C-Suite Award honorees

UMSL alumnae Susan Cutler, Sara Foster, Opal Jones and Stephanie Cernicek (not pictured) were among 15 business leaders honored with St. Louis Business Journal C-Suite Awards. (Foster and Jones by August Jennewein, Cutler submitted)

A quartet of University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnae were honored with St. Louis Business Journal’s C-Suite Awards, a celebration of business leadership in the St. Louis area.

The awardees were highlighted in a special issue released Feb. 19.

Stephanie Cernicek, a 2011 BS, 2013 MS and 2017 PhD chemistry graduate and chief science officer of BeLeaf Co.; Susan Cutler, a 1984 accounting graduate and recently retired chief financial officer of Boone Center, Inc.; Sara Foster, a 1983 communication graduate and the executive vice president, talent and corporate administration of Commerce Bank; and Opal Jones, a 2000 BSBA and 2017 PMBA graduate and president and CEO of DOORWAYS, were among the 15 leaders profiled by the publication.

“It was extremely heartwarming for me,” Cutler said of the award. “My nomination was done without my knowledge. I was nominated by my co-workers and the board of directors of the center. I’m kind of a behind-the-scenes person, so I never would have pursued something like that on my own.”

Cutler’s time at UMSL is emblematic of the university’s mission to serve non-traditional students who want to advance their careers.

After graduating high school, she married and started a family. A part-time job as a bookkeeper in high school gave her the practical experience she needed to enter the workforce as a paraprofessional in public accounting. However, she had the feeling that her career wouldn’t go much further without additional education.

“I was probably in my early 20s, and I had decided through my work experience that I was going to go absolutely nowhere without a degree,” she said. “UMSL was a great commuter college. I lived and worked in Maryland Heights. I was able to go to school in the morning and work in the afternoon. I was on a fast track, and UMSL was able to provide that fast-track opportunity for me to work really hard.”

The move paid off.

Cutler went on to serve as controller at Wainwright Enterprises Inc. for around 30 years before becoming CFO at Boone Center, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities find employment and develop vocational skills.

“It was the perfect end-of-career job for me,” Cutler said. “Boone Center is a nonprofit, so I was able to take all my work experience and the talents I gained over my many years in the automotive industry and put it to work for a social mission. It was really nice.”

Cernicek and Foster are also familiar with career pivots. Cernicek is a three-time graduate of UMSL, and during her studies, she assumed that she would enter the pharmaceutical industry like many of her chemistry classmates. Instead, she joined BeLeaf Co. as senior chemist.

The company is a trailblazer in Missouri’s emerging cannabis industry, being the first approved medical cannabis cultivator in the state. It is also a leader in CBD products.

Cernicek was promoted to chief science officer in 2019, and within a year, her research and development generated 17 new products. This year, the company expects to bring 20 more products to market.

“It’s going to be a really good thing for the state of Missouri,” Cernicek told the Business Journal. “I’m excited that I’m a part of it and that I get to see it from the beginning.”

Foster didn’t foresee banking or business in her future when she came to UMSL.

She had transferred from the University of Missouri–Columbia after getting engaged to be married and was pursuing a career in media, studying communications while interning at KWMU.

“I quickly learned that a career in that area would require relocating, which wasn’t realistic for me at the time,” Foster said.  “So, I pivoted and turned my part-time job that I had during college into a full-time opportunity and grew from there.”

After graduating in 1983, Foster worked as an area sales manager and personnel manager for Dillard’s until 1986. She then joined Commerce Bank as a human resources representative and moved up the ranks to her current position as the head of corporate HR.

She was grateful to be nominated for doing the work she loves.

“I’m very honored to be a recipient of the Business Journal’s C-Suite Award,” Foster said. “This award focuses not only on the business achievements of the people being recognized but also on their contributions to the community as a whole. It’s an honor to be recognized for doing a job I love and for the volunteer work I do with some amazing organizations.”

Jones was similarly humbled to count herself among the honorees.

“It’s a wonderful experience made possible through the dozens of employees and hundreds of volunteers at DOORWAYS who work together to make dignity possible for the thousands of people we serve living with HIV,” she said. “I am humbled to serve as their representative, highlighting our critical mission, the goals we’ve accomplished, but, more importantly, the work that still needs to be done to ensure that our clients, often marginalized and isolated, have the housing and resources they need to live full, independent lives.”

DOORWAYS provides affordable, secure housing and related services for people living with HIV/AIDS. Jones has ushered the organization’s growth for nearly 13 years – eight of those as president and CEO.

Though her path to the c-suite of business executives has been winding.

Jones earned a BSBA in management from UMSL in 2000, and before that, she raised her family while working various part-time jobs such as renovating houses, waiting tables and selling homemade cakes.

She leaned on her business education to land a job as office manager at YWCA Metro St. Louis, where she worked for three years before going to DOORWAYS. She later returned to UMSL to enter the Professional MBA Program and credits her time at the university for preparing her to succeed in the business world.

“I talked my way into my first supervisory position because of my bachelor’s degree in business,” Jones said. “When the interviewer asked why I was qualified to be the office manager given my limited work experience, I said, ‘Because I have a degree in business from the University of Missouri–St. Louis.’ That was enough to sell her, and I got the job.

“On a more serious note, I’ve been able to directly translate much of the critical thinking skills and analytical ability honed in those degree programs into making sound business decisions that have allowed DOORWAYS to grow and prosper, ultimately serving more people in need and fulfilling our mission.”

Read more about Cernicek, Cutler, Foster, Jones and the other honorees here.

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