Vivian Ross Gibson grew up as one of nine children in a three-room house with no hot water or furnace and a wood-burning stove. Many called her community — Mill Creek — a slum, and this segregated St. Louis neighborhood was razed for an urban renewal project in the 1960s.
For Gibson, home was a place where her imagination flourished. The lack of toys meant more creativity as she sifted mud pies with pieces of screen doors or built playhouses out of plywood and bricks.
As the fifth girl in the family, Gibson received hand-me-downs from her four sisters, and quickly learned to sew. “I learned to rip dresses apart and design whole new things,” Gibson says.
“I’m used to making something out of nothing. It’s informed how I live my life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Gibson,
who will receive a master’s degree in nonprofit management through University College, the professional and continuing education division of Arts & Sciences, at Washington University in St. Louis May 18.
This entrepreneurial spirit led Gibson to launch multiple businesses, including a successful hot sauce enterprise that paid tribute to her home community.
After Gibson graduated from Vashon High School, she headed to New York City, where she earned an associate’s degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1976. To fund her education, she worked part time as a receptionist and started designing and selling hats at Harlem churches.
She moved to Africa when her husband’s employer relocated him to develop a bank in Liberia. There, she began a clothing import business before fleeing with her daughter during the 1980 coup. Because people’s belongings were being raided at the airport, Gibson tightly rolled dollar bills around pencils, threading them into her thick afro.
Following a divorce, Gibson returned to St. Louis and began a 20-year stint as volunteer recruitment manager at St. Louis Public Schools. She enhanced curriculum by recruiting community members to teach mini-courses in their fields.
A gifted cook, Gibson also launched a box lunch catering business for corporations before the idea came into vogue, attracting such clients as Monsanto and Southwestern Bell. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fontbonne University in 1994.
Before long, family and friends urged Gibson to bottle her hot sauce recipe. She formed the Mill Creek Company Inc., boasting products such as Vib’s (her nickname) Southern Heat and Vib’s Caribbean Heat.
On the bottle labels are stories of her family and home. People lined up for her hot sauce and the product sold out at “Best of Missouri Market” and “Missouri Black Expo.” She caught the attention of local grocer Schnucks, which placed its first order of 200 cases.
A Missouri History Museum curator interested in preserving lost St. Louis communities learned of Gibson’s connection to Mill Creek through a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about her hot sauce. For 12 years, the museum has displayed an exhibit in the “Reflection” section featuring a replica of the Ross family home, photographs and recordings made by Gibson and her siblings.
After retiring from the school district, Gibson stayed home one year — until she couldn’t take it any more. “I redid the house. I gardened,” she says. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’”
Now, as senior director of volunteer recruitment at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, she creates marketing campaigns. “I bring in people who make a difference in children’s lives,” Gibson says.
A single mother of two grown kids, Gibson is passionate about the welfare of children and plans to teach, serve on boards (she serves on the North Side Community School board) or volunteer.
Gibson is strongly motivated to “improve educational opportunities for children in the region,” says academic adviser Elizabeth Fogt.
“I thought about what I wanted to do the last third of my life,” Gibson says. “I’ve always been curious, always enjoyed watching other people and I’ve always said to myself, ‘I could do that.’ This degree has given me more confidence and the credentials I need to go forward.”