Inside a classroom at the uptown Foundation for the Carolinas on a recent afternoon, 35 listeners hung on every word from two high-ranking executives.
Brett Carter, chief distribution officer and senior vice president for Duke Energy, and Michael Jones, chief merchandising officer for Lowe’s Home Improvement, were offering advice on moving up the ranks.
And the listeners – handpicked for being rising corporate and entrepreneurial stars in the Charlotte region – were taking it all in.
Jones spoke of working within the “guard rails,” or the norms of corporate life. “You can be creative,” Jones explained, “but if you go outside … you run the risk of being misaligned with the organization.”
Carter talked about the importance of finding mentors.
“You’ve got to pick the right people. That’s key,” Carter told the group. “… You’ve got to figure out who in that shark tank is really a shark.”
It was all part of the launch of Access Charlotte, a new leadership forum. Black business leaders created the group to identify, counsel and retain minority executives and high-growth entrepreneurs in the region.
Managers from businesses including Belk, Wells Fargo, NASCAR, Bank of America, Novant Health and other companies get career advice from some of the area’s well-known black executives and entrepreneurs serving as advisors.
Nearly 20 leadership advisors are involved, including Frank Emory, a partner with the law firm Hunton & Williams and former chair of the Charlotte Chamber; Debra Plousha Moore, chief human resources officer and an executive vice president with Carolinas HealthCare System; Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina; and cardiologist Dr. Yele Aluko, senior vice president for Novant Health Heart and Vascular Services.
Competition to be selected for the group as a student, called “emerging leaders,” was heavy, Carter said.
“We actually had to turn people away, because there’s not a rich history of black executives that have reached the C-suite” in the area, said Carter, who is also this year’s chair of the Charlotte Chamber.
Access Charlotte grew from conversations involving Carter; entrepreneur Stoney Sellars, who founded Technology Project Management, Inc., an information technology and management consulting firm; and Kevin Henry, chief human resources officer for Snyder’s-Lance Inc.
Leaders like themselves were constantly being asked by ambitious Charlotteans to meet, mentor or help introduce them to other high-ranking people, Sellars said.
Why not work collectively, they thought, to provide access to information, advice and business relationships?
To get the project going, Sellars said the founders and nearly all the leadership advisors each kicked in $10,000 of their own money.
“If there’s anything that we can do to make a contribution to other black executives that are emerging,” explained Carter, “then that’s a commitment that we want to make.”
The economic frontier
A main goal of Access Charlotte, several leaders and participants said, is keeping black talent in the region and preventing great prospects from being poached by corporate competitors in other cities.
Being part of the network is important to Felicia Robinson, an emerging leader in the group and vice president for compensation, benefits and payroll for Belk. Robinson moved to Charlotte from Atlanta two years ago.
“I am rooting in Charlotte, and plan to stay here, but it’s been really hard for me to make those connections,” said Robinson. “So it’s very important for me because I saw it as a forum for me to get even more planted and more connected with people.”
But the group’s primary objective, leaders say, is to build economic power and wealth within the black business community.
“We’ve done it in every frontier … but the economic frontier,” Sellars said during a toast at an opening reception that followed Jones’ and Carter’s talk. “There should be a deliberate mission to have that manifested.”
To be sure, there have been other efforts in Charlotte designed to boost the earnings of minority-owned businesses and black entrepreneurs.
Last year, a coalition of black businesspeople formed to push for the economic inclusion of minorities surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. In the end, the outcome was disappointing, the coalition said after the convention.
Convention organizers, however, held a different view of how minority businesses fared. Organizers said they far exceeded goals to spend at least one-third of convention dollars with diverse businesses. It was the first time Democrats set that type of spending goal for a national convention.
Robyn Hamilton, who headed those outreach efforts for the DNC, is now director of corporate relations for Novant Health.
She’s also an organizer and leadership advisor for Access Charlotte – a group, she says, that is quite distinct from other diversity projects she’s been involved in.
What makes the group different, Hamilton said, is its focus on keeping talent in the city, and getting them to ascend to leadership positions.
“It really is about rising to the top,” she said. We are not necessarily for the middle-level manager. We are for the folks that are really ready to go.”
That point was illustrated in a classroom moment, when talk turned to how some young black males see corporate America as “selling out.” That led one participant to wonder aloud if the group could help with the city’s African American dropout rate.
That prompted Carter and Hamilton to re-emphasize Access Charlotte’s focus: helping emerging executives and entrepreneurs.
It’s a moment that says a lot about the leaders’ investment in Charlotte, said emerging leader Nicole Dean, vice president of internal audit for Belk.
“These executives have said that ‘We are so invested in Charlotte that we want to attract and retain the best talent that comes here and not let them leave.’ ”
Leaders said Access Charlotte’s success also will be measured by whether participants wind up in top corporate positions or with highly successful ventures – and if they in turn help pull up other potential stars.
Upcoming talks include “The Journey from Corporate Life to High-Growth Entrepreneur,” “GPS Won’t Help Navigate Culture,” and managing the gap between “V.P. to CEO.”
Emerging leader Osyris Uqoezwa expects those classes to include the same candor that occurred during Carter’s and Jones’ talk.
That discussion included exchanges among the speakers and students about corporate dress codes, whether sporting facial hair is a good or bad idea, and the importance of seeking out high-profile white mentors, too, to see how they interact with their family, friends, and business associates.
“In this environment, people are authentic,” said Uqoezwa, president and CEO of B&C International, a public relations and strategic consulting firm based in High Point.
“They’re … opening themselves up to build true relationships. … Not just for a class or a conversation, but for a lifetime.”
Smith: 704-358-5087 Twitter: @celestesmithobs
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