There are several organizations that thankfully are working on talent development and retention in Memphis, but none of the work is more important than the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals and National Black MBA Association of Memphis.
One of the Young Professionals’ leaders described the group (and it’s an apt description for the MBA Association as well) as Memphis’ “silent missile that tirelessly works to improve our community and keep our demographic engaged,” and they do it without the serious financial support and support from local leadership that they deserve. They are some of Memphis’ largest networks of young professionals, and more to the point, the largest network of young African-American professionals, those men and women who are crucial to the success of our talent strategies.
As we have said before, if Memphis is to change its trajectory, our region must become a hub for African-American talent.
Getting It Right
Atlanta built its economic juggernaut while soaking up most African-American talent in the Southeast. Meanwhile, our economic development officials seem bashful about saying that we should set the same priority, or as a city official put it lately, “Memphis can become the black Austin” because of its authenticity and as the only MSA with more than one million people in the history of the country that is majority African-America.
Competitive advantage is built on differentiation, and it is this MSA factoid that sets us apart and must be used as leverage for economic growth. That’s why it’s no longer acceptable that our talent strategies do not specifically call for an African-American talent initiative and why it’s no longer acceptable that we do not even have an African-American cultural tourism initiative.
The absence of these basic building blocks sends the message to young African-American talent evaluating Memphis that we are in institutional deep denial and that our behavior suggests that we see our minority majority MSA population as a weakness or a competitive disadvantage.
Walking Toward the Issues
Here’s the thing, in doing this, we play into the hands of those who assume that a majority African-American region cannot succeed, and make no mistake about it, much of the commentary about Memphis often has this bias at its heart. No national urban commentator will come out and say it, but they believe that it will be hard for Memphis to succeed because of its majority of African-Americans.
That’s why in our mind, the smartest thing a city can do is to walk toward, rather than to deny, facts perceived as problems by others. Pretending that the facts are not the facts only make us look foolish or worse, that we only believe success will come if we can develop, retain, and attract white young professionals.
We’re not saying that we shouldn’t be scratching and clawing for any talent that we can get, whatever color, but the fact remains: we have a significant bulge in children when compared to the average of the top 51 MSAs – and the majority of the kids are black – and this bulge can be an economic plus, but first, we have to begin to treat it that way.
Using Both Hands
In other words, we need to spotlight our wealth of African-American talent, we need to celebrate a culture and identity that was largely shaped by our African-American history, and we need to state clearly that the development, retention, and attraction of African-American talent are top priorities for every one of us in this city.
To do less is to pursue economic success with one hand tied behind our backs.
Which brings us back to the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals and National Black MBA Association of Memphis. Last week, they sponsored a panel discussion about our local talent development efforts. It was a invigorating discussion and the interest in the audience in making Memphis a magnet for talent was palpable. Most encouraging of all is that despite the siren’s call of Atlanta and other Southeastern cities, these young professionals have decided to invest their futures and lay down roots in Memphis.
At least for now. In the long run, we’re only deluding ourselves if we think that these talented young professional will remain here out of sheer loyalty and without more opportunity, more job advancement, and more signs of progress. There is no African-American young professional in Memphis who can’t name at least a half dozen friends who have already abandoned Memphis for the greener pastures of Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, and Raleigh.
Every report that matters tells us that we will have to redouble our efforts, we will have to take more risks, and we have to think and act differently if our economy is to bounce back. If we want to become competitive, it will take more than talking the talk about innovation, entrepreneurship, minority business, and authenticity. We have got to walk the walk, and fortunately, we’ve taken a few steps in that direction lately.
First and foremost, we have to break the link between race and poverty that exists here. It matters because it must be eliminated if we are to become a national hub of African-American talent and African-American entrepreneurs. There are no other opportunities for the future that builds as much on our innate distinctiveness or has the potential for putting more money into everyone’s cash registers.
Negative Images Where They Hurt Most
In this regard, it’s particularly troubling that Memphis has a negative image among African-Americans young professionals living outside Memphis. To this point, we should trumpet all the good things happening in Memphis now, but we should also invite young professionals – who have proven that they want to make difference by their immigration into New Orleans – to join us in disproving the myth that a majority African-American region cannot succeed.
Because of it, every economic development program in Memphis and Shelby County should adopt a shared priority of making our community a national hub for young African-American talent and African-American entrepreneurs. In the first African-American majority region with more than one million people, it’s not just a matter of sound morals. It’s the heart of a sound economic policy.
To this end, minority business and African-American talent has to be treated as more than social work. Too often, companies and corporations act helping minority entrepreneurs act like it’s just a good deed rather than a critical investment in economic success. Despite decades of talk about the importance of minority businesses, these businesses remain largely in low-growth and no-growth sectors and rely on personal debt and family financing rather than loans, equity, and other tools. Because of it, the businesses lack the number, size, and capabilities of their white-owned counterparts.
Our modest recommendation is that Memphis adopt a “New Agenda” for African-American-owned business growth and expansion. We need a quantum leap in our thinking and in our actions, given the fragile state of the Memphis economy in the knowledge economy, and it will take collaboration by every segment of our community.
Most of all, minority business leaders have to have a seat at the table when policy is being made, when important public discussions are taking place on economic policies, and when white-owned businesses are trying to tap into the value of a diverse workforce.
More African-American businesses would accomplish so many of our economic objectives for Memphis, including accelerated jobs growth, rebuilding urban neighborhoods, expanding local tax bases, creating more customers and putting more money in cash registers and creating a model for young people in neighborhoods.
It Starts by Listening
As a result, every corporation in Memphis needs to expand its role in creating opportunities for African-American-owned businesses. On the other side, minority businesses must emphasize innovative ways and prove their added values. It is all built on a central premise: African-American businesses are a major key to Memphis economic development.
As the first step, we’d recommend that economic development officials schedule a candid conversation with the people who understand the challenges and opportunities most: African-American businesspeople.
And there’s no better place to start than with Urban League Young Professionals and the National Black MBA Association of Memphis.