In this April 2018 photo, Shante K. Avant (right) and Ruby Bright share the view that one of the ways to realize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision is to “continue to work hard for impacting communities such as the community of 38126.” (Photo: Karanja A.Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

After a five-month search and consultations with some of the most gifted thought leaders and nonprofit executives, the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis (WFGM) Board of Directors appointed Shante K. Avant as the organization’s new president and chief executive officer.

Avant, the WFGM’s vice president, began her new duties effective Jan. 1. She was deemed the best qualified to lead the organization after the retirement of former president Ruby Bright.

Shante K. Avant is the new president and chief executive officer of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis. (Courtesy Photo)

“I started out with the Women’s Foundation in 2007, 15 years ago,” said Avant. “I had 26 years in the non-profit sector, but this was my first foray into philanthropy. So, I just wanted to learn the power of one woman’s leadership and how philanthropic resources and investments can change lives.”

Rather than providing direct services to address needs, Avant attained a different perspective on the other side of the table as a working with a nonprofit grantor.

Talent and competence moved Avant up through the ranks to serve as second in command under Bright.

But, before taking the lead post, there was a meticulous process of searching the nation for the best leader to take WFGM to greater heights.

Was Avant worried — even a little?

“I have a strong sense of faith,” said Avant. “And because I have a strong sense of faith, I really do believe that what God has for me is for me. And because of that, I knew this was something I dreamed to do, to lead the organization…

“There are so many ways we built out our foundation and created so many great partnerships. I wanted the opportunity to continue the work.”

Bright said, “Shante is a very capable leader and one who, I believe, will be an exceptional visionary in taking the Women’s Foundation forward.

“The fact that she was chosen from a national search of many gifted leaders, certainly, speaks for itself. I am excited to see the organization move onward and upward under Shante’s direction.”

Avant became vice president in 2011. By virtue of her position, the natural promotion process would have made Avant next in line for the top spot. But that’s not how the board of directors chose to operate.

“Twenty-two years is a long, long time,” said Dr. Marcia Bowden Marche, the board’s co-chair. “Ruby Bright left a very impressive footprint locally, nationally, and internationally. And so, it goes without saying that we knew we needed to do a national search to justify who we put in this position.”

The first search, however, was for the right search firm, according to Marche. Three or four were considered, she said, and the board settled on one they felt understood the foundation’s work and the community it serves.

When the process got underway, the search was on for a person who understood the heart and soul of the organization, Marche said. It was important to seek out a leader who could feel the heartbeat of the Women’s Foundation.

As it turned out, none of those impressive candidates was more qualified than Avant. No one knew and felt the heartbeat more clearly than Avant. No one loved the Memphis community as she does.

The national search discovered that the next WFGM leader was right under the board’s nose all the time.

“To be sure, there were many quite impressive candidates, we determined the most qualified and best prepared for this critical role is Shante,” said Marche. “She has worked in several capacities, and she understands the goals of Vision 2025 plan.”

For Avant, entering the search process was about what she envisioned in moving the organization forward.

“I am a native Memphian,” said Avant. “I have lived and loved in this city by choice from the time I graduated from college. There isn’t a better city in this country who cares more for its people than Memphis …We were voted the most generous city in the nation. That wasn’t by accident.”

Avant is wildly optimistic about the future of both Memphis and the Women’s Foundation.

“What my vision is to help the generations after us to come up out of poverty,” said Avant. “We want more people to move from poverty to economic stability, and from stability to security.

“We want our young people to start on a higher footing than their parents. And the only way to do that is to invest in our young people. Education is a huge part of that.”

Avant earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Tennessee. She also holds a master’s in social work. She served nine years on the Memphis-Shelby County School Board, representing District 5.

For more than 25 years, the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis has been a force for breaking the cycle of poverty through philanthropy, community leadership, and collaboration. Building leadership in women has been its signature strategy.

Memphis philanthropist Mertie Buckman was instrumental in founding what became the Women’s Foundation in 1995, inviting 10 women to invest in the lives of women and children in Memphis.

Seven years ago, the foundation made the decision to shift its focus and efforts to South Memphis’ 38126 Zip code, one of the poorest in the nation.

The Vision 2020 Strategic Plan’s goal was to reduce poverty in the Zip code by five percent. WFGM, according to its website, has invested $7.1 million in grants to provide direct services in Zip code 38126.

The area is bounded roughly by East McLemore on the south, South Third and South Main on the west, Neptune and Elmwood Cemetery on the west and Vance on the north.

Among the plan’s accomplishments: 16,117 residents were served; there was a 53 percent increase in average household income; 825 children enrolled in early childhood education; 5,632 young people participated in programs supporting positive youth development; 1,730 individuals were placed in jobs and 94 individuals started a new or micro-enterprise.