Cynthia Ham is stepping down from BRIDGES Inc. at the end of this year, capping eight years as president and CEO of the nonprofit. 

It is only the latest example of her leadership as most of her work has been high-profile executive jobs her entire career, most in Memphis.

But there was a time that Memphis lost her. It was 1977 and the city was in the doldrums. In the less than 10 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Downtown area was, as Ham says, a ghost town. The Memphis Chamber of Commerce was nearly broke, The Peabody was shut down, a remake of the Orpheum was barely under way, and Memphis in May was just getting started.

So Ham went to Opryland, then a young organization and chock full of great experiences for a rising executive talent in the travel and tour industry. But as she was learning, Memphis was putting itself back on the map. Mud Island River Park was being formed and they wanted her to be marketing director. So she came back to Memphis a couple of years ahead of the opening to set up shop.

INSIDE MEMPHIS BUSINESS: Tell us about the Mud Island experience.

CYNTHIA HAM: The city was being very supportive financially, but unfortunately it didn’t have clarity about what they wanted Mud Island really to be. The people who came in, like me and the general manager, saw it was not only a place for locals to get caught up in the legacy and the lore, but also it would be a good place for tourists to get to know Memphis.

Of course Downtown was still a ghost town. I knew there was a lot that had to happen to turn it around. Fortunately, we were on the precipice of greatness and it was exciting to be a part of something that was going to hopefully help bring commerce back to Downtown. Picture a boarded-up Peabody, a dilapidated Beale Street, and then there’s this little beacon of hope at Mud Island. We had more than a million attendance that first year. It’s so tragic that the city hasn’t remained committed to it and that clarity was never gained about its purpose and therefore its importance in terms of funding.

What was your next call to action?

I joined John Elkington as the vice president of marketing of the Beale Street Historic District. That was such an interesting challenge too because there were very few businesses open as it was so much in the early stages. There were all of the dynamics around the true heritage of Beale Street and how you reconcile the need to sustain that or bring it back while also getting businesses that would sign the leases.

Having been in leadership in birthing and rebirthing Memphis attractions, what was your next move?

A friend and I decided that we were burned out and wanted to quit our jobs and hit the road. We’d saved some money and by this time I’m 32 and thinking, if not now, when? It’s a dream of a lot of people to just do it. We hoped it would last for a good six or eight months. We lived on the cheap, traveling in her little bitty car, no air conditioning, 10,000 miles, 22 states, Vancouver for the world’s fair and we ended up in Mexico. That was a real time of reflection for me about what I wanted to do next and what was important to me and was I committed to Memphis or not. I decided I really needed to recommit myself to Memphis. 

Cynthia Ham’s short resume

  • Graduated from Memphis State University in 1976 majoring in journalism and public relations.
  • 1976-1977: Libertyland director of group sales and guest relations
  • 1977-1980: Opryland USA advertising and promotions manager
  • 1980-1983: Mud Island River Park marketing director and general manager
  • 1984-1986: Beale Street Historic District vice president of marketing
  • 1987-1996: Memphis in May International Festival executive director
  • 1997-2012: archer>malmo principal and chief PR officer
  • 2012-2019: BRIDGES president and CEO

You did it in a big way, taking the job as executive director of the Memphis in May International Festival.

Jeff Sanford, who was on the board of MIM, called me. We had been out on a couple of dates and he was on the board of MIM. The executive director had resigned 10 weeks before the 1987 festival honoring China. He knew my background in theme parks, special events, and fundraising, so he asked if I wanted to submit my resume for the interim job. He recused himself, of course. [They got married a few years later]. I got the job and made it through the festival, breaking even. It was in a really bad place at that time, financially, so they wanted me to stay on — and I needed a job — so I stayed 10 years, 10 festivals.

This was an incredible opportunity to travel the world, to work for a board of directors, and learn how to run a nonprofit. After 10 years, it was pretty stressful, not knowing whether or not you’re going to be able to pay the bills if it rained.

So now we’re at 1997 and you’re wondering what comes next.

About three months later, Ward Archer Jr. called me and asked me if I would come to the agency. One thing led to another and I was part of the management group that bought out the agency from Ward about a year or so after I got there. And I was there 15 years.

All of the jobs that I had previously called for some level of expertise in communications or PR, and I had an instinct for it, but I hadn’t thought that this is what I want my career to be. Frankly, I didn’t even really care to work with the media. But Ward was persuasive.

So you put in 15 years at archer>malmo and you say you hit a wall?

I wanted to do something more meaningful on the back nine. I had seen an email that BRIDGES was in a search of a president and CEO. I went through the interview process with the board over the holidays in 2011 and I started in February of 2012. So what did I know about youth development? Nothing, but I knew that the organization’s mission was so important and I knew that it had a very positive reputation. What they needed was someone who had nonprofit and general management experience. And it needed a little more external exposure, so that PR part of me came into play.

Taking the job at BRIDGES was, in a way, a culmination of the work that had come before.

I brought to it all of these experiences in jobs and specifically in Memphis, the people I’ve met, the people I knew, and knowing where bodies were buried. Then there were several crises that I had lived through and different situations all really converged here and I felt, even though I was out of my element in terms of not knowing youth development, I was in my element in figuring out what the organization needed in that moment. It was a really satisfying feeling to have that sort of calm in the face of the challenges. I could call on all kinds of specific examples through the years that informed how I reacted to something. 

I wanted to make sure it could be financially sustainable. Jim Boyd, the previous leader, had structured a model before he left and it was evolving in a way that the organization had never done. There was a lot to figure out and a lot to grow into. We had three different program levels instead of one going to 7th through 12th grades instead of just 11th and 12th grades.

There were structural changes made. I had to get everybody 100 percent focused on youth and not try to be all things to all people. And then Jim had just gotten a $10 million challenge grant and we had to start to match that.

Dana Wilson will succeed you in 2020 and you’ve championed her. How has she contributed?

Dana was really advocating for a mechanism whereby you could get plugged into the youth we had trained who wanted more. They’re telling us, “Hey, I know I’m a leader now and I’m more tuned into Memphis than I’ve ever been.” This whole idea of youth voice and youth-led social change is picking up a lot of steam across the country. I just really cheered Dana on to figure it out. Now we’re about ready to embark on this new enterprise, the Youth Action Center, and it’ll be a hub for youth to come together and work side-by-side equitably with adults to get plugged into structures that are already there whereby they can lend their voice to decisions that affect them. As an example, Mayor Lee Harris has established a youth council and we are going to help train the adults.

You were intent on having a succession plan for when you left.

No matter what anybody says, no matter how important it is to build a succession plan in any organization, the reality for nonprofits is that it’s very tough because you usually don’t have the kind of bench depth to be able to do that very easily. We were so fortunate because when I started thinking about wanting to retire, it was obvious to me that Dana would take over. She had been here 10 years. She had the vision, she had the thought leadership. She knows Memphis. She’s well liked. It just made sense.

So what’s next for you?

Travel, going to see grandchildren who live in California and, all of the things that people do in retirement. But there are two itches that I want to scratch. One is doing interior design, which I’ve always had an interest in and been encouraged by friends to pursue. Another one is to write a book with my friend about our big adventure, because we’ve talked about it for 37 years and finally realized that now I have time and she’s already retired. She said, okay, well let’s take a road trip and talk about it. So we’re doing that in January. Like Thelma and Louise without the gun.

After having been so close to the evolution and growth of Memphis, how to you feel about it today?

I love the city as much as anyone can and still get mad as hell at it sometimes. If I had to personify Memphis, I would say that it has the sort of fiercely independent attitude that makes me think of Sam Phillips, Fred Smith, and Kemmons Wilson. There’s just that willfulness and that stubbornness and that willingness to think differently that Memphis breeds. It’s sort of in the water and I think it’s through the veins of the citizens of Memphis. We are who we are and if you don’t like it, there are plenty of places for you to go. So we’ve not allowed our city to become generic. Memphis is in a great spot.

I’ve been thinking that there is more awareness of the racial tension that we experienced in the 1960s even though it lessened over the years. But looking back on it, I think that probably is a superficial view. I was working with people of color who appeared as though they were pretty much set. They were middle-class, upwardly mobile professional African Americans. My view was here we are 10 or 20 years after Dr. King and we all get along fine. But I was not really looking behind the curtain to see the deeper problems. And I think that maybe a lot of white Memphians felt that way, that the racial tensions had lessened. But they were always there.

The majority of our population is African American and we have, you know, an incredible amount of poverty. I want to say that we’re doing so well in some areas. But I think this has been a very slow, steady town in terms of its growth and evolution of place and sense of self. In a way it’s a blessing because I think that we have figured things out in a way that is sustainable.

I think Memphis has got a lot of momentum. We’re ground zero for education reform in this country. There’s a lot of good things happening. It’s becoming more attractive for people to live here because it’s such a soulful, interesting city.