Cynthia Bennett, a University of South Carolina political science graduate, is helping South Carolina businesses create a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
Last year, Bennett became South Carolina Chamber of Commerce’s first Chief Diversity Officer. The SC Chamber of Commerce says that by creating this role, they are making diversity and inclusion top priorities.
“Diversity and Inclusion are important values to the business community for many reasons, but ultimately, they are good for business and the right thing to do,” SC Chamber President and CEO Bob Morgan said when announcing Bennett’s appointment. “People bring different experience, ideas and backgrounds into the workplace and those things challenge businesses to think in ways they haven’t before. That’s good for growth, productivity and the bottom line.”
Bennett has worked with the chamber for more than 20 years. In her new position, she will provide leadership and strategic oversight for all the chamber’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, such as its online diversity and inclusion toolkit. Bennett helped the SC Chamber’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, for which she is the staff liaison, develop the toolkit to make guidance and resources readily available.
Bennett also helps jobseekers find employment opportunities. She aims to expand her team to establish a Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which will focus on increasing employment pathways in the state.
“Some people are given more opportunities than others, and that’s what I do in my role at the SC Chamber,” Bennett says. “I help make those resources available to all people.”
The chief diversity officer appointment is a natural extension of the kind of work that originally brought Bennett to the SC Chamber. Starting in 1999, she worked with the Education Department on a Federal GEAR UP Grant, preparing students from high-poverty schools for college. The grant created the High Performance Partnerships program, and Bennett helped connect schools and businesses in formal relationships that gave students opportunities to develop skills that employers value and want to enhance ― skills like teamwork, leadership and flexibility. Most recently, she served as the vice president of education and workforce development.
Bennett understands how important it is for everyone to have the chance to learn career skills and to have access to employment opportunities. “I wanted students to have the opportunities that weren’t easily ready for me growing up in a rural town,” says Bennett, who is from Gray Court, SC.
Some people are given more opportunities than others, and that’s what I do in my role at the SC Chamber. I help make those resources available to all people.
- Cynthia Bennett
She says coming to UofSC from a small town made her feel “like a little fish in a big bowl,” but helped grow her into the person she is today. “My exposure at the university really prepared me for what I call ‘real world’ experiences — the ability to debate, for example,” says Bennett. While she originally planned to become a lawyer and started out in the business school, she ultimately majored in political science.
Pursuing a career at the SC Chamber appealed to Bennett because she could combine her business acumen with the skill set of her major. “All of my experiences helped evolve me to where I am now,” she says. “They really helped me be able to be in discussions at all levels and to be able to talk to a very diverse group of people.”
“I want to add that my experiences at UofSC gave me a foundation of support. I was exposed to and met a lot of great people,” she says. UofSC continues to be a resource for Bennett, with continuing mentorships from her time with the university, including with colleagues at the Darla Moore School of Business and with Julian Williams, UofSC’s vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Looking back, Bennett recognizes that her career is a reflection of her investment in her education as well as the opportunities UofSC provided.
“You get out of your university what you put into it,” she says. Bennett encourages students to find their niche at UofSC, whether that be in student government, as an athlete, as an academically geared student, or through work and research opportunities.
“You drive your direction,” she says, “so, utilize that experience to your advantage. You take the initiative to make things better and accept that challenge.”