Evident Throughout Memphis

By Rosalind Guy

Name: Nancy Coffee
Position: President and CEO
Company: The Leadership Academy
Basics: In her position, Coffee helps develop individuals' leadership qualities through the organization's many training programs.
"This city inspires me every day. ... I'm totally awed by the amount of spirit that Memphians are eager to give as we all improve this city. People have such a sense of ownership."
- Nancy Coffee

Nancy Coffee's imprint can be seen all around town in a number of businesses and government offices.

As the president and CEO of The Leadership Academy, she has helped mold some of the city's top movers and shakers, including Memphis mayoral candidate Herman Morris Jr., UrbanArt Commission executive director Carissa Hussong, City Council member Jack Sammons and Methodist Healthcare president and CEO Gary Shorb.

The Leadership Academy works to transform the city by helping leaders and potential leaders develop the qualities necessary to successfully lead organizations and businesses.

Coffee started with the academy in 2003, known then as Goals for Memphis, as the vice president of marketing, sales and development. Two years ago, she took over the role of president and CEO.

"I feel as if I've landed in a place where I can really make an impact on where the city's going," she said. "I'm very fortunate to have an incredible team that works with me. We have one of the leanest, most effective staffs (in the city)."

Changing perspectives

Coffee started out in the corporate world as a marketing executive at Leo Burnett Co. in Chicago working with clients such as Kellogg's and McDonald's. Working at the advertising agency required a lot of international travel, something she said quickly began to wear her down though she loved the work.

"With Kellogg's, they were launching in Hong Kong and China," Coffee said. "I know it seems kind of sexy to travel internationally a lot, but it wore on me a lot."

So she began working as a program officer at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit think-tank designed to encourage Americans to think more broadly about their positions in the global spectrum.

Around that time, her then-fiancé Brad Silver took a job in Memphis. Coffee said she immediately thought, "Well, surely he's not going to stay in Memphis."

But stay he did. And after a couple of years, Coffee found herself moving to Memphis too.

Along with the change of scenery, Coffee said, came a desire to change the direction of her career.

"I wanted to sort of parlay my experience in Chicago that had been mostly corporate into nonprofit work," she said.

When she moved to Memphis, Coffee started working as vice president of development and marketing at the Greater Memphis Arts Council.

While working there she served on the board of MPACT Memphis. The Leadership Academy was doing training for MPACT and it was during that time Coffee met her predecessor at The Leadership Academy, Linda Bailey.

"So I met Linda Bailey and some of the folks here that were on staff," Coffee said. "And I really enjoyed my experience coming through leadership training. ... It turns out they were looking for someone. I did not know that at the time, but it was just a great opportunity for me to kind of get back into that marketing role that launched my career."

For the greater good

The change that brought her to The Leadership Academy has been a positive one for Coffee, she said. It gives her the opportunity to contribute to the greater good of the community.

"The opportunities at a nonprofit are so tangible. ... Every hour that I spend delivering on a mission is helping to grow, in this case, the city," she said.

Coffee quickly points out that her start in the corporate world served as a training ground for the work she's doing now. In fact, she said that time has been invaluable to her as she engages with corporate, government, faith-based and nonprofit organization leaders.

Though she said she never imagined living in the South, Coffee said she feels very fortunate that she ended up in a city she calls "such a rich city, such a real city that has so much potential." Relocating to Memphis has been what she called a "happy accident."

"This city inspires me every day," she said. "I see the people, many of them academy fellows and academy masters, and educators carving out enormous amounts of their day to contribute their time, their insights, their wisdom, their energy to a nonprofit. ... I'm totally awed by the amount of spirit that Memphians are eager to give as we all improve this city. People have such a sense of ownership."