By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
As the city of Bessemer grew, so did LaTasha Cook-Williams.
The 45-year-old Marvel City native is the first woman and first African American to serve as president of the Bessemer Area Chamber of Commerce, a position she has held since 2015.
“I am excited to set some examples and, hopefully, make it easier for the generation after me when it comes to taking leadership positions,” she said.
Cook-Williams said she has noticed gradual changes with businesses in Bessemer since she started working with the chamber as an intern in 1992.
“It was predominately Caucasian [back then], … but I’ve seen diversity shift in Bessemer, even in the leadership positions,” she said. “More [people of color] are getting involved and knowing how important it is to reach their customer base.”
Seventy-one percent of Bessemer residents are Black, and one of the first Black-owned businesses in the city was Anthony Underwood Automotive, Cook-Williams recalled. Since then, more African Americans have been promoted within companies and become business owners in the city, she added.
The chamber’s main goals involve creating, enhancing, and promoting business in the Bessemer area.
“We build networking opportunities and avenues for local business.” Cook-Williams said. “Anything the economic development arm of the city needs, we work with them to create business in the community or help to assist with bringing business into the community.”
Reared in Bessemer
Cook-Williams was raised on the north side of Bessemer. She was the youngest of eight children in a close-knit community, where her mother was a supervisor in nursing homes and her father worked with car dealerships across the region.
“Growing up with older siblings, they were pretty tough on me, they didn’t cut me any slack. Usually, the baby of the family is spoiled, but that wasn’t the case [in our family],” Cook-Williams said. “Through that, I believe I’ve become [strong].
“Our mother was very strong, and one thing she instilled in all of her children was ‘Give it your best.’ That [mindset] helped all of us because average was never OK.”
Both of Cook-Williams’s parents are deceased, but she said her mom would be proud “because she set a real strong foundation.”
“Even though I am the youngest, I feel that [my siblings] treat me as if I’m the oldest. I have a very good support system with my siblings, … so they rally behind whatever I am doing and whatever I am working on. Whatever job or goal I have, they are willing to volunteer when I need a hand,” she said of her siblings, two of whom live in Bessemer; the others are spread out across the state.
Cook-Williams attended Abrams Elementary School and Davis Middle School. She also attended Jess Lanier High School, where she was a member of the Beta Club and the National Honor Society. She remembers one particular program that provided jobs and work experience for students; it was spearheaded by current Alabama State Sen. Priscilla Dunn for District 19, which includes Bessemer, and schoolteacher Callie Moore.
“In 1992, [Sen.] Dunn got me in at the [Bessemer] Chamber of Commerce, where my duties included filing,” Cook-Williams said. “I was able to go to the chamber and work from 1:30 [p.m.] to 5 [p.m.] every day.”
After graduating from high school in 1993, Cook-Williams attended Lawson State Community College (LSCC) for a year and then went on to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where she majored in public relations while continuing to work for the chamber. Eventually a full-time position became available at the chamber and Cook-Williams left UAB.
“In the midst of being hired full-time at the [Bessemer] Chamber of Commerce, I attended the University of Georgia for the Institute for Organization Management, [which is the professional development program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation], and earned my certification in organizational management in 1995,” she said.
Cook-Williams and her husband, Kenneth, have been married for four years, and she has two daughters, Bria, 25 and Brandy, 17. Her biggest hobby is working at her church, New Jerusalem Baptist Church, where she is a lifelong member. She also enjoys baking and cooking.
“I love pound cake, so I enjoy baking pound cake, Cook-Williams said. “I’m a family person, so I enjoy spending time with my family; they are my outlet. We enjoy worshipping and traveling together. Before the [COVID-19] pandemic, we used to try to take at least one trip outside of the country every year.”
In her 29 years with the Bessemer Chamber of Commerce, Cook-Williams worked her way up the ranks. She went from holding a secretarial position to working in the accounting and then the member’s management departments. In July 2014 she was named interim president, and in February 2015 she was appointed president—a role that presented its own set of challenges, including “getting respect as a female sitting at a table full of businessman,” said Cook-Williams, who is also a six-year breast cancer survivor.
Her work has done most of the talking. In her six years as chamber president, economic development projects have made Bessemer then envy of the region, with businesses like Amazon, Carvana, and FedEx opening or announcing plans to locate facilities and create thousands of jobs in the Bessemer area.
“If you get the right market, it becomes contagious. Everybody wants to come to an area that is booming,” Cook-Williams said. “That creates other opportunities for entities within Bessemer to boom or advance. … Every market is looking for an area to do well, and most of the companies now coming into the area are doing well. … When we get them here, the chamber works to keep them here.”
That work hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though, especially within the last year following the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“[The pandemic] has given us an opportunity to develop our creative minds,” said the chamber president. “We’ve been able to continue to develop more avenues that help us promote and enhance small businesses. We have become their marketing representative. We’re constantly advertising our chamber members through social media and on the internet.”
Cook-Williams has been through enough to know how much the Bessemer Chamber of Commerce means to the city.
“In order for business growth, you need your chamber of commerce to help businesses, especially those newer ones that are coming to the area, reach their customer bases,” she said. “We bring people together to meet their needs in one location.”
The Bright Star
One location that has represented the city nationally has been the famed Bright Star Restaurant, which has a lot of history behind it.
“I had a meeting in Nevada, and it was amazing that nobody knew anything about Bessemer, but I mentioned the Bright Star restaurant and they could relate to it because it has received many awards,” Cook-Williams said. “I tell people I’m excited to talk about the Bright Star because it is so well known and is more than 100 years old. … We definitely use the restaurant as a marketing tool.”
If someone were to visit Bessemer, Cook-Williams has a list of places for them to see.
“I would take them to the Bessemer Hall of History and maybe into the downtown area because we do have a lot of small businesses downtown,” she said. “Of course, I would take them to the [Alabama Adventure Amusement Park and Splash Adventure Water Park] because there is always something for the family. I’d also [encourage them to visit] … the Bessemer Airport and Lawson State. I would like to take them to places that make Bessemer unique. I always tell people that … Bessemer has it all.”