VOL. 9 | NO. 8 | Saturday, February 20, 2016
By Madeline Faber
Carolyn Chism Hardy is a trailblazer, a success story, an advocate for the poor and middle class, and now she’s one of the most influential people in the private sector.
But at first, she turned down the job.
When Phil Trenary, president of the Greater Memphis Chamber, offered her the position of board chairman, Hardy knew she had already reached her capacity pulling 80 hours a week with her business Henderson Transloading and her various public and private-backed efforts to uplift women- and minority-owned businesses.
“I said that I know you guys are working to attract big businesses, but I can’t take my eye off of poverty and moving the needle for the middle class. If you can work with me, I’m in.”
A week later in December 2015, the chamber introduced Hardy as the first African-American woman to hold the position. Under her leadership, the chamber is working with the city’s minority business support groups on a comprehensive plan to increase the participation of minority and women-owned businesses in the private sector.
“I just happen to know that once you get on the corporate ladder, they're not talking about poverty,” Hardy said. “There's no one there to fight that space. I will go in there and fight that.”
For Hardy, business is personal. She was one of 16 children being raised in Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods. Her family moved 13 times to evade eviction. Two of her siblings died before reaching adulthood.
Because her mother couldn't afford to take Hardy's infant brother to the hospital, Hardy labels poverty as his cause of death.
"And I never forget it," she said.
Hardy muscled her way through the University of Memphis at age 16 and took her first job at J.M. Smucker Co. when she was 20.
Shortly after being hired, she was called on for an out-of-town business trip. Hardy had never been on a plane, and like her mother, she’d never visited a “white tablecloth restaurant.”
“My mother told me education does not replace common sense,” Hardy said. “Always sit in the middle of the table. Be a quick understudy. Learn from what's happening in the world.”
Hardy went on to be the first woman and first African-American to become a general manager at Smucker. And in the position, she saved the Memphis plant from closing by bringing it to record cost-saving and efficiency levels.
“I needed them to understand who Memphis really was,” she said.
After saving one business, Hardy moved on to the next.
While working as general manager at Coors Brewing Co. — again, the first African-American woman to hold the position — she learned that Coors was selling its Memphis facility.
In 2006, she retained 200 jobs when she bought the plant for $9 million and started her own company, Hardy Bottling.
In 2011, she sold Hardy Bottling to Blues City Brewing for more than $30 million. Many of Blues City’s current employees are graduates of Southwest Tennessee Community College’s industrial readiness training program, which Hardy founded. The program has trained thousands of unemployed and underemployed Memphians and has spread to community colleges across the country.
“I'm proud of it because it demonstrates we have more capabilities than people give us credit for,” she said.
Hardy’s training program is one of the many job-seeking services provided by the federally funded Workforce Investment Network.
Cynthia Daniels, public relations coordinator for WIN, has seen first-hand how Hardy’s efforts have improved the lives of Memphians.
“It’s important for me to know as a black woman, that she’s been able to go into uncharted territories,” Daniels said. “And she’s not just for building a way for herself. She’s been very intentional in giving back to her community and providing jobs for those who wouldn’t otherwise have options.”
A year after selling the brewery and getting the training program off the ground, Hardy founded Henderson Transloading, going into business with her daughters Whitney Hardy and Jennifer Richardson. Henderson Transloading stores and ships grain from the tri-state area to major customers across the U.S.
In this venture, Hardy was tapping into the agriculture and transportation sectors, which were underserved markets for women with an underserved female workforce.
“The whole chain is women,” Hardy said.
From trucking to engineering, Henderson Transloading has opened the door for other women-owned businesses and disrupted the agricultural world’s boys’ club.
As a designer and marketing director with Ledford Engineering and Planning, Anna Cardona belongs to one of the many women-owned businesses that contract with Henderson Transloading.
“As a young woman working hard to make a place for myself in the Memphis business world, Carolyn provides the archetype from which all women in business should take example,” Cardona said. “She is kind and strong, smart and humble, and most notably Carolyn gets the job done on time and with higher standards than most of her male counterparts.”
Referring to the female infusion, Richardson adds, “If we’re not willing to work with each other, why are we going to expect a man to?”
Growing up as Hardy’s daughter, Richardson learned to command the table if she couldn’t control the glass ceiling.
“We can't make a mistake. I'm the new kid on the block and I'm a girl,” Richardson said. “It's not a fluke that I'm here. I deserve to be here, and I'm going to need everybody to recognize that.”
Having that kind of confidence is very important, Hardy added.
“A lot of us get in the room and because we’ve been accepted in the room, we don’t want to jeopardize the fact that they allowed us in,” Hardy said. “We have to have enough confidence in ourselves to realize it is not in jeopardy. At some point you need to realize that they need you in the room.”
Hardy’s success story is one in a million. And in her opinion, that’s criminal.
“What’s happening with women and minorities, we ought to be angry. But I’m trying not to be angry. I’m trying to do the right thing,” she said.
When thinking about her early career, Hardy said the behavior she modeled at the white tablecloth restaurant helped carry her to the boardroom. Others won’t have the same opportunity.
“People hire people that they’re comfortable with,” she said. “I've spent my life trying to open doors and make people comfortable with women. What I try to do is open the door and let us all in. I stay out there because there are doors I can get in. If I'm not there, the door won't open because we’re still fighting the same fight.”
Hardy is taking command at the chamber at a time when the local conversation about diversity in business is gaining momentum.
In December 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau released the latest numbers about women- and minority-owned businesses. Of all the revenue flowing through Memphis in 2012, black-owned firms only garnered 0.83 percent of those receipts. Women-owned firms earned 2.73 percent.
Two months later, a Shelby County-generated study revealed that 88.3 percent — or $168.2 million — of county contracts went to white-owned businesses between 2012 and 2014.
And two weeks later, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland created a new position at City Hall when he appointed Joann Massey as the city of Memphis director of minority- and women-owned business development.
“We’ve been stuck at 1 percent or less for 20 years,” Trenary said of minority business participation.
“I'm not proud of the business in Memphis; I'm least proud of that,” Hardy added. “Do you think 0.83 percent is a good model of our democracy?”
Now, as the face of the Memphis business community, Hardy is pulling the reins in a different direction. In March, the chamber will roll out an initiative to improve resources for minority- and women-owned businesses. Some of those resources include a mentor and protégé program for fledgling firms, a streamlined process for being accredited as a minority-owned business and a universal portal to connect those firms with contracts.
The strategy is there. Hardy said she hasn’t been disappointed with the chamber’s effort, but she’s still trying to move the needle in a local business world controlled by white men.
“To truly address this and make a meaningful difference, the business community has to be engaged,” Trenary said.
When she tries to explain the dire situation to local executives, some of them fail to see a problem, Hardy said. There’s an entrenched belief that women- and minority-owned firms can’t perform to the same standards as a large, white-owned firm.
Why disturb the “good old boy” network? Because women- and minority-owned firms provide opportunity for poor and middle class Memphians, Hardy said. People like her mother.
Hardy said she knows first-hand how difficult it is to do business in Memphis because she’s never had a local customer.
“So if my experience and abilities don’t open doors, how can someone who truly doesn't have the working capital, who truly hasn't been out there for many years, who truly doesn’t have the education, how are they going to crack that nut?”
By the end of her two-year term, Hardy wants to have enough momentum to push 0.83 percent to 5 percent of all receipts going to minority-owned businesses. That change can only happen when Memphis business leaders dedicate themselves to the cause, she said.
“If you get to 5 percent the rest will take care of itself,” she said. “It means to me that they’ve accepted me — being women- and minority-owned businesses — in the business cycle. I’m part of the decision making process. I’m finally accepted as the norm.”