Cempa’s Cory Howard credits ‘calm determination and blind luck’ for advancement

Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Cory Howard went from being the lowest-paid employee at the nonprofit organization Cempa Community Care to an executive office. Howard is seen Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at Cempa Community Care on East Third Street.
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Cory Howard went from being the lowest-paid employee at the nonprofit organization Cempa Community Care to an executive office. Howard is seen Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at Cempa Community Care on East Third Street.

As an introvert, Cory Howard, 34, is not really wired to do interviews. Or to give speeches.

Yet, he has developed a strong inner voice that whispers “yes” to accepting uncomfortable tasks, when his first impulse is to say “no.” That’s how a self-described “shy, awkward, gay kid who grew up in rural Tennessee” has risen to a leadership post inside one of Chattanooga’s fastest growing community health centers.

Howard is chief strategy officer at Cempa Community Care. He is responsible for helping put policy into action at the 80-employee, $27 million operation on Third Street across from Erlanger hospital.

Howard is among the 30% to 50% of Americans who describe themselves as introverted. When asked to think about his biggest challenge in life, he decided that “being an introvert in an extrovert’s job” sounded about right.

“In high school, it was just me and my mom living in this little farm house (in McMinn County) next to my grandparents,” Howard said. “I knew I wanted to help people, but I didn’t know what that looked like.”

Howard, who has worked at Cempa (previously known as Chattanooga Cares) for 11 years, said he first found his footing at Maryville (Tennessee) College, where he learned to volunteer for leadership opportunities, including some outside his comfort zone. He recently received a prestigious young alumni award from the school designed for those who work “tirelessly for the betterment” of their alma mater, church and society.

Howard’s first job out of college was working at Chattanooga Cares as an HIV tester at the Hamilton County jail. Chattanooga Cares was established in the 1986 by a group of hospice workers as way to care for and support people with HIV.

About a year into that job, Howard volunteered for deployment to Jordan with a local National Guard unit training troops to fight in Afghanistan.

When he returned home to Chattanooga, he began to climb the ladder at Chattanooga Cares. He became an HIV prevention specialist (basically an educator), then stepped up to “medical case manager,” then director of development and communication, and then, four years ago, chief operating officer.

After Chattanooga Cares was rebranded as Cempa Community Care in 2019, Howard managed the center’s response to COVID-19 by overseeing its community testing push.

He now works alongside Cempa CEO Shannon Stephenson, helping steer the ship of a full-service community health clinic that serves some 2,500 patients, including about 1,000 living with HIV. Howard is also a graduate of Leadership Chattanooga and has served as board chairman of the J.A. Henry Community YMCA.

Cempa has expanded from its roots as an HIV-focused nonprofit organization to become a full-service community health center, offering HIV health care, primary care, diagnostic testing, health screenings, mental health counseling, immunizations and vaccinations, pharmaceutical services and more.

Howard, who is working on a doctorate in health care leadership at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, called his advancement at Cempa a combination of “calm determination and blind luck.”

“I managed to be with a great organization and have great mentors at the right time,” he said. “It is kind of surreal sometimes: To be able to follow my dream path, helping people and finding a career.

“I try to stay humbled by the fact that not everyone can go from being the lowest paid employee to being in a C-suite (executive-level office). I try to keep in mind how lucky I am to be where I am today.”

“Life Stories” is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPcolumnist.

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