I recently embarked on a new journey as a participant in Leadership Memphis’ Executive Program, Class of 2019. I am one of 80 business professionals representing a wide range of industries such as journalism, banking and financial services, healthcare, logistics, arts and entertainment, faith, higher education, government, nonprofit, construction, marketing communications, and many more.

The intent is to learn more about ourselves, each other and how we can impact the Memphis high schoolers we will be working with throughout the year to increase post-secondary attainment and career awareness. 

After just the first three days of the program, I gained a deeper understanding of the interconnected issues facing our community and found that I was already armed with positive, practical ways in which I can personally make an impact.

As we planned ahead and set goals for what we want to accomplish in the next year, we were faced with a challenge: As business professionals, how can we best have an impact on the high school sophomores and juniors we will be working with this year as we conduct leadership training and participate in neighborhood service projects?

Providing internship opportunities, teaching resume building, conducting mock-interviews — all are initiatives that we could implement but we would most likely be duplicating existing programs that offer all of those opportunities. We want to do more.

One of my Leadership Memphis classmates, Melvin D. Watkins Jr., pastor at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Whitehaven, raised a question to the group: “When you were growing up, how many people did you know that owned their own business?” I immediately thought of my grandfather who owned his construction company, my best friend’s dad who had an insurance agency, and my neighbor’s dental practice, just to name a few. Then he raised another question, “Can you imagine growing up without knowing anyone who owned his or her business? Or not having anyone in your family who went to college or graduated high school, or never even left the neighborhood they were born in?”

That question made me realize how different everything would be if that were my reality. My perspective, my opportunities, the things I believed were in the realm of possibility for my life.  It made me realize that it isn’t just about telling the students what they need to do to be successful, it’s more about showing them how so they can start to connect the dots for themselves.

Pastor Watkins challenged us to take time with the students. To listen and think about how we can share our social capital, the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. As business professionals, we take those networks for granted because many of us were already connected to them at a young age, without even realizing it.

Along with those networks came the education of soft skills that may not have ever been verbally taught. Instead we learned through observation of our role models’ actions. Giving a firm handshake, maintaining eye contact, the ability to confidently have a conversation with someone you just met, and knowing which one of your parents’ friends to call when you needed a summer internship or your first job out of college.

We have a responsibility as leaders in the business community that goes beyond writing checks to fund programming in our schools and nonprofit organizations. We must make time to volunteer and mentor today’s elementary, middle, and high school students who are not growing up with the advantages that we had. It is up to us to be the professional role models that are not otherwise available to demonstrate another perspective, another opportunity, and to present another possible path. These students represent the future talent that our businesses depend on to be diverse and inclusive in order to thrive for generations to come.

Though a school year is not a very long time, my hope is that our Leadership Memphis Class of 2019 can share our social capital with these students, arming them with the tools they need to succeed beyond graduation as they further their education and/or enter the work force to fully contribute to society and live a sustainable lifestyle. 

Andrea Wiley is director of account management at DCA Creative Communications Consulting, and is an adjunct professor teaching advertising at the University of Memphis. She was the 2015-2016 president of the American Advertising Federation, Memphis Chapter, and can be reached at [email protected]