For Shelonda Stokes, President of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a passion to serve the Baltimore area comes naturally. As a city native, Stokes graduated high school from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. This experience offered insight into not only her future career and problem-solving abilities, but also “the diversity … when you have a group of people coming from all over the city (and) what we can accomplish together. And that’s just become a part of … the mantra of who I am.”
After high school, Stokes attended Morgan State University and earned a degree in electrical engineering. A job in engineering at HP brought experience in marketing and communications, and she made the transition to start her own company called greiBo, a marketing and production studio.
She was first introduced to DPOB, an organization that works to ensure safety and hospitality in the Downtown Baltimore area, through board service. When the previous DPOB president left, Stokes began the search for his replacement. Mid-search through the search in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Stokes was asked to take the position on an interim basis. She quickly got to work, getting her team designated as “essential personnel” and setting up communication channels.
Over those months, “(With the combination of) my love of the city and downtown, and how I could see the impact and difference I could make, I asked at the point … to throw my hat into the ring.” Stokes was chosen as the full-time replacement, becoming the first African-American president of DPOB.
Stokes has overseen numerous projects in her short time as president, including an ongoing initiative that involves working with building owners to clean congested alleyways and repurpose these as “placemaking spaces” where people can go out, sit and enjoy spoken word, art and interactive activities.
She’s also proud of the new BOOST (Black Owned and Operated Storefront Tenancy) program, aimed to fill vacant storefronts with its first cohort of five Black-owned businesses. This comprehensive program is currently getting attention from around the country. “(We’re) now getting company calls from other places … like, how do we replicate what you’re doing to build out? It’s us all being intentional about building a better area.”
Stokes notes that, “When I look back on my life, I have probably always been thrust into a leadership role, but I don’t think that I saw it as necessarily being a leader, I saw it as filling a hole, stepping up into a space …. But because my philosophy is so collaborative … I see it as us envisioning together, I see it as us building together ….”
She counts relationship-building as a personal strength that has enabled her to succeed. “I think that I’ve had team members tell me before that they will work for me even without being paid. Now I haven’t had anyone take me up on it,” she laughs, “but … they know I’m willing to stay in the trenches with them and (give) demonstrative leadership.”
In her free time, Stokes enjoys golf and raising her two children alongside her husband. Otherwise, “My window overlooks downtown, which is amazing, so I sit in my bed, I have my computer on my lap … that is my happy place, just sitting there, working if I want to and looking out the window.”
As for advice for future female leaders in Baltimore, “I think that quite often, we are afraid to fail … but when you think of failure as opportunities to stretch and grow, then I think you take that persona on differently. What I would encourage all women to do is every day, to come back home and say, ‘What did I fail at today?’ because if you didn’t fail at something, I’m gonna believe you didn’t stretch hard enough!”