Nancy Coffee is a natural catalyst. She has a gift for turning insight into vision, vision into action, and action into change. During her 15 years at New Memphis, she has been instrumental in expanding its programs and redeveloping its brand. A self-described idealist, her enthusiasm stays fresh because she sees service as her calling.

The scope of that calling evolved, once again, on January 1, 2019, when she stepped down as CEO of the organization, passing the baton to Anna Mullins Ellis. That succession plan, which had been in the works for over a year, put Coffee into the role of president emeritus, and brought up Ellis, who had served as vice president of communications and strategic initiatives for the nonprofit.

“Anna is phenomenal in every way,” Coffee says. “She’s a brilliant leader and a natural collaborator. Because New Memphis is all about attracting, developing, activating, and training talent, it’s especially exciting to promote from within.”

The goal of New Memphis is to improve talent at all levels in business, government, schools, and communities. Coffee’s idealism has nurtured that during her tenure. 

“When I moved to Memphis, I wanted to work in some way that would allow me to serve. Now my new role will enable me to focus on the work I love most, connecting with our partners and cultivating the resources Memphis needs to fuel its future.”

Coffee admits that her love affair with the city wasn’t immediate. “I made the leap to Memphis for my fiancé at the time,” she says. “I was thriving in Chicago, as was my career. It was a tough adjustment.”

She credits the city’s culture with her change of heart, saying, “I really had to come to appreciate and enjoy Memphis over the course of that first year. This is a remarkable city for newcomers. They say converts to a religion are more zealous than those who are born into it. I have become that zealot.”

Coffee adds, “The Southern welcome was very meaningful and substantial. In Memphis the welcome isn’t about someone showing up at your door with a casserole. It’s about someone showing up at your proverbial door with an opportunity to do good. That dynamic is life-giving for all of us.”

Reinvesting in the community is a foundation for all of the New Memphis programs because the drive for improvement and progress is the foundation of its work.

“Every great human being, company, and city are trying to be better today than they were yesterday,” Coffee explains. “People with that desire are the types who are drawn to our programs.”

And New Memphis makes the most of that passion. “That’s why our leadership programs are very asset-based. We are all about inviting people to come to the table with what they do well, and evolve from there.”

Nancy Coffee

The effectiveness of New Memphis lies in its ability to be both prescient and nimble. The roots of the organization go back to 1979, and it has been ever-evolving under a series of names. In 2012, under Coffee, it was rebranded and redefined as a talent engine. That talent engine is vast and inclusive, offering programs designed to meet the needs of leaders in all stages of their careers.

The Leadership Development Intensive is a highly personalized program designed for seasoned professionals. Delivered in partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership, this once-in-a-career opportunity is an accelerated three days of assessment, networking, leadership training, and attention to action plans.

Mid-career leaders who want to amplify their already-high performance can benefit from the Fellows program. This community-wide experience caps classes at 30 and divides its curriculum between leadership development and community action.

Emerging professionals in their twenties receive professional development, networking, and mentorship through Embark, a three-month program aimed at helping them set the courses for their careers and discover new ways to make a positive difference in the community.

The New-to-Town program gives transplants an understanding and appreciation for the community, as well as a special sense of belonging.

“Once our graduates embrace their new relationships and experiences, they seek new opportunities to serve,” Coffee says. “That same spirit of identifying what’s going well, growing from one’s strengths, and celebrating what’s right is so important not only for people, but also for cities.”

She adds that while most New Memphis graduates come to embrace common core values, none of the programs is one-size-fits-all.

“Each human being is as distinct as each star in the galaxy. Each one contributes something different. Our participants leave the program changed — as much by what they give to the program, as by what they take away from it. There’s an alchemy with every class that is very beautiful.”

Because of that awareness and respect for individuality, each initiative within each program is developed and fine-tuned based on solid research and measurement. That level of fine-tuning ensures programs don’t merely identify needs, but go on to meet those needs in meaningful ways.

“One of the things we’re very intentional about measuring,” she says, “is how likely participants would be to recommend Memphis to a friend or colleague.”

Coffee is proud to state that their participant polls show enormous growth in loyalty to the local community after the program. She says most of the groups polled enter the program reporting at an average community loyalty score of 6.4. Upon completion of the program that average score has typically risen into the 9s.

She points out that those numbers are important because one of the organization’s overall objectives is to make Memphis magnetic.

As a result, one of New Memphis’ primary areas of focus is on college students.

“This is one of the most important efforts for our community,” Coffee says. “Memphis has spent tremendous effort getting students from K-12, which is essential. Once we get those kids through college, we have to deliver on the promise.”

One of New Memphis’ more recent initiatives is making sure college students have access to internships. Coffee says that internships are not only a major driver in ensuring students stay in school, but also a way to help them make wise decisions selecting their vocations. She adds that internships also serve to help cities retain talent, since 82 percent of college students who intern in a region remain after graduation.

Anna Mullins

“Internships are more than an anchor, they’re a trigger for economic mobility as well,” she says. “They’re a huge catalyst for success.”

In order to set priorities and develop initiatives, New Memphis keeps its finger on the pulse of the community, finding challenges that might otherwise go overlooked.

The internship program, for example, was inspired when a young man approached the organization with research that indicated local African-American college students didn’t believe Memphis had a career for them. His data led Coffee and Ellis to take action.

“We looked into this more deeply and found that Caucasian students are five times more likely to have an internship than African-American students because internships are about who you know,” Coffee says. “So we began a very strong march toward democratizing internships.”

When it comes to democratization, Coffee is encouraged by the progress she has seen the city make in recent years. “Memphis can become a mecca,” she says. “It’s all about connectivity, celebrating what’s right, and helping our current young professionals appreciate what our city has to offer.”

Coffee says one of her favorite things about Memphis, in addition to the downtown skyline, is the river.

“I love that the Mississippi is right here and so accessible to all of us,” she says. “I love being able to look across at the beautiful view of the Arkansas landscape.”

She admits she also loves being six minutes away from her office, where she’ll serve, in her new emeritus role helping to expand New Memphis’ capacity, and supporting the work she and her colleagues and community partners have done so far.

“I’m blessed with a brilliant band of diverse and effective teammates, board members, and community partners,” she says. “Everything is a partnership. For every success we have, I owe thanks to other people who are concerned with our city’s future.” 

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