Being part of the fourth generation of a family to run a business can be a mixed blessing. There’s the opportunity to maintain and build upon a decades-old legacy — but there’s also a chance that workplace disagreements can carry over to the family dinner table.
According to Erin Santa Mercede, however, that has never been the case at Bridgeport’s Santa Energy Corp. The oldest great-granddaughter of Stephen and Madelyn Santa, who started the company in Stratford in 1940, Mercede was employed there from 2013 through this summer, rising from senior financial analyst to wholesale division senior energy support coordinator.
On July 9, Mercede will take over as director of leadership programs at the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, replacing Gwendolyn Brantley, who left in June to devote more time to Bridgeport’s Access Education Services, which she founded in 2005. To do so, Mercede said, she reluctantly had to say goodbye to the family business.
Mercede’s father, Santa Energy President and CEO Thomas Santa, encouraged her to join the BRBC’s affiliate Leadership Greater Bridgeport (LGB) program, which works to help build future community leaders through training and education.
“I’d just finished my MBA and really didn’t want to start taking classes again,” she said with a laugh. “But once I got involved I found that even though I’ve spent nearly my entire life in Bridgeport and my family is well-established here, there are all these hidden gems in the city. I met so many people in the community that I otherwise wouldn’t have. The experience inspired me to get more involved and really see what makes the city tick.”
That in turn led to three years on LGB’s board of directors. Upon Brantley’s retirement, she said, “I thought, ‘You know what? I think I should be doing that.’”
So did the BRBC, which received her application in late May and announced her hiring a couple of weeks later.
“If I could clone the perfect person to be in charge of our leadership programs here at the BRBC, it would indeed be Erin Mercede,” said the group’s president and CEO Mickey Herbert. “She has the background, the experience, the skills and most importantly the passion to grow these important value-added programs for our member companies.
“As we continue to transform the BRBC, Erin is exactly the type of individual we need to do just that,” he said. “We simply could not be more delighted to have her join our staff.”
As director of leadership programs, Mercede will be responsible for not only LGB but also THRIVE Emerging Leaders — which works to help diverse young professionals, entrepreneurs and community leaders build their connections within the greater Bridgeport region — and its chief executive peer networking group.
Part of her mission, she said, is to improve awareness of the BRBC and its various programs.
“We have an amazing alumni network of over 800 people, including some major business leaders,” she said. “I want us to be able to sing from the rooftops about what we do, where we have been and where we’re going.”
Mercede said she would be drawing in part on her own relationships within the business community to build the BRBC’s profile.
“It’s on me to make personal asks of people to join in and support us,” she said. “I’ve tried emails and they get lost. I want to talk face to face with business leaders — both those who know about our programs and those who don’t — about what they’re looking for with our leadership programs and listen to their opinions about what we can do to help grow our young professionals network.
“I also plan to talk with other young professional networks both in Connecticut and around the country to get more ideas about what we can and should be doing,” she said.
Although she said leaving Santa Energy is “bittersweet,” Mercede said the family has been “very excited for me. They’ve said that it sounds like something that’s right up my alley.”
As for her father — who, after all, first encouraged her to join the BRBC — she reports, “He just said, ‘Erin, whatever makes you happy, I support it 100 percent.’
“I still don’t think he understands it,” she chuckled. “But it’s family, so I can’t get away from it! And I think I can always go back to it somewhere down the line.”
As for Herbert, who has announced he’s leaving the BRBC on Nov. 1, Mercede said, “I’m really excited to work with him for the next few months. And I’m sure that whoever comes in to replace him will be a really great asset to the BRBC, re-energize it a little bit, and know what an asset the BRBC is and can be to the area.”