There are several organizations that thankfully are working on talent attraction 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 (and become known as) 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 seemed bashful about saying that we should set the same priority, or to become, as a city official put it lately, “Memphis can become the black Austin” because of its authenticity.  After all, the Memphis MSA is the first with more than one million people in the modern history of the country that will soon be majority African America.

It’s often said that competitive advantage is built on differentiation, and becoming the first minority majority MSA is certainly a differentiation that we must leverage as a competitive advantage.  That’s why our talent strategies have to specifically call for an African American talent concentration and why we must be more aggressive in our African-American tourism marketing.  (We won’t even go into minority business development, which we have written about before).

The absence of these priorities 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.  While the benefits of success as a minority majority MSA are inarguable and profound, in proving that we can succeed, we can become the laboratory for diversity for the nation as more regions move toward minority majority status.

Walking Toward the Issues

In not stating our ambition to be a national center for African American talent, 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.

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 believe success comes in developing, retaining, and attracting 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 here are black – and this bulge can be an economic plus, but first, we have to begin to treat it that way.  We have to be committed to the social and emotional development of every Memphis child – half of whom are living in poverty – and because the business of our school district is talent development, it is right to set ambitious goals about getting many more children prepared to go to college and get degrees.  After all, 58% of a city’s economic success is related to its percentage of college graduates, so it is in the enlightened self-interest of everyone that every child gets a fair start in life.

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.  Sometime back, 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, Nashville, and other Southeastern cities, these young professionals have decided to invest their futures and lay down roots in Memphis.

At least for now.

Doubling Down

In the long run, we’re only deluding ourselves if we think that these talented young professionals 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, Dallas, 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 some steps in that direction lately.

First and foremost, we have to break the link between race and povertye.  It matters because it must be eliminated if we are to become a national hub of African-American talent that attracts jobs and African-American entrepreneurs who create them.  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 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, 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 have to be treated as more than social work.  They have to be treated as the opposite sides of the same coin.  Too often, companies and corporations act like helping minority entrepreneurs is a good deed rather than good business, a critical investment in economic success.  Minority 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.

Leaping Ahead

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.

For those who want to pursue this, we recommend 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.

This post is based largely on one from October 26, 2011.