In honor of Black History Month, each week we will profile an employee who is helping to break barriers. Follow along throughout the month of February for these extraordinary stories of perseverance.
Reflecting on past struggles and triumphs while looking toward a better future is at the very heart of Black History Month. Though the battle for civil rights is far from over, throughout the past few decades the United States has experienced a seismic shift in terms of racial equality. But sometimes it takes an outside perspective to appreciate just how far we have come as a country.
Gervais Tchoutan saw the United States as so many immigrants before him had: as the land of opportunity. Born and raised in the West African nation of Cameroon, he came to Chicago in 2002 to attend graduate school at Northwestern University, where he studied finance before joining United Airlines as an analyst.
Cameroon is often called "Africa in miniature," owing to its diverse geography of mountains, deserts, jungle and beaches, but the country also boasts a rich cultural fabric influenced by Spanish, Portuguese, German, English and French colonialism intermixed with traditional tribal customs. Today Cameroon is still home to more than two hundred separate tribes, each with their own leadership structures and values.
"I was born in the English part of the country, but my parents are both from the French side," Gervais says. "My parents also come from a tribal royal family - my grandfather was actually a king - so they instilled in me a deep respect for that part of our culture as well."
Before moving to Chicago, Gervais lived and studied in the Ivory Coast, France and Canada, gaining a well-rounded appreciation of the world and its wide array of peoples. But it was the United States that he felt offered the most freedom to do what he wanted to do and to be who he wanted to be. And it was one of the few places where he felt that his dreams wouldn't be curtailed because of the color of his skin.
"My cousin told me that I could find more success in the United States, even more so than in Europe or in Cameroon, because everyone is equal here," he says. "Even though black people in this country originally came over as slaves, they fought hard over the years to integrate themselves into American culture. That's what sold me on coming here; no matter your background, you can achieve whatever you put your mind to."
Though he grew up roughly six thousand miles away, Gervais says that the significance of figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were not lost on him as a young man.
"In Cameroon we knew about those men and women because we struggled under colonization. We looked up to American civil rights leaders as we dealt with our own oppression, but I didn't feel how profound their impact had been until I moved to the United States. For generations, people here have confronted the issues of racial prejudice head-on."
Today, Gervais and his wife (who is also from Cameroon) are U.S. citizens and the proud parents of two children, a 10-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, both born in the United States. Just as his parents did with him, Gervais is trying to instill in his children an awareness of their multicultural background.
"I try to show them that they truly are African Americans. They are American, but they also have a unique heritage. We invite my parents over often to talk to them about Cameroon, and we remind them of the people who came before them in this country, the ones who fought for equality. I tell them that, though it might not always seem fair, they are a representation of an entire culture, and they have to work hard for the benefit of future generations."
Gervais feels a sense of optimism about those future generations thanks to a philosophy that he finds thoroughly American. "In the United States, we are constantly trying to improve; that's the big difference between America and other places - we never stop wanting to get better. United Airlines is a good example of that: we might hit our numbers in terms of diverse employees, but we have taken that next step toward true inclusiveness. I like celebrating Black History Month because it's a celebration of the fact that we are unique in this diverse nation, but it's also a recognition of the fact that we are still working to improve race relations while honoring past successes."
Right now, around the world, brave members of America's armed forces are on duty, defending our freedom and upholding our values.
When not laser-focused on the mission at hand, they're looking forward to the day when their service to our nation is fulfilled and they can reunite with their families.
They are also imagining how they can use their hard-earned skills to build an exciting, rewarding and important career when they return home.
I want them to look no further than United Airlines.
That's why we are focused on recruiting, developing and championing veterans across our company, demonstrating to our returning women and men in uniform that United is the best possible place for them to put their training, knowledge, discipline and character to the noblest use.
They've developed their knowledge and skills in some of the worst of times. We hope they will use those skills to keep United performing at our best, all of the time.
That's why we are accelerating our efforts to onboard the best and the brightest, and substantially increasing our overall recruitment numbers each year.
We recently launched a new sponsorship program to support onboarding veterans into United and a new care package program to support deployed employees. It's one more reason why United continues to rank high - and rise higher - as a top workplace for veterans. In fact, we jumped 21 spots this year on Indeed.com's list of the top U.S workplaces for veterans. This is a testament to our increased recruiting efforts, as well as our efforts to create a culture where veterans feel valued and supported.
We use the special reach and resources of our global operations to partner with outstanding organizations. This is our way of stepping up and going the extra mile for all those who've stepped forward to answer our nation's call.
We do this year-round, and the month of November is no exception; however, it is exceptional, especially as we mark Veterans Day.
As we pay tribute to all Americans who have served in uniform and carried our flag into battle throughout our history, let's also keep our thoughts with the women and men who are serving around the world, now. They belong to a generation of post-9/11 veterans who've taken part in the longest sustained period of conflict in our history.
Never has so much been asked by so many of so few.... for so long. These heroes represent every color and creed. They are drawn from across the country and many immigrated to our shores.
They then freely choose to serve in the most distant and dangerous regions of the world, to protect democracy in its moments of maximum danger.
Wherever they serve - however they serve - whether they put on a uniform each day, or serve in ways which may never be fully known, these Americans wake up each morning willing to offer the "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf.
Every time they do so, they provide a stunning rebuke to the kinds of voices around the world who doubt freedom and democracy's ability to defend itself.
Unfortunately, we know there are those who seem to not understand – or say they do not - what it is that inspires a free people to step forward, willing to lay down their lives so that their country and fellow citizens might live.
But, we – who are both the wards and stewards of the democracy which has been preserved and handed down to us by veterans throughout our history – do understand.
We know that inciting fear and hatred of others is a source of weakness, not strength. And such divisive rhetoric can never inspire solidarity or sacrifice like love for others and love of country can.
It is this quality of devotion that we most honor in our veterans - those who have served, do serve and will serve.
On behalf of a grateful family of 96,000, thank you for your service.
Each year around Veterans Day, Indeed, one of the world's largest job search engines, rates companies based on actual employee reviews to identify which ones offer the best opportunities and benefits for current and former U.S. military members. Our dramatic improvement in the rankings this year reflects a stronger commitment than ever before to actively recruiting, developing and nurturing veteran talent.
"We've spent a lot of time over the past 12 months looking for ways to better connect with our employees who served and attract new employees from the military ranks," said Global Catering Operations and Logistics Managing Director Ryan Melby, a U.S. Army veteran and the president of our United for Veterans business resource group.
"Our group is launching a mentorship program, for instance, where we'll assign existing employee-veterans to work with new hires who come to us from the armed forces. Having a friend and an ally like that, someone who can help you translate the skills you picked up in the military to what we do as a civilian company, is invaluable. That initiative is still in its infancy, but I'm really optimistic about what it can do for United and for our veteran population here."
Impressively, we were the only one of our industry peers to move up on the list, further evidence that we're on a good track as a company.
The question of where David Ferrari was had haunted retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Vincent Salceto for the better part of 66 years.
Rarely did a week go by that Salceto didn't think about his old friend. Often, he relived their last moments together in a recurring nightmare. In it, it's once again 1953 and Salceto and Ferrari are patrolling a valley in what is now North Korea. Suddenly, explosions shatter the silence and flares light up the night sky.
Crouching under a barrage of bullets, Salceto, the squad's leader, drags two of his men to safety, then he sees Ferrari lying face down on the ground. He runs out to help him, but he's too late. And that's when he always wakes up.
Italian Americans from opposite coasts – Salceto from Philadelphia, Ferrari from San Francisco – the two became close, almost like brothers, after being assigned to the same unit during the Korean War. When Ferrari died, it hit Salceto hard.
"After that, I never let anyone get close to me like I did with Dave," he says. "I couldn't; I didn't want to go through that again."
When the war ended, Salceto wanted to tell Ferrari's family how brave their son and brother had been in battle. Most of all, he wanted to salute his friend at his gravesite and give him a proper farewell.
For decades, though, Salceto had no luck finding his final resting place or locating any of his relatives. Then, in June of this year, he uncovered a clue that led him to the Italian Cemetary in Colma, California, where Ferrari is buried.
Within days, Salceto, who lives in Franklinville, New Jersey, was packed and sitting aboard United Flight 731 from Philadelphia to San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Donna Decker, on his way to Colma. For such a meaningful trip, he even wore his Army dress uniform.
That's how San Francisco-based flight attendant Noreen Baldwin spotted him as he walked down the jet bridge to get on the plane.
"I saw him and said to the other crew members, 'Oh my goodness, look at this guy,'" she says. "I knew there had to be a story."
The two struck up a conversation and Salceto told Baldwin why he was traveling. She got emotional listening to him talk and made a point of fussing over him, making sure he and his family had everything they needed.
About halfway through the flight, Baldwin had an idea. She and her fellow crew members would write messages of encouragement to Salceto and invite his fellow passengers to do the same.
"We did it discreetly," says Baldwin. "I asked the customers if they saw the man in uniform, which most had, and asked them if they wanted to write a few words for him on a cocktail napkin. A lot of people did; families did it together, parents got their kids to write something. After the first few rows, I was so choked up that I could barely talk."
When Baldwin surprised Salceto with dozens of hand-written notes, he, too, was speechless. He laid the stack on his lap and read each one. At the same time, the pilots made an announcement about the veteran over the loud speaker, after which the customers on board burst into applause.
"It seems contrived, and I hate using the word organic, but that's what it was; it just happened," Baldwin says. "Mr. Salceto was so loveable and humble, and what he was doing was so incredible, it felt like the right thing to do. And you could tell he was touched."
On June 27, Salceto finally stood before Ferrari's grave and said that long-awaited goodbye. As a trumpeter played "Taps," he unpinned a medal from his jacket and laid it reverently on the headstone.
"I had gotten a Bronze Star for my actions [the night Ferrari died] with a 'V' for valor, and that was the medal I put on Dave's grave," says Salceto, pausing to fight back tears. "I thought he was more deserving of it than I was."
For the first time in years, Salceto felt at peace. His mission was accomplished.