D'Angela "Dia" Simms, like much of the nation, watched intently in April 2015 as the events sparked by the death of Freddie Gray unfolded in Baltimore.
"I think we were glued to the television," said Simms, president of Combs Wine & Spirits, the alcohol business of entertainment mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs. "We were calling our family and friends to see how they were doing."
At that time, Simms was contemplating moving her family from Atlanta back to the Baltimore area, where she and her husband, Keith, had ties. She is a Morgan State University alum. His family lives in Columbia, where he grew up. And her close friend, Dawn Flythe Moore, calls Baltimore home.
Simms, 40, said the city's woes didn't deter her from moving back to Baltimore in September. The problems are broader than Baltimore — a town she embraces, she said.
"It's not just happening in Baltimore. This is an American problem we'll have to face," said Simms, speaking from a perch atop a bar stool at Charleston, a restaurant she loves in Harbor East. "Obviously, Baltimore doesn't get the best of raps — unfairly. I really do find it to be a great city. ... This city has shown such tremendous resilience. People are genuinely helpful and genuinely interested in your day. It's refreshing."
Simms' business savvy has taken her to the top of a liquor business with a distinctly hip-hop flavor. As a woman, she's a bit of an anomaly in both worlds. With the encouragement of Moore, she has set her sights on Baltimore — and is bringing her energy to the city.
Combs' business is based in New York, and Simms frequently travels to support its products, including Ciroc, a premium vodka, and DeLeon Tequila. She also oversees strategy for all Combs' brands, including Revolt TV, Aquahydrate and Sean John.
Back in Baltimore, Simms has become active in philanthropic endeavors.
"If I live in this city, I want to be a ... part of it," she said.
Zachary McDaniels is chairman of the Philanthropik Foundation, a nonprofit that produces events such as Shade, an annual party during Preakness weekend that raises funds for the summer employment initiative YouthWorks. Simms brought in Ciroc as a sponsor and helped to promote the event.
"Having someone like her who has one foot in corporate America and another foot in the community is a tremendous resource for the city of Baltimore," McDaniels said. "Her access to major players in the field of entertainment and business provides us with a unique opportunity."
She has also offered Ciroc as a sponsor for "Chat & Chew," a meet-and-greet Aug. 8 with "Real Housewives of Potomac" stars Gizelle Bryant and Robyn Dixon at Maryland Live casino. A portion of event sales will benefit the local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The charity has special meaning to Simms: Both Simms' mother and Moore have the disease.
Road to Baltimore
Simms' path to Baltimore started in Queens — she befriended Moore the first day of ninth grade at St. Francis Preparatory School.
Simms' mile-a-minute pace meant that Moore didn't even know Simms' name right away.
"She's so smart that she used to talk so fast," Moore recalled. "It took me a few days [to learn her name]. But we were best friends from the beginning."
The two remained friends and have been a constant part of each other's lives. Simms was the first friend to meet Moore's future husband, the author, educator and Army combat veteran Wes Moore. And she's godmother to Moore's daughter.
At Morgan, Simms (she was still Dia Banks then) studied psychology — a degree she credits for her ability to navigate a range of situations.
"It prepares you for your whole life — every relationship you have," she said. "You can apply that to potty training, closing a million-dollar negotiation or having a discussion with my husband about determining what movie we want to see."
Simms graduated in 1999 — the same year she met her husband, a neuroscience area manager in the pharmaceutical industry, at a pharmaceutical conference in Tampa, Fla. (Before landing with Combs, Simms hopscotched fields — including pharmaceutical sales, military contracting and advertising sales for radio.) They married in 2007 and have a daughter, Emory Carter Simms, 3.
Baltimore has changed considerably since she lived here in the '90s, Simms noted. Though she and her husband initially considered the D.C. suburbs, Baltimore beckoned because of Moore, who had moved to the city because of her work and her husband.
"They made it so easy for us," said Simms. "They found us a school, nanny and a place to live."
Moore threw Simms and her husband a welcome-to-Baltimore party and has accompanied her on house hunting. Simms and her family have found a temporary home — a townhouse — along the harbor in Federal Hill.
"There's something about being on the water that's invigorating," she said. At Charleston, the windows provide a view of the harbor and, directly across the water, Simms' neighborhood, which borders the Ritz-Carlton Residences. City living "makes you feel like you are part of something."
She loves the water taxis and considers the neighborhoods "American gems," but she also notes that Baltimore is "extremely segregated."
"There are some missed opportunities when you just don't know your neighbor," she said. "There are some hard lines that are worrisome. I worry about my daughter."
Overall, she finds the city welcoming.
"There's something to the moniker Charm City," she said as she took a morning stroll beside the boats docked in Harbor East. Several passersby stopped her to compliment her on her ensemble: a multicolored, pink floral fit-and-flare dress, with peep-toe platform heels and a chunky gold bib necklace.
Life at work
Simms carries her fierce business sense wherever she goes — even to a new restaurant.
When Simms books a reservation, she asks: Do they carry Ciroc or any of the Combs brands?
"If they don't carry it, I ask them to find out why," she said. "I see it as an opportunity to grow the brand."
It's this mindset that has helped Simms climb to the top of the Combs empire. In 2005, she was hired as an assistant; last year, she was elevated to president.
She's been named to Forbes' 40 Under Forty list and a "Leader of the New School" by Essence in 2011. She's cropped up in The Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Fortune and Fox News.
One of Simms' most visible accomplishments has been Ciroc. As Combs' then-chief of staff, Simms was in the room with him and a handful of others when the brand was conceived. She's been in charge of the brand as it has grown to become one of the world's top-selling vodkas.
"Ciroc is my baby," she said. "I'm really passionate about it. … It's a damn good vodka."
Since the brand launched in 2007, it has increased sales from 50,000 cases to more than 2 million cases a year, according to parent company Diageo.
"I don't think this Ciroc business would be the huge success it is without the work that has been done on Dia's part," said Brian Offutt, chief operating officer of Combs Enterprises.
Offutt, who has worked with Simms for the past three years, said he was aware of her fast ascent and her reputation for hard work even before working with her.
"In hip-hop culture, there aren't a lot of examples of women executives that have the type of trajectory like her," he said. "If you take gender out of it, there are so few people who have that type of trajectory. She's an amazing person. Her two greatest strengths are focus and empathy."
Offutt calls Simms the "Sean whisperer," referring to her working relationship with the music producer, turned rapper, turned actor and businessman.
"She has an ability beyond anyone else who's been around him in the last 26 years to anticipate what is going to be important to him and what he's going to need," he said.
"Her ability to focus and to know what has to get done and by when is among the best I've ever seen," said Offutt, who worked for Viacom and JPMorgan Chase and Co. before joining Combs Enterprises. "Of the colleagues I've had in all those places, Dia's ability to focus is right at the top of any of those places. She's world-class."
Combs echoes the admiration.
"Dia gets it done," Combs wrote in an e-mail. "It's that simple. Her work ethic is inspiring to our employees and inspiring to me. She's a problem solver and it's hard to find people that approach work with her level of grace, tenacity and skill. She's a star."
D'Angela "Dia" Simms
Occupation: President of Combs Wine & Spirits
Born: Monterey, Calif.
Raised: Queens, N.Y.
Education: Graduated in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Morgan State University
Family: Married to Keith Simms since 2007. The two have a 3-year-old daughter, Emory Carter Simms