“Our kids are in top-notch schools. I have a great job with smart people. You can make a good life in Pittsburgh.”
When Sylvana Bonner’s family moved from Jamaica to Cleveland for better opportunities, there were a few shocks to the system.
Tropical breezes were replaced by lake-effect gusts. The turquoise waters of Montego Bay gave way to murky Lake Erie.
At eight years old, “I really didn’t notice how overcast it was,” she recalls. Snow, however, was another matter for Sylvana and her little sister. “We thought it was the neatest thing ever. We didn’t realize that we needed gloves to play in it. Our first experience with snow was fun, but painful.”
That instinct to find opportunity in the unknown has served Sylvana well in career and in life – perhaps thanks in part to a countervailing taste for structure and order.
“I loved school, loved science and math,” she says. “My parents really emphasized education, and I have always been the eternal learner. I planned to study medicine and become a doctor.”
Fast-forward to college (in an even colder locale, Syracuse), when she found herself simply wanting to get out in the working world. In her final semester, Sylvana took a part-time job with job with RPS, Inc., a relatively young shipping company, at ease with 4:30 a.m. start time. “I’d drive to the hub, sort packages for a few hours, then go to class.”
After graduation, she returned to Cleveland to work full-time as an operations coordinator for the company, which was eventually acquired by FedEx Corp. and branded FedEx Ground. The fact that the workplace was overwhelming male gave her no pause.
“I embraced the experience. The work was hard, but I was surrounded by a great group of people. It was the beginning of learning how to get results from people with different background, ranging from package handlers to college grads to business owners (the truck drivers) who spent long days on the road delivering packages.”
She hoped to move up the ladder to a new location. She was excited when an opening arose in Pittsburgh, but friends pointed out that Pittsburgh’s black middle class is small and spread out. “Cleveland was diverse before diversity was sexy,” she says with a laugh. “You have people of all ethnicities, all backgrounds around you. In Pittsburgh, you have little pockets of diversity around the region, but with a bit of effort you can find them.”
Sylvana took to driving various beltways (the Yellow Belt, the Green Belt) to, say, the Baskin Robbins in Monroeville from her first home in Green Tree. “I made it a point to step out of my comfort zone to explore different parts of the region.”
She left FedEx for several years to start her family, and worked as a real estate agent for a time, but returned to the Moon-based company three years ago. “FedEx really feels like my second home. I get to work with a lot of great, smart people. We’re problem solvers with a commitment to and drive for excellence.
“I get to have fun at work and can impact others within the network,” she says. “The company encourages stretch assignments and involvement with initiatives beyond our day-to-day duties.” She is an active member of FedEx Ground’s Women’s Network and its Diversity and Inclusion Team.
Sylvana’s position as an operations analyst for FedEx Ground’s international trade services has her in routine contact with the hundreds of customs brokers who help usher freight across the U.S.-Canada border.
“A typical day involves a lot of emails and phone conversations with brokers: checking data, tracking and analyzing their performance. My job is a liaison between FedEx and the broker community. There are technical aspects, but a lot of soft skills come into play: you’re checking in with people even when you don’t necessarily need something from them. You have to be mindful that it’s not all about you and your needs.”
Free time is spent with her husband, Kenyon, and their four children, ages 9 through 17, gathered in the kitchen or taking walks in the neighborhood or nearby North Park, amid the kids’ various sports and other activities.
Kenyon is vice provost and dean of students at the University of Pittsburgh, which keeps the family in the loop about the wealth of sporting, arts and cultural activities of all kinds around its Oakland hub. Still, she would love to see more faces of color at those gatherings, especially for their children’s sake.
“Don’t get me wrong: we love Pittsburgh. The kids are in top-notch schools (North Allegheny School District) and the teachers are fantastic,” Sylvana says. “At the end of the day, life is what you make of it. You can make a good life here.”