Leading by Example

leading by example

Paul Matthews said that without the support of two key mentors, he wouldn’t have become the first Black chief executive of a port in Louisiana. So, as he entered his second year at the helm of the Port of South Louisiana in January, Matthews was determined to pay it forward.

Matthews, 39, left a career in banking in 2012 to join the Port of New Orleans as community affairs manager. There, he worked under CEO Gary LaGrange, who recognized potential in Matthews and frequently brought him into executive meetings to give him some seasoning.

“He gave me my shot,” Matthews said. “He understood the significance of taking me under his wing and putting me in those boardrooms at a young age to be part of those conversations, even if I was the only person of color in the room.”

Four years later, Matthews became deputy port director at Plaquemines Port Harbor and Terminal District. CEO Sandy Sanders also saw a future port leader in Matthews, so he often let his deputy take the lead in important meetings, sending a clear vote of confidence to everyone in the room, including Matthews himself.

“Making me his deputy was a statement to everyone that he looked for people to fill roles at the port based on merit,” Matthews said. “He trusted me to lead those meetings, and as a young African-American, that was powerful.”

Matthews said he feels a debt to his two mentors, who both happen to be white, for placing ability and work ethic above all else, creating a sense of opportunity and meritocracy at their ports. Matthews is taking the same approach at the Port of South Louisiana, prioritizing mentorship and building a diverse management team.

He’s just one of the many executives at AAPA member ports who are taking a handson approach toward diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Later in this piece, we’ll meet executives from the ports of San Diego and Los Angeles who recently were honored by their local communities for their DEI initiatives.

A growing body of research illustrates that organizations that value diversity — in terms of race, ethnicity, age, religion, gender, sexual preference and other factors — consistently outperform those that don’t. With quality jobseekers in short supply, ports and other businesses must make inroads with groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in their industries if they want to succeed.

Toward that end, the Port of South Louisiana is having approximately 20 of its top managers and executives participate in DEI training, replicating a program Matthews put in place at Plaquemines. The port has hired a third-party educator to give DEI presentations weekly or biweekly for about four months, Matthews said.

“It’s not just about looking at race and culture but looking at experiences — how you grew up, your educational background, how you think and how you behave — understanding that everybody is unique and that diversity makes us stronger,” Matthews said. “It doesn’t divide us. It actually helps all of us because people fill in gaps where we’re lacking, and we do the same for them.”

Matthews said one of his main goals is to bring more diversity to the port’s procurement of goods and services. He’s also focused on outreach to students of all ages and backgrounds, educating them about the many career opportunities in the port industry. (For more in recruiting, see “Seaport Recruitment Reshaped” on page 14.)

paul matthews
Paul Matthews

Matthews, who sits on the board of supervisors for Southern University and A&M College, said he’s particularly interested in reaching out to students at historically Black colleges and universities. In January, he said the port was looking forward to welcoming an intern from an HBCU.

“My goal is to expose the students at Southern University to the maritime industry,” Matthews said. “We’re also going to work with other HBCUs, colleges and high schools to make sure that all of our kids know about this industry. That’s my commitment to the region and to the state.”

Matthews said the maritime industry is becoming more diverse, but when he goes to major conferences, he still sees only a handful of port directors who are women or members of racial minorities. Increasing that number substantially will take time, but Matthews said his appointment as port CEO marked a significant moment.

“My being in this role tells folks that in this industry, there are no limitations,” he said. “There’s no ceiling for them; there’s opportunity. I think anytime you see someone who looks like you working in a position that you aspire to, it’s further motivation.”

Show Up and Listen

Two rules of thumb guide Rafael Castellanos as he seeks to make the Port of San Diego the most inclusive and diverse workplace it can be: Ninety percent of life is just showing up, and you’ve got two ears and only one mouth for a reason.

Castellanos, 48, has served on the port’s Board of Port Commissioners since 2013 as an appointee of the City Council. An attorney specializing in commercial real estate and business transactional law, he was the board’s chairman in 2018 and is serving a second one-year term in 2023.

Last October, Castellanos was named one of the “Top 50 Latino Leaders of Influence” by the San Diego Business Journal and the San Diego County Imperial Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He said he was honored and humbled to be on the list, but to others, his inclusion wasn’t surprising given his extensive community involvement.

Since joining the port, Castellanos has served on more than two dozen committees, boards and forums, including current roles with the San Diego Foundation’s Business Forum on Climate Change and the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. He also meets frequently with community organizations, students, and other local groups, spreading the word about job opportunities at the port and its importance to the regional economy.

rafael castellanos
Rafael Castellanos

During those visits, Castellanos said he makes it a point to listen more than he talks so he can gain insight into the local community. That strategy paid dividends when he met with the Black Contractors Association of San Diego a few years back. Members told him that they weren’t sure how to establish a business relationship with the port, a barrier that limited the port’s access to talented contractors.

In response, the Port of San Diego organized a series of workshops aimed at helping contractors learn how to register as a vendor and respond to the port’s requests for proposals. Since all bids are public record, contractors can request access to winning and losing bids from past projects to learn best practices for submitting bids.

By listening to the concerns of minority contractors, the port was able to bring more transparency to its procurement process and expand its pool of potential vendors, Castellanos said. This fiscal year, the port expects more than half of its procurement dollars to go to small businesses owned by women, racial minorities, military veterans, disabled Americans and other groups that typically have been underrepresented, he added.

“We demystified the process,” he said. “That came about not just through outreach, which often means communicating in one direction, but from listening. One of my goals this year is to just keep putting the pedal to the metal with these efforts.”

Castellanos said the port redoubled its commitment to DEI initiatives in 2020 as a response to the national movement to address racism in America, sparked largely by the murder of George Floyd. The Port of San Diego formed a DEI Council that year, and it now has about 30 participants, “a significant chunk” of the port’s approximately 500 employees, Castellanos said.

dina aryan-zahlan and tony gioiello
Dina Aryan-Zahlan and Tony Gioiello

The DEI Council includes workers from a number of departments, and participants range from entry-level employees to executives, Castellanos said. Approximately 75% of the participants are women, racial minorities or other underrepresented groups. The council’s input is incorporated into the port’s broad strategic plan, which includes specific tasks to be performed and implementation strategies.

Castellanos said the port is focused on continuing its student-worker and internship programs, which give young people from diverse backgrounds a chance to work at the port during the summer and shadow experienced employees. The port also is preparing to launch a mentoring program aimed at ensuring that the most talented employees, regardless of their backgrounds, are being prepared to move up within the organization.

“I’m really excited about our executive mentoring program because we want to have diversity at all levels of the organization,” Castellanos said. “I think that’s really important.”

Engineering a Diverse Workforce

When Tony Gioiello joined the Port of Los Angeles as a student intern in 1980, there were very few minority workers in the engineering department, and there was only one woman on the roster. Fast forward 43 years, and women and minority workers now represent about 80% of the engineering department, which numbers between 80 and 85 employees.

That track record of success speaks to the value of the port’s student engineer program, which has produced many of the engineering department’s current top performers, said Gioiello, now serving as the port’s deputy executive director of development. The program gives student engineers and architects an opportunity to assist in the design and construction of major port and L.A. Waterfront projects.

Students can work up to 20 hours a week, earning $19.70 or more per hour, depending on experience, in one of three port divisions: construction, engineering, or goods movement. The program is just one component of a robust effort to promote DEI at the Port of Los Angeles, Gioiello said. Port executives also conduct outreach to local high schools and colleges, including student organizations aimed at women and minorities, he said.

“Our student program has been very successful in helping us achieve a more diverse workforce,” Gioiello said.

Last October, Gioiello received the 2022 Honorable Ray LaHood Award from WTS Los Angeles, formerly known as the Women’s Transportation Seminar. The award recognizes a man who’s advocated for women in the workplace, helping to ensure that they receive fair consideration for key positions.

WTS Los Angeles also honored the port’s chief harbor engineer, Dina Aryan-Zahlan, as its Woman of the Year. The award recognizes a female transportation executive for outstanding contributions to the industry and for aiding in the advancement of women and minorities in transportation.

Aryan-Zahlan and Gioiello both said they were humbled and honored to be recognized.

Aryan-Zahlan joined the Port of Los Angeles as a construction manager in 2000 and steadily rose through the ranks. She became harbor engineer and chief of design in 2003, was promoted to assistant chief harbor engineer in 2015 and took on her current role last year. She said one area of focus has been ensuring that job postings are gender neutral, focusing solely on the necessary skills and qualifications, so as not to subtly dissuade women and minorities from applying.

“Our main focus is making sure that our employees feel comfortable expressing themselves and feel that they’ll have opportunities here,” Aryan-Zahlan said.

COVID-19 made it harder to conduct in-person outreach to local students, so the Port of Los Angeles stepped up its social-media campaign, educating students about career opportunities at the port, Aryan-Zahlan said. In addition to local high schools and colleges, the port has reached out to groups such as the National Society of Black Engineers.

The port’s engineers also have made presentations to K-12 students during Engineers Week, an annual event organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Aryan-Zahlan said.

“When schools ask us to come and present, they like the fact that there’s diversity among the presenters themselves,” she said.

Aryan-Zahlan said that of her seven-member management team, five are women or minority workers. The team that selects which jobseekers to interview and which employees to promote also reflects a commitment to diversity, helping to ensure that each candidate gets a fair shake, she added.

Promoting DEI also means making sure that the port has the proper facilities to accommodate all of its employees, Gioiello said. His job includes supervising heavy construction and equipment maintenance at the port, and in the past, trades such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians have been dominated by males.

To promote inclusivity, the port evaluated its working conditions and determined that it lacked locker rooms and adequate restroom facilities for women in these areas, making the job less appealing to them, Gioiello said.

“Those are some of the things we’re looking at — making sure we have support facilities for our workers so that we can attract a more diverse workforce,” he said. “When I started here in 1980, it was pretty much all white males in the engineering division, but as we’ve diversified and expanded our workforce, the culture has changed so much for the better, and I’ve seen that change myself, personally.”