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Memphis trailblazer shares leadership principles

Carolyn Chism Hardy is a trailblazer who has journeyed from poverty to prosperity. In her book, “Look Up: Five Principles for Intentional Leadership,” she shares the principles she’s learned along that journey. She is from Memphis (Orange Mound to be exact), graduated from Melrose High School and Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) – and still calls Memphis home.

From the outside, Hardy appears to have it all – successful corporate career, thriving businesses, long-term marriage, children and grandchildren. There is a saying, “You see my glory, but you don’t know my story.” Now we learn part of her story. As the seventh of 16 children, Hardy knows what it’s like to go to bed hungry. She has faced racism and sexism and even battled cancer.

Despite these obstacles, she achieved several “firsts” in her corporate career, and in 2006, she led an investor group that purchased the Coors plant that she had managed, becoming the first African-American female brewery owner. She sold that facility in 2011, and now owns a shipping and freight company. She continues to blaze a trail as a philanthropist and active community leader.

The New Tri-State Defender had the chance to speak with Hardy about her book and her accomplishments.

New Tri-State Defender: There are many books about leadership. What do you mean by intentional leadership?

Carolyn Hardy: My mother was the greatest leader I know. There were 16 of us in two bedrooms. She raised us to dream big and work toward those dreams. Whether leading your family, a work team or yourself, you must have a plan, then make intentional choices that line up with that plan.

TSD: Why did you decide to write a book?

CH: I speak to groups all over the country and always try to provide a take-away so the attendee will believe this was a worthwhile use of their time. After the event, attendees often ask where they can get the book. So, here is the book. Hopefully, hearing my story of growing up poor will inspire others to know they can do it too. We can create our destiny.

TSD: You highlight the importance of education in creating your destiny. We hear such negative things about our schools, is education still important?

CH: Education remains critical. We must start with pre-K and early grades. Also, the trades should be in schools. Plumbers, electricians and other skilled trades are in demand and pay well. Even when someone is already in the workforce, there are opportunities to continue education and improve their credentials. Only about five percent of those eligible for employee tuition reimbursement use this benefit. I earned my MBA under such a plan. You are never too young to start and never too old to learn.

TSD: One of the principles you highlight is to Build Relationships. You stress the importance of networking, even mentioning that you followed the Chicago Bulls so you could converse with a key service representative that was a Michael Jordan fan. Some would say that’s not “keeping it real” or even call it “sucking up.” Is that really the only way to get ahead?

CH: Networking is more than passing out business cards. Information is power and building relationships helps you gain access to that information. Many major deals and confidential information is shared on the golf course or in social settings. This is one reason it’s harder for women and minorities to build businesses. To gain that access may mean having drinks after work (I’ll order Diet Coke) or attending a social event. You must understand this reality and your actions must be strategic.

TSD: How can we increase entrepreneurship in the African-American community?

CH: Individuals that want to own a business must have a plan, and be in it for the long term. It may be years before you can actually open the business. Until then, work for a company that does what you want to do and build relationships. We must help each other and share information. Often we don’t learn about development projects until it’s time to break ground. This is part of being intentional – making sure we are in the room when decisions are made. Also large companies that receive contracts should have minority goals. This is part of their leadership role.

TSD: We are reminded daily that despite civil rights gains, racism continues. You encountered a professor that greeted the class on the first day by saying the black students should drop the class, as they would not be happy with their grade. How did you endure this and what advice do you have for others?

CH: Racism still exists but you can’t let others’ attitudes determine your outcome. When that teacher made that statement, I took it as a challenge. I was the only black student that stayed. Not only did I continue in the class, I came early and sat in front. If you go away, they win. Remain positive and stick with your plan. Leaders don’t complain, but work for change.

Also in the book, Hardy gives examples of successes and how she used what seemed like failures as stepping-stones. “Look Up” reminds us that our destiny is in our own hands.

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