TEDx Memphis, the local branch of the global talk series, will hold its fourth annual conference at the Crosstown Arts Theater on Saturday, February 2. Memphis’ bicentennial inspired the 2019 theme of “Ideas for the Next Century." The conference, held this year at the Crosstown Arts Theater, will feature 18 speakers.
“These are short, powerful talks that are intended to be around diverse topics. They cover everything from music and dance, to poverty abatement, to more social and civic issues. We really try to find a group of speakers that represent a diversity of thought in Memphis,” said Anna Mullins Ellis, president and CEO of New Memphis, a nonprofit for attracting, developing, activating and retaining talent in Memphis.
One of the speakers will be Roquita Coleman, a consultant, facilitator, civic leader and philanthropist. As a member of the Board of Commissioners for the Memphis Area Transit Authority, she helps govern policy for Tennessee’s largest metropolitan transit agency. For 22 years, Coleman has worked for supply chain giants including UPS and CN Rail. In 2011, she changed the landscape in these male-dominated industries by becoming the 63rd president of the Memphis World Trade Club. Continuing a theme of breaking new ground, in 2016, she was certified as one of just a few female leaders to operate a locomotive on a Class 1 Railroad.
The focus of her talk will be the related ideas of civic leadership and inclusion.
“My talk is about, on an individual level, how we are disruptors of inclusion,” said Coleman. “I am tired of conversations about diversity,” she added, with a laugh.
Growing up in a housing project in the 38126 ZIP code, which lies between Vance Avenue to the north and McLemore Avenue to the south, she understands the impediments to success issues like race, gender and economic privilege can present.
“I have a bit of a unique background. I am one of the few women of color in the railroad industry. I started my career 20 years ago at UPS, so I have done well in a very male-dominated industry — the railroad being even more male-dominated than the former,” said Coleman, who currently manages international market strategies for Toronto-based CN Rail.
It was through her entrance into civic leadership a decade ago — after being appointed the first African-American president of the Memphis World Trade Club — that she found a sense of belonging, both in her career and her community.
“Over the last ten years, my civic leadership has allowed me to see how leadership, particularly civic and community leadership, contributes to that sense of belonging that is one of the primary disruptors of inclusion. As a person coming out of poverty, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere,” said Coleman, who has served on a half-dozen boards since then, including MATA.
One of those boards is the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis, whose grantmaking focus is poverty reduction in Coleman's old neighborhood of ZIP 38126.
“I think I am actually the only board member … that came out of that community. Now, I am able to contribute resources back to the community that I once had to depend on,” said Coleman.
She also credits her civic engagement for continued personal growth, as well as an oblique form of professional development. After all, careers have arcs or can stall out while others offer little in the way of professional development. Only a relatively small percentage of corporate employees receive executive-level training.
“I think civic leadership is the answer to that,” said Coleman. “Most communities, however, have needs; for a helping hand, but also a different perspective and voice, providing an opportunity to grow one’s strengths.”
Another Memphian slated to speak at the event is Mike Blumenthal, founder of Technology Happens. His company provides innovative IT solutions that help credit unions to better serve members via custom programming, staff augmentation and consulting.
After 13 years of working IT for the credit union industry, he decided to open his own consulting business in 2011.
“I always knew that I wanted to do something on my own. As you’ll hear in my TED Talk, I am always moving, always looking for that next thing. With that, I looked at my wife one day and said, ‘I don’t want to be on my deathbed saying I wonder what would have happened if I started my own consulting business,’” said Blumenthal.
He asked for a year. He felt there was a market for his ideas. If it didn’t work out, he could always find another job. After spending that year grinding through a workflow that grew to 16-hour days, he met Eric Mathews of Emerge Memphis, a business technology incubator. He was quickly recruited. By week’s end, he set up shop Downtown at their building at 516 E. Tennessee Street.
“I went through the program at Emerge and ended up staying. It’s such a great space. The company is thriving here,” said Blumenthal, who now has seven employees located in Memphis, Michigan and Florida, where they cover a territory.
Growing up in the 1980s and saddled with ADHD, he said his high school career was not an enriching experience. The disorder had yet to enter the lexicon. Instead, children were often labeled as hyperactive, inattentive, or worse. As an adult, he became an autodidact, and TED Talks became a big part of his self-education. Blumenthal, whose talk is titled “How Many Einsteins Have We Left Behind?” tells of his personal experiences with ADHD.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. I’m a big believer in fate and this was simply meant to be,” he added.
For a full schedule of the conference's speakers, visit the TEDx website.