Memphian To Meet: Beverly Robertson, CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber
Beverly Robertson has had a successful career in corporate Memphis, an amazing tenure as the National Civil Rights Museum director, a turn as an entrepreneur, and she’s recently been named the CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber. Beverly is also helping Leadership Memphis celebrate their 40th anniversary by introducing the inaugural class of 40 Changemakers, forty people who have impacted Memphis for good over the last 40 years.
I recently had a chance to speak with this illustrious Memphian to find out about her experiences building the legacy of the NCRM, and her goals and personal hopes for the city through her new role at the Chamber. But first, a little about Leadership Memphis.
Leadership Memphis Celebrates 40 Years
Leadership Memphis is a community leadership and training organization, developing leaders and future leaders at every level, from executives to emerging talent. They’ve trained more than 3,300 people in their programs since 1979, and celebrate 40 years of fostering talent in Memphis. Not surprisingly, Beverly Robertson is a Leadership Memphis alumni.
“At such a significant milestone, I suggested that Leadership Memphis honor some of the founders and other people involved,” Beverly says. “I thought it should be 40 Changemakers for 40 years.” Six Leadership Memphis founders are still living, and will be honored along with the Changemakers at a May 21st Anniversary Luncheon at Hilton Memphis.
“It’s great that the organization is saluting and providing honors to those individuals who are iconic, who drive transformative change in their city, their region, and their nation,” she explains. “It’s important to acknowledge people, and to acknowledge how young people are driving change today. You don’t have to live 40 years before you can begin to drive change.”
I wanted to find out more about the way Beverly herself drove transformative change in the city, so we talked about her background, her time at NCRM, and then did a Q&A. Keep reading for some fun “get to know you” questions, too.
Background + The National Civil Rights Museum
Beverly was born and raised in Memphis, and graduated from Memphis State University. After nearly 20 years in the corporate world with Holiday Inn, she was recruited to be the first director of the National Civil Rights Museum. She turned it down, however, and her and her husband started Trust Marketing and Communication.
Five years later, despite her protests (“I don’t know anything about running museums!”) she took an interim position at the NCRM during a national search for a permanent director. “Meanwhile, I changed the entire financial model of the Museum. That year, I generated twice what they had coming in. And that’s when I started my career at the National Civil Rights Museum. $43 million and 17 years later, I resigned after we had completed the 2014 renovation.”
She thought she might go back to Trust Marketing, and at least partially retire. After four years of that, she got another call. This time, it was Chamber board chair Richard Smith asking her to take the reins as interim director for the Greater Memphis Chamber. “He said ‘they tell me you walk on water!’ and I said back ‘I’m not the one who walks on water, don’t get it twisted!” she laughs.
Since we spoke, she’s been named as permanent CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber, the first black woman to fill the role.
Holly: What role has the NCRM played in the way both Memphians and visitors see the city?
Beverly: The museum was a catalyst in healing the racial divide, taking the site where Dr. King died and changing it into a place for education for all people, not just Memphians. D’Army Bailey and A.W. Willis had the vision to maintain that site, and that it’s been maintained on a global scene is amazing. You can’t come to Memphis and not go to the National Civil Right Museum.
What you need to learn is not taught in history books, or may not be something your mom or dad or teachers taught you. Many have not learned anything other than Rosa Parks and Dr. King, so the museum compels you to understand that the movement was a grassroots movement.
So many people have not been to that site, and to me, that’s a travesty. It’s not just black history, it’s American history. If you miss it, you’ll miss an essential part of Memphis.
Holly: What’s your experience been like so far at the Chamber? Do you plan to shake things up?
Beverly: I’ve been [at the Chamber] for about five months. I see myself as a little bit of an iconoclast leader. I want to engage more of the population in the work of the Chamber. Our task is to drive public policies that help businesses, help create job opportunities, attract new businesses, create higher paying jobs in the marketplace, and work with entities that are creating opportunities through training programs.
Holly: What are your hopes for Memphis?
Beverly: We’ve got to get a much more trained workforce. There are 15,000 – 20,000 jobs for which there is no trained workforce. Some companies are sending buses back to Mississippi to get workers, but we have people in our marketplace that we have left out or haven’t thought about. Young people who graduated and ended up in multiple minimum wage jobs, instead of one job.
So we’re going to have a Workforce Summit at the Chamber in the fall, to de-silo the people working in education, business, and training.
Holly: Tell me more about that.
Beverly: I want all of the players of these respective pillars to ask, how do we scale our efforts? How can we train 5,000 – 10,000 people in the next 18-24 months. I don’t want them to worry about how much it costs, because that’s how much it costs. I’d like for the Chamber to raise the money, and the leaders of the different pillars to be held accountable.
We can train people who have previously been marginalized and disenfranchised, and have an opportunity to have their record expunged. They may need transportation, temporary housing, a stipend, and I’m not sure that we have ever looked at the workforce this way. While the Chamber is not a service provider, we can bring providers and people together.
We have to take the Chamber to the streets. People in the community need to feel the prosperity that the businesses in downtown feel. If they don’t feel it in Orange Mound, Smokey City, and Frayser, the onus becomes on the community to create the environment.
Holly: Why do you love Memphis?
Beverly: We have everything any major city would want. We’ve got museums, history, art, Broadway, a river that’s becoming more and more activated every day, a great riverfront downtown, an airport that allows anyone to get anywhere, we have great food, we have BBQ, we have entertainment, we have music. We have so much to do and so many amenities. But the very best thing we have in Memphis is the people who live here: we are authentic and I love it. I make no apologies.
1. What’s always in your bag? I have worn glasses since the third grade, so there are glasses on my face and also in my purse.
2. Guilty pleasure? Cooking. I actually like to cook. Most people find it a chore, but I find it relaxing and gratifying, and in particular like to fix chicken piccata and spinach madeline. I got this recipe from my best friends, John and Shelly Bauer. Whenever I have people over, I like to cook.
3. Go to outfit? Anything red, I’m a scarf girl, too, you won’t find me without one. I can fix that scarf up!
4. How do you drink your coffee? Not a big coffee drinker, but if I have it, I go for more like coffee in my cream.
5. Favorite song right now? Anything by Stevie Wonder.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Special thanks to Beverly Robertson for her time. If you want to learn more about Leadership Memphis and their 40th anniversary, go here. If you want to learn more about the Greater Memphis Chamber, go here.