Lessons for a lifetime: Fayetteville industry and business leaders reflect on the mentors who helped them early on and left a lasting impact on who they are today

By Faith Hatton, posted 3 weeks ago
Pictured left to right: Dr. Y. Sammy Choi, Bianca Shoneman and Ralph Huff share about the mentors who helped them 
develop into the strong leaders they are today. Photos provided by WAMC, CSDD and Ralph Huff

Everyone starts somewhere and before they were at the top of their local organizations, industries and fields, local leaders started at the bottom before working their way up. Everyone learns from someone and without even knowing it, you can leave an everlasting impact on the lives of those around you. Local leaders Bianca Shoneman, Dr. Y. Sammi Choi and real estate expert Ralph Huff shared their stories of encouragement, education and connection with those who they remember fondly as mentors. 

From working within the RURAL CAROLINAS project to present day, Bianca Shoneman (right) and her mentor Julie Mooney (left)  have continued to have a relationship on both a professional and personal level. Photos provided by: CSDD and MDC. 

MENTEE: Bianca Shoneman 

MENTOR: Julie Mooney 

Long before joining the Cool Spring Downtown District as its executive director, Bianca Shoneman was working to make an economic difference in smaller communities. 

In 2007, Shoneman was freshly returned from the Peace Corps and working for The Duke Endowment in the program for the RURAL CAROLINAS project, an anti-poverty campaign focused on helping rural communities facing economic uncertainty due to a loss of industrialization jobs in their areas. Shoneman was placed in one out of 23 “test sites” spread throughout rural North and South Carolina to help address a changing economy. 

“So they fundamentally stood up these little nonprofits that were charged with looking at how you create self-sufficient economies on a hyperlocal level that were directed by the people and for the people. So it's sort of an experiment in poverty alleviation tactics that would allow communities to have a lot of liberty to choose how they move forward in this new world order,” shared Shoneman. 

Placed in Beaufort County, NC it was there that Shoneman would meet her mentor and later friend Julie Mooney who at the time was assigned to coach her one on one. Mooney was working with the MDC, an organization that works to accelerate equitable change in the south by equipping Southern leaders, institutions and communities with the necessary tools and strategies to advance equity, particularly racial and gender equity, and economic mobility. 

“The MDC would lead us through a process of leadership development and economic development theory. They would help us think through the challenges of being sort of young age nonprofit leaders; everything from board development to social justice actions, to economic development theory. Julie was versed in that and she is a well rounded hyper smart person. She was just a wonderful guide for me,” shared Shoneman. 

Shoneman and Mooney would work together in a mentor/ mentee relationship through that program for three years before going their separate ways. However, Shoneman shared that they have stayed in touch and communicated on a personal level throughout the course of her career. 

“Julie, in my early career, laid down the foundation for my resume. And that was really helpful because I feel like she helped me get in the door in places that I probably couldn't before,” shared Shoneman. “One of my favorite things she ever told me is, “If you see a position, or if you don't see a position that you want, go out and create it and convince the people why they need it.” We’ve actually done that in two cities that I've worked for,” shared Shoneman. 

Looking back, Shoneman shared that she continues to carry the lessons that she learned from Mooney. 

“Our personalities were well matched. She's very calm and I’m a little excitable, and she would always remind me to take a deep breath. Slow down, calm down, think it through more solidly, don't shoot from your hip much. And when you’re young, I think I was 25 at the time, she was just a wonderful person to have on my side,” shared Shoneman. 

When asked what she would like to bring to a relationship with a mentee, Shoneman shared that the goal would be to encourage them the way she was encouraged. 

“I’m a person who responds really well to the affirmative and so I would love to have a mentee that walks away from the experience feeling very confident and capable,’ she shared. 

Mooney has recently retired from the MDC, but is still connected to the organization as a senior fellow. 

Even now, Shoneman knows that Mooney will still be there for her as a friend and mentor. 

“I have full confidence that if I were to call Julie Mooney and ask for advice, she wouldn't hesitate to sit down with me and have a nice long conversation about what her thoughts are,” shared Shoneman. “Julie is an amazing human, she does great work all across the Carolinas. Her passion is truly North Carolina, and I couldn’t have been more fortunate to have been placed with her as a mentor,” concluded Shoneman. 

MENTEE: Dr. Y. Sammy Choi 

MENTORS: Dr. Bharat Sharma, and Michael Fletcher, former Senior Pastor of Manna Church, Fayetteville, NC

With nearly 35 years of serving at Womack Army Medical Center (WAMC) at Fort Liberty, Dr. Y. Sammy Choi has been steadfast as the director of the Department of Research at WAMC since July of 2008. 

But before developing his research, or his work as director of the Cape Fear Research Consortium, Choi started as all medical doctors do, as a medical resident. 

Choi began his journey as a medical professional at the University of Oklahoma Medical School. It was during his clinical years of study from 1983-1985 that he met and became involved with his first mentor Dr. Bharat Sharma who would help him set the course of his career in research. 

“I did research in undergrad, I cut off rat heads, but what really got me into the itch of research was Dr. Bharat Sharma and that was through case reports,” recalls Choi. “I had a case that I later found out had been reported on 41 times, but what he wanted me to do was not give up. I would say what really attracted me to him was he had an infectious, always positive, can do attitude. He would say to me ‘Sammy, Sammy, you can do this! And anytime he saw me he would say ‘Sammy, how are you doing? You have a report? How can I help you?’ He would just check up on me.”

A 22 -year-old Y. Sammy Choi pictured during his third year of medical school. 
Photo provided by: Y. Sammy Choi.

Choi’s other mentor was a religious figure well known to the Fayetteville community who would go on to impact Choi’s own leadership style. 

After moving to Fayetteville for his first position at WAMC in 1989, Choi and his family joined Manna Church under the leadership of Senior Pastor at the time Michael Fletcher. Choi went on to serve as an Elder of the church in 1997 serving in that capacity for 20 years, all the while he was learning how to work with and lead people from Pastor Fletcher. 

“In 1981 when he took over the church, they had 300 members and then in 2018 under his leadership it went from 300 to 8,000 members and that’s a pretty good sized church.” shared Choi. “He said ‘leaders who have to have their hands on and micromanage everything, there’s no way they can expand because you’re not building a team to do it.’ He said ‘control kills.’” 

Choi shared that Pastor Fletcher championed the idea of shoulder tapping which is more than just tapping someone on the shoulder and asking them to complete a task. In practice, it is getting to know a potential team member over the course of a few months learning about them and their history, likes and dislikes and what their talents are. Choi shared that he applies this method to his team as well. 

“Finally, after that whole process of shoulder tapping, then you ask them, ‘Hey, would you like to do this?’ And in the military setting, that's exactly what we've done here all at Womack because very few people have dedicated time to do research. So I get to know them, we take them out, buy them lunch, have a meeting, get to know their interests, and we help them with case reports. And after that once they publish they kind of get that itch to do more and then finally gets to the point where we shoulder tap them and say ‘Hey, how would you like to be the principal investigator of a study? We’ll help you,” shared Choi. 

Overall, Choi shared that his main goal as a director at WMAC and a mentor would be to make sure his mentee has what they need to grow and eventually move on. 

“I'm picking people who allow me to teach them so that in four years, you're out of here with a significant promotion,” shared Choi. “I just want people to get to the next level. I want people to agree with me that yes, they'll allow me to engage in them.”

MENTEE: Ralph Huff 

MENTORS: Mary Archie McNeil, Avery Connell and Murray Duggins 

Fayetteville based real estate expert Ralph Huff has been in the game since 1978, working his way through multiple firms, businesses and more before eventually founding the Huff Family Office and becoming a primary owner in one of the most successful real estate branches in the country: Coldwell Banker Advantage. But before all of that, he recalls that one of the three main mentors throughout his life was someone from outside the world of business. 

“Her name is Mary Archie McNeil, and she was my music teacher from fifth grade through high school, and she was [also] my wife Linda’s music teacher from seventh grade through high school. She was a southern lady and she taught us how to behave, stand straight and be on time and be a perfectionist in what we did,” recalled Huff. “ She really encouraged Linda to become a music educator, which she did.”

From left to right: Mary Archie McNeil pictured with Ralph Huff. Currently living in Greensboro, McNeil continues to be visited by former students and
the Hoke County community. Photo provided by: Ralph Huff

Mary’s reach expanded beyond their school years with her students rallying together to form a committee to plan the very first Choral Fest 2000, a fundraising event created by students she impacted throughout time as an educator in Hoke County. The event was a monumental success raising $75,000 which was put into an endowment fund in her honor. Those funds would later be used to pay a stipend for the next music teacher who took her place. 

“During that process, we contacted every student that this lady had had over a 30 year career and we invited them to attend Choral Fest. We all met on Friday and we had sent the music and recordings out to everyone who agreed to participate. We came together on Friday and practiced and we practiced again on Saturday. Then on Saturday night, we had a concert in Raeford, a sold out 500 seat auditorium complete with a sit down dinner,” recalled Huff. 

Another key mentor for Huff would appear in his life during a turning point in his career. A Mr. Avery Connell of what was at the time known as Connell Realty and Insurance in Raeford would be the first to offer Huff a job in the real estate industry.

“I was working at my second dead end job at Raeford Savings and Loan when he walked in one day and said ‘Ralph, when you decide you want to make a good living selling real estate you come out from behind that desk and let me know,’” recalled Huff. “And he went on to say ‘You know.’ And so I went on immediately to get my license and go to work for him. He taught me many things, he was a real workaholic and he was a dreamer. And he was in a place where it was hard to execute your dreams,” shared Huff. 

The third most prominent mentor for Huff came later in the form of a Mr. Murray Duggins who would go on to be a continuous yet unofficial partner with Huff after taking him on as a manager at United Realty in December of 1981. During that time, Huff would go on to make improvements to United Realty and would continue to learn.

“We would talk and he would answer my questions and give me guidance and he really took the time to help me through this time when I was in way over my head. Recalled Huff. “And I pretty well faked it with the agents and we started doing better and so in 1984 he said, ‘We need a franchise. So you decide what franchise we need to go buy.’” recalled Huff. 

It was this decision that would lead Huff to choose to join the Coldwell Banker franchise creating what was previously known as Coldwell Banker United Realty which Huff would later purchase from Duggins and turn into Coldwell Banker Advantage (CBA) the real estate giant known today.

“We merged with Coldwell Banker Seacoast Advantage so today, we have 60 offices, 2,000 agents and $7 billion in sales. We're the number one real estate franchise in all of Coldwell Banker nationally, and all of that started with that phone call from Murray,” said Huff. 

Ralph Huff (left) pictured with lifelong friend and mentor Murray Duggins (right). Outside of their businesses, the two remain strong friends, traveling together and spending time together with their families. Photo provided by: Ralph Huff

As Huff continued his journey through the real estate industry and continued to expand his empire, he shared that Duggins remains a continuous presence in his life.

“Murray was already headed towards becoming my best friend before I bought the company. With my dad gone, he's always been the person that I took every major decision to, to talk with me since that time. And we’ve been to Europe together a couple of times, we travel together. Linda’s best friend is Murray's wife Nancy, they are like sisters. And both of us have done very, very well in two totally different aspects of real estate,” shared Huff.

“The important thing about a mentor is, he saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. And Mary Archie saw something in Linda that she didn't see in herself. As I sit here today, there's not one ounce of doubt in my mind that I would not be where I am today were it not for Murray Duggins.”


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