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VOL. 7 | NO. 31 | Saturday, July 26, 2014

‘Drive for Progress’

New Memphis Institute pushing to improve city's future

By Andy Meek

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There’s a duality of meaning implied in the name of the civic organization where Nancy Coffee serves as president and CEO.

New Memphis Institute president and CEO Nancy Coffee holds a work session recently with staffers Nyasha Hill, left, and Jennifer Beck.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The New Memphis Institute, which has set out to convince workers in today’s knowledge economy that all roads lead to Memphis, operates with a moniker that reflects both the mission and the scope of the challenge that confronts it.

The notion of a “new Memphis,” for example, speaks to how the group orients its programs and services toward improving the city’s future. The challenge – one that’s been taken up by the New Memphis Institute as well as other groups pursuing variations of the same goal – is to tilt the odds in Memphis’ favor by ensuring that the city’s future includes plenty of young professionals and creative talent who’ve planted their flags here.

That will require not only getting them here, but keeping them here, and understanding how a city’s potential can be dashed or strengthened based partly on which way the demographic chips may fall.

To lead that work, the New Memphis Institute has chosen someone in Coffee whose sales pitch is the equivalent of someone with a secret they’re dying to share. And though hers is a perpetually sunny disposition, there might as well be a banner in the organization’s Downtown office that announces “carpe diem,” because the nature of the group’s work means that it’s both enthusiastic and in a hurry.

Consider, for example, that Coffee says Memphis has probably half the number of “millennials” as it should to be a thriving metropolis.

“We believe that now, more than ever, Memphis needs talent,” says Coffee, who joined the New Memphis Institute in 2004. “Our businesses need talent to thrive, schools need talent to thrive and our community needs talent to innovate for a better future.

“We believe every great human being and every great city is trying to be better today than they were yesterday. Memphis is no different. And our name captures that restless drive for progress.”

The organization’s drive takes many forms. One example could have been seen in recent days, when the group hosted its latest “Celebrate What’s Right” luncheon featuring filmmaker Craig Brewer that was sponsored by the First Tennessee Foundation.

Brewer, known for his flicks like “Hustle & Flow,” was there to talk up the city’s influence on his work.

At a high level, the luncheon embodies the philosophical thread that runs through the entirety of the New Memphis Institute’s work. Coffee said the “Celebrate What’s Right” events are an opportunity for all the diverse participants of the New Memphis Institute to come together to applaud what’s going right in the city, to learn more about a relevant topic and to leave with a sense of connectivity and pride.

“There’s an undergirding idea that inspires every person who comes to work at the New Memphis Institute and every person on our board and everyone who donates to us,” Coffee said. “That’s this notion that what you pay attention to grows. So we’re deliberate about paying attention to our assets.”

Moreover, the organizational model behind that operation isn’t static. The group is continually searching for the outer edge of its capacity, making sure it’s spread as comprehensively as it needs to be and looking for opportunities to try new things.

One example is Embark, the group’s newest initiative specifically designed to cultivate and keep a talent base of high-performing 20-somethings in the city.

Embark includes six bi-monthly sessions, and its goal is to help young professionals develop by learning skills like negotiating conflict and building professional relationships.

David Popwell of First Tennessee Bank also spoke at the institute’s “Celebrate What’s Right” luncheon.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Madeline Patterson, an account executive with Sullivan Branding, says New Memphis programs like Embark, which she’s already participated in, have given a boost to her professional development.

“I think the (New Memphis Institute's) ability to show off the best of Memphis to young professionals is important to talent retention,” she said. “Their programming also allows professionals to network and build connections with like-minded people, deepening ties to the city. The community greatly benefits when talented people stay and grow their careers here.”

Justin Deere, a financial analyst with ServiceMaster, said his Embark experience was similarly transformational.

“My Embark experience (has been) highlighted by the program’s engagement with lots of the ideas, issues, events and people that make Memphis great,” he said. “For me, it was a win-win because while getting involved with the city I was also able to hone my professional and personal leadership skills that I think will help me and my peers to excel in and for our community.”

Meanwhile, another fresh attempt at engaging its target demographic came in October, when the New Memphis Institute teamed up with CBRE Memphis to launch its first “M-Azing Race.”

Like the hit reality TV show with a similar name, the New Memphis Institute’s twist on “The Amazing Race” consisted of a high-energy foot race combined with a scavenger hunt through Downtown Memphis. Along the way, participants had to decipher clues that led to various Downtown locations when tasks were completed.

Participants started in the morning outside the National Civil Rights Museum and ended around noon across the street from Central BBQ. Some of the favorite stops included the Downtown headquarters of AutoZone Inc., where participants learned the AutoZone cheer and a little history about how the company was founded, as well as its impact on Memphis.

The race also included a stop at the Elvis statue Downtown, where participants unscrambled some Elvis song lyrics and had to sing them to an Elvis impersonator (who also was a New Memphis Institute volunteer). At FedExForum, participants matched Grizzlies player names and numbers, then competed a basketball dribbling relay race, and at the Cotton Museum, participants answered trivia questions derived from exhibits in the museum.

Other New Memphis programs include its Fellows initiative, a 12-month engagement that gives emerging leaders what they need to “become change agents, inclusive leaders and city ambassadors.” And the Leadership Development Intensive is a three-and-a-half day training experience delivered in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership.

Hundreds of business executives and civic leaders have so far completed that program, which uses a variety of tools and experiential learning to empower leaders to better understand and use their strengths.

Then in June, the New Memphis Institute also kicked off the latest version of its program “Memphis: The Summer Experience,” which is now in its sixth year.

That program exposes hundreds of college and graduate students to Memphis’ assets, movers and shakers, and the city’s quality of life. Rashana Lincoln, director of community engagement for the New Memphis Institute, said it’s intended to be a complement to the robust internship programs already in place at companies like AutoZone, First Tennessee and ServiceMaster.

The Summer Experience puts participants in the same circles as some of the city’s biggest corporate names. The New Memphis Institute and the business leaders who lend their time to the summer series of events do it partly because they know that the years immediately following college are important for young adults, since that’s when big life choices are made and long-term decisions get set in motion.

Amanda Wheeler went through the Summer Experience a few years ago, and said at the time that she joined the program through her boss, who suggested she try it out. Once she did, she ended up meeting her “whole friend group” and loved Memphis so much that when she graduated from the University of Missouri, she wanted to come back to the city.

That’s the whole point of the New Memphis Institute’s work.

“Our goal is to attract, develop and retain top talent for a more prosperous and vital new Memphis,” Coffee said. “Everything we do feeds up to that goal of attracting and retaining talent.

“One thing we know is that retention is about relationships. We have to help create authentic relationships, because we know that when 20-somethings move, it’s often to be with friends. The bottom line, though, is if we’re going to retain talent, they have to fall in love with Memphis.”

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