In the January/February issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal, Christian & Small partner, Ken Simon, and other African-American business leaders are recognized as trailblazers who are building a legacy of leadership.
During Black Heritage Month, Ken was one of the select few asked to share his perspectives on leadership, giving back and the challenges facing the black community today. Following are a few excerpts from his profile. See it in its entirety here.
There are two people who had a major impact on my life: My mother, who helped me learn at an early age that education is the key to a better life; and my English 101 professor at the University of South Alabama, who gave me the words of encouragement I needed in order to believe in myself.
Life for me began in Mobile, Alabama, in the Roger Williams projects during the 1950s and early 1960s. Artificial barriers of race and class that were supported by forces beyond our control separated our community from the larger world. Even in those days, there was a stigma associated with living in the projects—a stigma that produced shame and embarrassment.
In 1963, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, we moved from the projects and began the process of entering the mainstream. My mother started classes at a local junior college and finished in two years—with honors. She then went to the University of South Alabama (USA) and obtained her education degree, again with excellent grades, and became the first black USA graduate. My mother realized her dream and became a teacher.
Ten years after my mother graduated from South Alabama, I graduated from South Alabama. My mother’s example taught me that escape from the psychological prison of self-doubt and lack of confidence is a process. For me that process began with my acceptance at South Alabama.
I have sought to give back to the African-American community by working to increase educational opportunities for African-American students, by working for racial reconciliation, and by breaking down barriers and opening doors.
Two schools in the Birmingham community are close to my heart—Cornerstone School of Alabama and Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School. Both schools are located in, and serve the poorer areas of our community. Most of my community service over the last 10–12 years has been dedicated to these two schools. For five of those years, I served as board chair for Cornerstone, and saw it transition from a relatively new outreach ministry to a dynamic instrument of change. Similarly, I’ve served as Holy Family’s board chair for the last six years and have seen it grow from the embryonic stage to a school that is transforming lives.
On my desk, where I see it every day, is a note that says, “Be Aware. Understand. Take Action.” This is my advice to anyone. I tell young people that success means realizing your potential and I share with them my own guiding principles.
- Be Aware: Set goals and have a sense of mission and purpose. Have a strategy, but recognize the importance of adapting that strategy as life has a way of throwing the occasional curveball. Have a source of inspiration—for me it was my mother and my English 101 professor.
- Understand: Develop a value system, a means of determining right from wrong and gauging conduct. And understand the importance of self-esteem and self-confidence. I share with young people my experience as a young lawyer and a national finalist for the White House Fellows Board of Directors.
- Take Action: Take initiative—growing up and reaching maturity happens when we become self-starters. Remember that we must serve others. Public service is part of the glue that holds our society together. Recognize that every one of us has the power to make a difference through our time or talent. I learned this as a young lawyer in Mobile.