received?

I'm a vocal person, but early on in my career, I was hesitant to speak up. Culture dictated that you're low on the totem pole in a room of senior leaders and you don't speak.

Over time I've realized everybody has a voice. That's where my passion for inclusion and diversity comes in, because when you're sitting around the table with people who all look and talk alike, there's not much creativity in that dialogue. When I'm at the table now, I thrive on diversity, of background, gender, ethnicity, everything, because that creates robust conversation and new ideas. I encourage everyone to speak up.

 

What are 5 things in life you love?

1.) Traveling to different countries.

2.) Christmas is my absolute favorite time of year. I enjoy blessing people and giving during that time and being thankful for family and friends.

3.) I enjoy reading, especially romance type books. Guess I'm a hopeless romantic at heart. I'm in a book club with some wonderful ladies. We read on a monthly basis and get together to drink wine and have a relaxing time. Our husbands say we do more drinking and talking than reading.

4.) Running and exercising.

5.) I love seafood and Mexican food. Being home more lately, I've cooked some great meals, but what I wouldn't give right now to go to a Mexican restaurant and have a margarita, nachos and salsa. Not good for the waistline, but I could eat Mexican every day.

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