Amidst the vibrant economic landscape of Indianapolis, the rise in Black executive leadership symbolizes a pivotal shift in the city’s corporate realm.
An emergence in Black presidents and CEOs, especially in nonprofit spaces, not only underscores a drive for diversity but also represents a crucial step toward equitable leadership.
“My call to the ministry inspired me to leave a lucrative and promising career in corporate America to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector. At the age of 32, I was the youngest director of corporate strategy in the history of a multibillion company in Indiana,” said Larry Smith, president and CEO of Fathers and Families Center.
He also created a space for Black nonprofit CEOs in the city so that they can stay connected, knowing that the path to success for many Black leaders often involves overcoming challenges like societal barriers.
“It’s sad that African Americans have to work three times as hard as white Americans only to have less success generally,” said Smith.
For many Black Americans, those barriers can include, but are not limited to, access to quality education, experiencing poverty, systemic racism and enduring prejudices in different spaces, including the workspace.
This can lead individuals down a destructive path, knowing that the odds are stacked against them.
James Wilson went to prison when he was 17 years old and came out when he was 26 years old. Even when he knew he wanted to change his life for the better after release, he never thought he would be the CEO of Circle Up Indy – an organization that has affordable housing initiatives and offers employment programs, rent assistance, weekly food distribution and direct community engagement.
“I see myself impacting the broader narrative of Black leadership in Indianapolis by bringing innovation to a level that has not been seen,” said Wilson.
“I would like to empower more Black economic development that truly allows a community to thrive and grow with less drug intake and violence within our community and city.”
Jeffrey A. Harrison, president & CEO of Citizens Energy Group, came from a family of six children. His father was a bricklayer and Harrison worked with him in the summer.
He credits his father with developing his strong work ethic. At times throughout his childhood, even with his hard-working father, the family struggled to put food on the table.
“As one of just a few Black CEOs in Central Indiana, I believe I have a special responsibility to help lead collective action for racial and economic equity in our region,” said Harrison.
“Since becoming Citizens Energy Group’s CEO in 2015, members of the Black community still approach me at public events to tell me how proud they are to see someone who looks like them leading such an important company.”
Paradise Bradford is the executive director of Pretty Passionate Hands, which focuses on providing support, mentorship and guidance to teen parents in Indianapolis.
Through her leadership position, she wants to provide hope to other women filled with a passion or call to a purpose by bringing them to understand that leadership is not always earned based on education or workforce connections.
“There are many challenges I face in this city. Not being born or raised here and having to find your network, you must find the circles that accept you and hear you out. Being able to be heard has been the hardest,” said Bradford.
“I have been bold enough to start conversions, but ultimately being vulnerable and not being afraid to ask for help has been my best way to navigate.”
Pretty Passionate Hands has a mentorship program that provides basic living skills to equip teen parents with the knowledge they need to become successful and sustainable individuals.
They offer a free pantry for clothing, hygiene items, diapers, wipes and baby equipment for teen parents.
The organization provides outings to community activities that families may not be able to afford or experience. On top of that, teen parents are provided holiday and school assistance and throughout the year are offered seasonal clothing for their babies and themselves.
Jasmin Shaheed-Young is the president and CEO of Rise Indy, a movement to ensure every Indianapolis student has access to a quality public school.
Her passion for revitalizing public education began with her parents and their firm commitment to justice.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without mentorship. When I reflect on the pivotal points in founding RISE INDY, I remember how mentorship from other leaders had benefited me at that time. I learned about the challenges they faced and how they navigated them,” said Shaheed-Young.
“There was an absence of leadership programs specifically for young Black and non-Black professionals. It’s beautiful to see the array of choices now.”
She said this includes the Indianapolis Urban League’s The Exchange, IU Health’s Inspiring Leader, United Way of Central Indiana’s Leadership United and Circle City Leaders.
Perry Hines, president & CEO of Wheeler Mission, said he has always had a profound love for community service. Over the years, he has helped several nonprofit organizations, such as the Madame Walker Legacy Theater, Indiana Black Expo, Indianapolis Urban League and more.
It has been important to him to combine his volunteer nonprofit work with his corporate work throughout his career.
“Like most African Americans in any type of leadership role, more is going to be demanded and expected of you in order for you to be perceived as successful,” said Hines.
“Given the historical stereotypes that have prevailed throughout the history of our great country, African Americans have often had to start the leadership race behind the starting line. That dilemma has plagued many African American leaders, and my experience has been no different.”
Hines emphasized the importance of having mentors and being a mentor along one’s journey. Mentorship and community engagement are two of the essential building blocks for success, both personally and professionally.
He said those foundational elements provide perspective, context and access to individuals and organizations that will help propel one to success.
“Know who you are and what you want to accomplish. Indy can be a tough environment for African American professionals, but there is a booming network of young and more seasoned African American executives ready and willing to step up to the plate,” said Hines.
Kendrea Williams founder and CEO of PitchFeast – an entrepreneur support organization that provides BIPOC business leaders with essential business development support- knows firsthand the struggles Black leaders face.
“As a Black CEO, I have faced challenges such as implicit bias, limited access to networks and, sometimes, skepticism about the viability of our mission. Navigating these challenges has involved building stronger networks, both within and outside of the city, and fostering relationships with key partners in the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Williams.
“By consistently delivering results and showcasing the success stories of the entrepreneurs we support, we’ve been able to challenge the preconceived notions and build trust within the community.”
She was inspired to pursue a leadership role through a deep-rooted commitment to addressing systemic inequalities.
Williams recognizes the unique challenges that Black and brown entrepreneurs face when it comes to starting a business and accessing capital and resources, and she wanted to contribute to breaking down those barriers.
“One crucial lesson is the importance of resilience. This journey to leadership often involves facing challenges. Learn and grow from your failures, be flexible when it comes to change and stay focused on your mission,” said Williams.
“Lead with authenticity and empathy; these personal characteristics are foundational when it comes to building trust and long-lasting relationships.”
A few Black leaders in the city
Alan Bacon – GANGGANG
Paradise Bradford – Pretty Passionate Hands
Barato Britt – Edna Martin Christian Center
Claudia Cummings – Indiana Philanthropy Alliance
Keesha Dixon – Asante Children’s Theater
Rhiannon Edwards – Public Advocates in Community Re-Entry (PACE)
Emil Ekiyor- InnoPower
Carl Ellison – Indiana Minority Health Coalition
Dr. Lorenzo Esters – The Indianapolis Foundation
Perry Hines – Wheeler Mission Ministries
Dr. Tenika Holden-Flynn – Teach for America Indianapolis
Denell Howard – Evolve International
Maggie Lewis – Boys & Girls Clubs of Indianapolis
Tony Mason – Indianapolis Urban League
Andrea Neely – Simon Youth Foundation
Kendra Nowell – Community Alliance of the Far Eastside (CAFÉ)
Fred Payne – United Way of Central Indiana
Dee Ross – The Ross Foundation
Ericka Sanders – You Yes You Project
Derrin Slack – ProAct Indy
Larry Smith – Fathers and Families Center
Katina Washington – SHE Event
James Wilson – Circle Up Indy
Kia Wright – VOICES Corp