YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – “I knew nothing about Wall Street until I was about 22 years old,” said J. Derek Penn.
“We didn’t discuss stocks and bonds at my dining room table. We discussed what was going on in the steel mills, at GM and athletics, but never stocks and bonds.”
Penn, who grew up on Youngstown’s north side where he graduated from The Rayen School, would go on to a 34-year career on Wall Street, dealing with financial giants like Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers.
Today, he serves as independent trustee on the corporate board of Charles Schwab.
The resident of the Hudson Valley region of New York was back in the Mahoning Valley April 7 to receive the Valley Champion Award from the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber at its annual meeting.
The chamber gave out two other awards at the event at Mr. Anthony’s banquet hall. The Spirit of the Valley award went to the National Center for Urban Solutions, and the Spirit of the Chamber award went to Jon Arnold, CEO and co-founder of the J. Arnold Wealth Management Co.
The keynote speaker was Boardman native George Limbert, who was named president of the Red Roof Inn hotel chain last year.
The Valley Champion award, which is in its second year, honors people from the Valley who moved away and found great success.
“We want to send a message to the younger generation that you can grow up in the Mahoning Valley and go on to change the world,” said Guy Coviello, president and CEO of the chamber. “When we heard about Derek, it seemed like a no-brainer.”
Penn is the author of “Diary of a Black Man on Wall Street: From Youngstown, Ohio, to The Big Apple.” He tells his life story in the book, beginning with his formative years in Youngstown.
“I put Youngstown in the title because I wanted people to know Youngstown is where I came from,” he said.
Penn’s reasons for writing the book were threefold: to inspire young people of color to pursue a career on Wall Street, where minorities are underrepresented; to enlighten White people about the personal and professional trials and tribulations that people of color go through; and to shed light on the workings of the stock market.
“Wall Street is a mystery to many people, and I wanted to pull back the curtain,” he said.
Penn said the city instilled lessons in him that helped him succeed in life.
“I learned my determination, my perseverance, my grit from Youngstown,” he said, drawing a spontaneous round of applause.
Penn also said he developed an appreciation for all walks of life from his upbringing in Youngstown, which he described as “a melting pot.” He spoke fondly of his time on the north side and at Rayen High.
“The north side was 90% Jewish then,” he said, “and the Jewish people embraced me like I’d never seen before. They invited me to join their Boy Scouts troop. I never forgot the love they showed me.”
Limbert, the president of Red Roof Inn, also credited the Mahoning Valley for shaping his leadership style.
He started with the Columbus-based chain in 2013 as an attorney, and became general counsel for crisis management in 2017 – just a few years before the pandemic nearly suffocated the hotel industry
“The bottom fell out in 2020,” he said. “It was crisis management at its best.” With hotels barely scraping by, Limbert’s team became “the de facto leaders of the organization.”
When the government sought hotels to serve as quarantine sites, Limbert rebuffed many in his corporation and signed up every Red Roof Inn location. The chain has close to 700 properties nationwide.
“They [told me], ‘No one will want to stay at our hotels again.’ [But] we provided a service to our community. That is the Youngstown way.”
The 1999 Boardman High graduate grew up in the hospitality industry; his grandfather is believed to have opened the state’s first LaQuinta hotel and later operated a Sheraton in Columbus.
He also learned business from his father, George J. Limbert, who practiced corporate law before becoming a federal magistrate.
Red Roof Inn has not only bounced back from the pandemic but is poised to make huge strides this year. The chain had its best year last year, Limbert said, and he expects it to continue.
“Leisure demand is back,” he said, adding that economy hotels are among the beneficiaries.
“Everyone wants to travel and see family they haven’t seen in years… and that demand is not going anywhere irrespective of gasoline prices or inflation,” Limbert said, although he expects leisure trips to be for shorter periods and closer to home.
Limbert also said the future is bright for northeastern Ohio and the Mahoning Valley – a focal point for the emerging electric vehicle industry.
“Everyone is bullish on northeastern Ohio,” he said. “The stage is set, the government is with us, and we’re ready to go.”
Chamber CEO Coviello capped the annual meeting by touting the organization’s accomplishments in 2021.
Economic development is a major part of the chamber’s work, and Coviello said it improved relations with other regional development agencies, “breaking down silos.” In so doing, the chamber created partnerships with JobsOhio, TeamNEO, Magnet, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, Western Reserve Port Authority, and Valley Economic Development Partners, he said.
By the numbers, Coviello said the chamber completed 21 economic development projects in 2021, which represented $101.76 million in new investment. Those projects created 618 new jobs with a new payroll of $25.37 million; retained 362 jobs with a payroll of $23.82 million; and involved more than 1 million square feet of new construction or absorbed area.
Pictured: Chamber CEO Guy Coviello presents the Valley Champion Award to J. Derek Penn, who put Youngstown in the title of his book to tell people “where I came from.”