Photo by Cyril Bailleul
CEO/President and Promoter
Valeria Howard Cunningham is the only Black woman owner and promoter of a touring rodeo circuit across the United States or world. She says, “the rodeo has a rich history, legacy and importance to the community.” She has made a commitment to continue her late husband and founder, Lu Vason’s legacy, and to elevate Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR) to a new level in the rodeo world.
She is passionate about BPIR and has worked hard to create an enhanced vision and a more detailed strategic direction for the BPIR. Valeria believes that promoting a first-class African American rodeo tour remains critical to both the Black Cowboys/Cowgirls and to communities across the United States. She believes it is more important than ever for all of us to set examples, create visions, and provide opportunities for kids and young adults to understand the history and purpose of the rodeo, while also writing new chapters in the history books.
Valeria knows that no journey can be done alone and feels fortunate to have a very strong business partner, Margo Wade-LaDrew, and rodeo team supporting her and the BPIR organization.
In addition to providing leadership for the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, Valeria also works closely with the chairperson for the Bill Pickett Memorial Scholarship Fund (BPMSF) to assure community involvement remains viable and the scholarship fund grows to provide financial support for our youth. Over the last three years, the BPMSF has extended its scholarship reach and impact into each of its rodeo market cities. Valeria feels it is extremely important to give back to those communities that embrace and support the rodeo.
In addition to the rodeo, Valeria and her husband Ronnie Cunningham, have a shared passion for youth, young adults and their future. They feel it is important to connect and help develop our youth and young adults into successful future leaders and critical thinkers. As a result of their passion and beliefs, they have their own businesses, Growth by Design-Pasadena, LLC., which provides individual and group Emotional Intelligence, Personal Development and Leadership training, and Ryan’s Village USA, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to the whole-person development of our youth and young adults. They are also partners in EIQ2.
Valeria is a retired Insurance Executive and a 30-year breast cancer survivor. Being a breast cancer survivor, she is striving to use the BPIR platform as a reminder to the community about the importance of health screenings. Many thank her for encouraging them to do their own health screenings and have shared how the screenings assisted with early detection of cancer for them. This validates her belief that every experience we have in life, if shared, will always help someone else. She encourages others to share their stories also, because you never know what will resonate with someone.
While our world has changed significantly over the last couple of years and since Covid made its appearance, Valeria stayed focused to make sure BPIR operated in a responsible manner and was not a catalyst to spreading the virus. BPIR cancelled its 2020 and 2021 season tours in the hopes of protecting their staff, audiences, and partners. Although the season tours were cancelled, Valeria ensured the rodeo audience was entertained virtually with virtual rodeos, educational components on BPIR rodeo youth, and constant communication about Covid, including how to prevent exposure by masking and the importance of getting a vaccination. Valeria believes that a business must put public safety and social responsibility first.
Even though live rodeos were on hold, Valeria and Margo never lost sight of the business and continued to explore new opportunities and collaborations. In February 2021, BPIR announced a new partnership with the PBR (Professional Bull Riders). Valeria is extremely excited about this partnership and the new events and opportunities it creates for the Black cowboys and cowgirls.
With her strong belief in God, and her love for her family, friends, and life, she feels truly blessed every day. According to Valeria, “living life to the fullest and treating others as you want them to treat you is a critical part of my foundation.”
Valeria also believes God never puts more on you than what he has prepared you to handle, and even when challenges are presented to us, there is always something to learn that will make you a stronger and better person.
She believes that while the world is still trying to find its balance in this new Covid world, we were all to learn something from the experience. BPIR is also trying to find its lesson and new place. Despite the ongoing challenges, BPIR plans to return stronger and better in 2022.
Valeria says, “I am just as excited about our future today as I have been in the past. BPIR has traveled to more than 33 cities and is known as the world's only touring African American rodeo. We will be celebrating our 39th anniversary in 2022. Celebrating 39 years is a huge milestone and reflects the importance of telling our stories, educating more people about the contributions of Black cowboys/cowgirls in the development of the West, and showcasing the Black cowboys/cowgirls’ skills and contributions today.
BPIR is celebrated as the Greatest Show on Dirt, so let’s get back to rodeoing, entertaining, educating and creating new experiences for all.