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Kenneth Coleman Reflects on Being Named BBA’s First Black President and CEO

Kenneth E. Coleman, president and CEO, the Birmingham Business Alliance. (Marvin Gentry Photo, For the Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
As the first African American president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA), the region’s leading economic development organization, Kenneth Coleman said it’s not lost on him what that could mean to Black children in Birmingham, especially given the city’s history.
“There is a little bit of what many of our parents have told us: you can be what you want to be,” said Coleman, 53. “It requires commitment, sacrifice, luck. It requires people helping you. We have to be willing to dream large and be open, so people get to know us. I think it is close to being true that we can be whatever we want.”
Coleman is also the first Black to hold the top position with the BBA’s predecessor organizations, the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Development Board (MDB).
“We’ve got to be willing to work for it,” he said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity. Is there a kid at Ramsay or Jackson-Olin high schools [in Birmingham] or any other school that can do this? There are probably tons of them. Go for it. Don’t be afraid to take reasonable chances on yourself and in your career.”
For Coleman, it almost seems he has come full circle. He began with the MDB in 1994 as an economic development recruiter at the outset of his business career.
“In some ways, it’s a dream almost in that sometimes you don’t realize how the work you’re doing at a particular moment can impact the rest of your career or life,” he said. “When I look back to the folks at MDB at the time, they took a chance on a kid from [New Jersey] who they didn’t know very well, whether or not I could make connections in and around the community. I’ve never forgotten that they took that chance on me. It’s wonderful to see the fruits of that turn around to now, when I get a chance to take a chance on some other folks that will give them an opportunity to help them realize their dreams.”
Coleman takes over the presidency of the BBA when there is a renewed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion for many businesses. He believes the business community can be part of the solution to help address systemic racism.
“I think our companies have an opportunity with the way they do business and how they interact with supplier networks to help drive economic racism out of our society,” he said.
The BBA, for instance, can make sure more minority vendors are available to provide these services, make sure they are known in the area, and make sure companies are aware of them.
“The BBA wants to focus on making sure [minority vendors are available] to provide products and services through training and connectivity, as well as to ensure that companies are aware of those capabilities in a more direct way,” he said. “I’m optimistic, but it will require consistent work and consistent commitment to help make a difference.”
Coleman hopes he can also serve as a mentor like those instrumental in his personal growth, such as his father, Robert, a printing foreman, who “always taught me to be good to the people you meet on your way up because they will be the same people you meet on your way down. I never forgot that.”
“[My dad] always taught me that no matter where somebody is in their current career or life, you need to treat them with respect. That’s probably been the most paramount business lesson I’ve learned,” said Coleman, who also pointed to business leaders he’s learned from, including Mark Crosswhite, chairman, president and CEO of Alabama Power; Steve Spencer, retired president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA); and Ted vonCannon, executive director of the Jefferson County Economic and Industrial Development Authority (JCEIDA), who formerly served as president of the MDB, where Coleman got his start in business along with Greg Barker, current president of the EDPA.
One lesson that stands out to Coleman is something he learned from Charles McCrary, the former CEO of Alabama Power, who told him, “One of the best things you can do is listen to someone with everything you have.”
“[McCrary] encouraged me to talk to people, hear their stories, understand them, and show empathy. That can help enlighten the path forward quicker,” Coleman said.