A black woman who grew up with 15 siblings in a family so poor they had only onions for lunch explained Tuesday how she overcame poverty to become the CEO of Chism Hardy Investments and Henderson Transloading Services, the largest owner of container depots in the Memphis market.
"I want you to understand that I was born and I lived below the poverty line, but I did not allow that to limit or define me," said Carolyn Hardy, who is also the first black female inducted into the Society of Entrepreneurs in Memphis.
She attributes a lot of her success to her mother, who taught her the way to success was a college education, trade skills, hard work, ambition and saving money.
Hardy spoke to a sold-out crowd Tuesday at the fourth annual Entrepreneur Power Luncheon hosted by the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga. The event celebrated minority- and female-owned businesses.
The Urban League recognized Wendy Buckner of The Hot Chocolatier for having the Woman-Owned Business of the Year; Felicia Rena Jackson, who invented the CPR LifeWrap, for running the Emerging Business of the Year; and Steve Talley, owner of AB Property Preservation, as having the 2016 Minority Business of the Year.
"Anybody who is successful running a small business deserves our congratulations" said Warren E. Logan Jr., president and CEO of the Urban League. "We talk about it being sexy, but nobody talks about no annual leave, no sick leave. Nobody talks about working 12 hours a day, and that oftentimes, everybody gets paid but the owner."
Several local women and minority businesses owners showcased talent and skill at the awards luncheon.
Local singer Jermaine Purifory, who made it to the Hollywood rounds in Season 9 of "American Idol," sang the national anthem. Harlan Breaux, owner of HB studios, photographed the event, and Cherita Bloodwirth Adams, owner of NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana) Busy Bee Agency, handled sponsorship development, corporate sales and facilitated the luncheon.
Mayor Andy Berke, who formed the minority business task force this year, said he wants to make it possible for more minority businesses to exist.
He noted Chattanooga, topped only by Nashville, was named the second best city in the country for women-owned businesses by financial website WalletHub.
Shaw Industries' Trini Gomez, who serves on the company's corporate diversity council, called the event inspiring. She was among several people taking notes to share with her company.
"It speaks to diversity and inclusion, which is what we're trying to spread throughout our organization," she said.
Hardy told the crowd how seeing herself beyond poverty inspired her, despite the challenges she encountered.
She said she faced isolation, sexism and racism at the J.M. Smucker Co. when she started as a staff accountant after graduating college. But she continued on the job.
"My plan was to get Smucker management on my side and help them understand our [minorities and women] value to the organization," she said. "In the end, Smucker's became a member of the Carolyn Hardy Club. As a result, I became the first black female plant manager at Smucker's, which blazed a trail for many others."
Hardy was also named the first black female vice president of a major brewery, Coors Brewing Co., and she became the first black female to own a major brewing company.
She said failure is a part of success and failure is only permanent when people give up.
She said it's important to form and maintain relationships.
She said white males use relationships to advance in their careers, but minorities and women often have fewer peers in an organization, and they may not spend as much time developing relationships over activities like meeting regularly for golf. She encouraged minorities and women to be more intentional about knowing each other and helping each other in business.
"I want to relate a concept that I feel key to my success that I've used quite a bit," she said. "I call it human collateral. I use relationships established in my career to pursue and achieve my dream."
As an example, she recounted how the best labor lawyer in Memphis helped her when she started her business. He told her that her bill came to $20,000, but she would never see it nor would he pursue her for it. He told her if she ever made money to pay him. Two years later, she paid in full.
She said she paid because she wanted to use him again. They remain great friends and he gives lots of advice.
"Human collateral is like savings in a bank," she said.
In another example, she told how a peer had to fire his best friend. They had gone on vacations together and the friend was godfather to the boss' children. Instead of firing the employee and ending the relationship, the boss gave his friend a year's salary and helped him get another job that paid more money.
"I want you to understand this concept for a second, because this is how America does business," she said.
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.