Melvin Gravely: Building a path to racial equity

The TriVersity CEO & Heart Ball chair gets specific and intentional

“I have a Ph.D., so sometimes I just have to put up a graphic.” Melvin J. Gravely II recently joked to 600 business leaders at a diversity leadership symposium as he illustrated root causes of racial disparities in America and devastating economic and social outcomes of systemic racism. 

Melvin Gravely, photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers, Cincinnati
Melvin Gravely, photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers, Cincinnati

Gravely is a civic leader and author of books on business strategy, leadership and minority entrepreneurship. His latest book, “Dear White Friend: The Realities of Race, the Power of Relationships and Our Path to Equity,” draws deeply on experiences of a lifetime as a Black man making accommodations to participate and succeed in a white business world. 

The support “Dear White Friend” has received since its July 2021 release has surprised Gravely, who said books are stacked everywhere at the headquarters of TriVersity Construction Co., where he is majority owner and CEO. “We were a bit unprepared for such a positive response.” So far, “Dear White Friend” is creating new conversations about race. The book continues to gain media coverage, and speaking invitations for Gravely keep rolling in.

Concerned about the nation’s negative soundbites about race, Gravely felt moved to offer a roadmap to help people talk productively about the topic. He intends to motivate readers to examine their beliefs and to encourage collaboration and idea-sharing. The book offers solutions and hope. Its positivity, however, did not ease Gravely’s apprehension about how his frank assessment of the race gap would be received and how it might affect his friendships or his livelihood. 

“I knew people were sensitive around this topic,” he said. “I am not sure I knew the extent of the sensitivity.”

Bridging the health care gap

A native of Canton, Ohio, Gravely has steadily established a reputation in the region as an accomplished business leader and community connector who has been asked to help solve key community challenges. This year, as chair of the 29th annual Greater Cincinnati Heart Ball (postponed to Friday, May 6), Gravely has led efforts to accelerate the American Heart Association’s impact on women’s health and equitable healthcare, and to raise funds to support its work. 

The participation of Gravely’s friend, Beverly A. Grant, in planning the celebration cinched his decision to accept the chair; the fact that his friend Pete Strange, chairman emeritus of Messer Construction, is being honored at the event is also meaningful. 

Gravely has enacted “friendraising” as part of the strategy to exceed the $1.5 million goal and help the organization foster new partnerships with groups focused on eliminating health disparities, such as Center for Closing the Health Gap. 

“Two things are my unique role in this,” Gravely said, “intentionality and specificity. We have been very intentional about changing the executive leadership team to be more inclusive. We have emphasized friend-raising at the same level of fundraising. Specificity is around things like ‘Let’s go meet Renee Mahaffey Harris (president and CEO of the Center for Closing the Health Gap). Let’s ask how we can be uplifting to sororities in our town, because that’s where a lot of Black professionals hang out. Usually when you say ‘equity,’ the response is yeah!, but there’s no specificity. We are not measuring anything. It’s been critical to me that that change.”

“I am honored to be asked, and that’s the truth, because the Heart Ball is one of those signature events in town,” Gravely said. “It is broadly supported. It’s a net gain to our city – we receive more money from national American Heart than we raise (locally).”

“Mel is a terrific leader and supporter of the community at large,” Grant said. “His leadership chairing the Heart Ball enables the message of health care equity and what’s required to get us there in Cincinnati to be heard.”

Gravely was a successful author, speaker, entrepreneur and business owner when Strange introduced him to the opportunity to buy TriVersity Construction in 2009.

“Our personal connection goes back a long way,” Gravely said of Strange. “It was Pete who offered me the opportunity to buy TriVersity, and it has changed my life. Then he stayed and gave me advice and counsel. He changed the game on the expectation for inclusion in our industry and beyond. All of that came from Pete.”

Gravely met his wife, Dr. Chandra Webb, in Canton. They moved to Cincinnati in 1993. Gravely had completed his MBA at Kent State University and was working as a sales leader with IBM. The couple chose Cincinnati from about seven options, Gravely said. “We did not know anyone here at the time.”

Melvin Gravely
Melvin Gravely, photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers, Cincinnati

Building a foundation

For Gravely, 2009 was a uniquely “beautiful year.” After the real estate meltdown and construction downturn, Gravely and a partner acquired ownership interest in TriVersity. Part of Gravely’s vision was expansion, which would allow a minority-led company to create jobs, contribute to a diverse business environment, and help Cincinnati corporations meet supplier diversity objectives.

“I wanted to be a player in this,” Gravely said, “to be able to create jobs and have an impact. To do that, you have to scale your company.”

At the time, Messer Construction was TriVersity Construction’s majority owner and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center was its sole client. “If you can’t grow a company with a partner like Messer and a customer like Children’s, you don’t deserve to play in the game,” Gravely said. “They gave me a great foundation upon which to build the company.”

TriVersity Construction is now among the largest commercial construction companies in the Tristate. Gravely has built a leadership team that has expanded the company from 30 employees to 115, adding operational divisions and clients including Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC), Duke Energy, Procter & Gamble, UC Health and Fifth Third Bank. In April 2021, company ownership expanded to include President James Watkins. Gravely calls Watkins, a 30-year veteran of commercial construction, a friend whose impact on TriVersity has been integral.

In 2021, TriVersity managed $105 million of construction for projects including Bethany House’s new shelter in Bond Hill, the Urban League’s Center for Social Justice in Avondale, and a significant renovation of Fifth Third’s office tower downtown. In July, TriVersity held a public groundbreaking for its own headquarters on Curtis Street in Walnut Hills. The facility represents TriVersity’s commitment to continually refine how it creates value for customers, empowers people to develop and thrive as professionals, and serves as a good community steward. 

Dear White Friend by Melvin Gravely book cover
“Dear White Friend” by Melvin Gravely

Accelerating business, philanthropy

“Dear White Friend” is not a Cincinnati story. However, Gravely’s immense personal contributions to the region’s civic and economic leadership over the past two decades inform its narrative. He devotes a portion of one chapter to Cincinnati’s Minority Business Accelerator, a program created and funded following 2001’s civil unrest after a Cincinnati police officer killed an unarmed Black youth in Over-the-Rhine. 

Gravely was asked by Michael Fisher, then president of Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, to write the business plan for an accelerator that would address racial disparities in business ownership and drive a strategy for growing African American businesses. Gravely then led the MBA for 18 months. He also served on the chamber’s board and became chair in 2014.

 “What I care about is, are we growing African American and Hispanic businesses that will create wealth in our community?” Gravely said of the MBA’s impact. “Who will be philanthropic givers that will sit on boards of directors, so we can have more diverse decisions being made, employ more people of color that will rise to the executive levels and will support ArtsWave and United Way?”

His credibility for capable and inclusive leadership has grown as he has demonstrated influence leading to sustainable solutions. The Regional Economic Development Initiative, or REDI Cincinnati, is one. In its seventh year, REDI is the region’s biggest economic development agency with 317 project wins for the region through 2020, representing nearly $4 billion in capital investment and 31,294 new jobs. Gravely, a founding board member, helped shape REDI’s strategy. 

He co-chairs the Cincinnati Regional Business Committee, a group of 100 middle market CEOs working toward meaningful civic action. He is vice chair of ArtsWave, the largest community arts fund in the nation. Gravely leads a number of ArtsWave initiatives, including Flow, an African American Arts Experience established in 2019. 

Flow represents a profound intersection of diverse entrepreneurial opportunity and philanthropy for Gravely. Without TriVersity, “I wouldn’t be at the table (for Flow). I wouldn’t be able to put our money in it. And I wouldn’t be able to call on my relationships with Greater Cincinnati Foundation and Fifth Third Bank (founding sponsors of Flow). That’s the change I am talking about. It sounds like I’m taking credit, but it’s an example of how I hope there’s Flow 25 years from now. It’s still great African American art. And we have forgotten about who started it – it is something we have just gotten used to. It doesn’t happen unless we have diverse philanthropy in our town.”

Melvin Gravely is wearing a custom tuxedo to the Heart Ball, created by his long-time tailor Red Door Apparel of Canton. He is donating another custom tux to be auctioned off at the gala auction. He expects that 2022 will bring more exposure to “Dear White Friend” and require more of his time.

 “I thought I would write this book, get it off my chest, we would sell 1,200 copies and I’d move on with my life,” he told his December diversity leadership symposium audience, only partly kidding. “Au contraire.”

Melvin Gravely to chair Heart Ball honoring Pete Strange

NEW DATE: This event has been postponed to Friday, May 6

Melvin Gravely, CEO of TriVersity Construction, chairs the American Heart Association’s annual Heart Ball, now set for Friday, May 6 at Duke Energy Convention Center, Downtown.

St. Elizabeth Healthcare is the presenting sponsor of the event, which honors Pete Strange, chairman emeritus of Messer Construction and longtime advocate for diversity, inclusion and equitable change.

The event, scheduled for 6:30-10 p.m., includes a reception, live and silent auctions, and mission appeal and is followed by a Young Professional After Party, 10 p.m.-1 a.m. 

Pete Strange
Pete Strange

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