As president of the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum (MMBC Continuum), Jozelle Luster Booker is tasked with helping business leaders discover new ways to grow, new paths to pursue, and sometimes a new niche to fill. Booker also happens to be a world-class storyteller. She’d rather engage an individual — or group — with a tale from her youth in rural Claiborne County, Mississippi, than lecture on what a business owner may be doing right or wrong. It’s a form of personal engagement that tends to yield greater understanding between a speaker and listener. And it formulates the closest thing to a mantra you might attach to Booker. Listen before you lead.
The second of seven children (four girls, three boys) born to Joe and Beulah Luster, Booker grew up on a 300-acre estate owned by her family for generations. Ironically, she spent much of her youth indoors, her father believing girls were responsible for chores inside the house, boys outside. She claims to have ridden a horse — a Tennessee Walker, once — but took a more comfortable liking to motorcycles (among her dad’s and brothers’ avocations). “We had two waterfalls on our property,” notes Booker, “and white, sandy beaches along a creek bed. We built sand castles and had our pick of plums, peaches, pears, and apples.”
Booker’s father came from a line of entrepreneurs, with a grocery store, a café, and a motel in Vicksburg among the businesses owned and operated by the Luster family. Young Jozelle had a keen sense of order and what was expected of her, both at home and school. She joined various clubs at Port Gibson High School and took a special liking to math and chemistry, her only transgression being a habit of talking with other students in class (after she completed an assignment).
Booker had early visions of becoming a civil engineer, but by the time she enrolled at Jackson State University in 1980, she felt a pull toward marketing. “I wanted to buy clothes at the end of the runway in New York and Paris,” she says. Instead of crossing the Atlantic with her marketing degree, though, Booker found her way to Memphis, where she had extended family. After a stint as a temp impressed the right people, she took a job — as a typist — with MLGW in 1986 and would enjoy a steady rise over three decades at the utility company. In 1998, Booker became MLGW’s first supplier diversity officer, a job that allowed her economic-development skills to flourish fully.
During her time at MLGW, Booker absorbed some leadership skills that fuel her to this day. “Joyce Blackmon nominated me for a supervisory development program,” says Booker. “She was one of the first black vice presidents at MLGW. She saw it as her responsibility to pull people aside and give them feedback, encouragement on all kinds of things: your future, your skill development. Her philosophy was, ‘I’ll offer this. You can receive it or not.’ I’ve done the same thing with young people.”
Booker retired from MLGW in 2017 and joined the MMBC Continuum, succeeding Luke Yancy as president. “I’d been working with [MMBC] in my role as supplier diversity officer at MLGW,” notes Booker, “and had made recommendations about things I saw, but that MLGW could not do as a public entity. They incorporated some of those development ideas. What I loved the most at MLGW was working with minority- and women-owned businesses. Helping them grow, navigating. The opportunity to help someone else make their business vision a reality.”
Memphis has needs for large-scale economic growth, particularly with the scourge of poverty so heavy on its pool of talent. Booker finds herself advising clients in such a way that focuses not on what is right in front of them, but what can be right in front of them with the right effort. “Here in 2019, technology has caught up, but fundamentally, it’s knowing the path to take, and who to talk to, who to see,” she says. “There can be a strategy they need. It’s not one-size-fits-all. No day here [at MMBC] is the same. You listen to what a business is doing, hear what their challenges are. What we do best is come up with customized solutions. What’s your plan with your business? What’s your exit strategy?”
Booker is in a unique leadership position, as she’s tasked with advising other leaders, business owners seeking direction for growth. “I’m humbled by them,” says Booker. “I see a person with tremendous courage sitting before me. They made a decision to bet on themselves. In some cases, they left corporate America. Or they just had a new business idea. We want to understand their passion and what drives them. We’ll advise, but it’s up to them to implement [the ideas].”
In terms of her own leadership style, Booker describes a reflective approach. “I look for input and feedback,” she says. “I need to know what your goal is. I’m going to listen. And based on that, if there’s additional research and data, we’ll use that to build a plan.”
And then there are Booker’s stories. She tells them, a lot. And they’re often rooted in her happy childhood on that farm in Mississippi. “Daddy would say things, over and over,” she notes with a smile. “I find myself as an adult now, sharing those things. ‘Understanding is the best thing in the world.’ ”
“I was always talking, moving around [as a child]. My paternal grandfather [Walter Luster Sr.] would say to me, ‘Learn how to follow before you can lead.’ You find yourself repeating lessons, over and over again.”
Oprah Winfrey and her own mom top the list of leaders Booker admires most. “I think about my mom and her managing our household with seven children,” reflects Booker. “There were disputes, arguments, chores, the organizational side of it. Keeping up with all of that. Keeping us all engaged. We weren’t wealthy, but I can’t think of anything that I wanted that I didn’t get.”
The best way to attract future leaders to Memphis, according to Booker, is to help create them today. And that requires the efforts of every Memphian, not just business professionals. “It doesn’t have to be structured,” she emphasizes. “It can be informal. It can be at work, at church, people in positions where they can impact young people. It doesn’t have to be a large-scale program. It’s everybody leaving a legacy. A call to action. So many people have spheres of influence; they may not have thought about it. Young people want engagement with professionals, but it doesn’t have to be business professionals. We can be that place, where people in Memphis invest in its people.”