Melissa Dunn leverages private sector career for public service

Melissa Dunn leverages private sector career for public service

Lauderhill Vice Mayor Melissa Dunn is not your typical city commissioner. She’s a business owner, community activist, mentor and entrepreneur who believes the best way to make social change is to show how business can benefit the community.

“I believe that we each have a responsibility to give back to the community that we live in,” she said.

Dunn was born in Jamaica and migrated to the United States at age 10. She was raised in a full house with a brother, her parents, a grandmother and aunts.

“I was so lucky to have had three parents who loved me,” she said.

Her stepfather was in the military, which allowed Dunn to live in various places while growing up, including Germany and Texas. She went to Daleville High School in Alabama and attended Judson College in Marion, Ala., only 20 minutes away from the historic city of Selma, which played a huge role in the civil rights movement.

“There was only one other Black person attending” Judson when she studied there, she said, and “institutional racism” was part of the culture. She didn’t allow that to hinder her drive to succeed.

At Judson, she became the first Black editor of the college newspaper, and worked with administrators at the university to make programs and policies more diverse. In 1991, Dunn helped organize the university’s first Black History Month celebration.

“I think that was perhaps my first experience of being an advocate to make the community better,” she said.

After graduating with a degree in sociology, Dunn moved to New York to work in the fashion industry. During her time there, one of her closest friends passed away from breast cancer. She had “delayed making medical decisions because of lack of health insurance,” Dunn said, who – in the aftermath of that tragedy – committed to fighting for her community’s access to affordable health care.

In the years that followed, Dunn worked extensively in the health care industry, including for the American Cancer Society as the director of community health initiative and health systems.

In 2006, she felt like she needed to do more. Dunn moved to Miami and secured a position at Circle of One Marketing. She began with a Medicaid reform contract and after six months, became the director of social issues marketing. She worked with various local governments, nonprofits and other organizations that aligned with her philosophy.

Dunn went back to school in 2010, earning an MBA in health care at Florida International University. Right after graduation, she worked as the senior marketing manager for Tenet Healthcare. After a colleague introduced her to Lauderhill, she devoted hours of work toward improving the city. Then, in 2014, she was elected president of the chamber of commerce.

Her dedication to the city motivated her to move to Lauderhill in 2017 – and that in turn led her to run for its commission.

“It was a natural next step,” Dunn said, “and the community voted to give me the opportunity to start there [as vice mayor].”

In 2020, she founded Hibiscus Girl’s Leadership Academy – a mentoring program for high school girls. It focuses on teaching leadership and life skills by pairing girls with a mentor based on their interests.

Today, Dunn works to improve Lauderhill’s small businesses and its overall quality of life. Her personal philosophy is that a good business owner cares about the community, not only the bottom line.

“That’s the way I do business myself,” said Dunn.

Lauderhill Shine is one of Dunn’s most successful programs. It consists of an eight-week, self-paced online course in which business owners receive advice from industry experts and city leaders to scale their enterprises.

“Just by giving people access with these programs, we are supporting minority- and women-owned businesses,” she said. “For sure.”

Eugenia Scheuren is an NBCU fellow at Florida International University. Alex Vargas is a student and writer.