By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
Gwen DeRu is a Birmingham institution.
The founder and CEO of DeRu and Associates, where she provides services such as marketing, advertising, public relations, is a contributing columnist with The Birmingham Times Media Group—and in 2023 DeRu begins her third decade writing The Birmingham Times’ “People, Places, and Things” (PPT) column, which readers look forward to each week.
DeRu takes her job seriously.
“The people and the relationships are the foundation of the city,” she said. “I am about building relationships, making connections, growing businesses, and empowering people and business owners, as well as helping them how and when I can.”
Her columns list dozens of happenings across the city, from well-known institutions to small neighborhood taverns and all in between.
“It feels good tooting others’ horns, sharing what they are about and capable of doing,” DeRu said. “It feels very good to know that people can find places to go and things to do, as well as get updates on who is doing what. [PPT] is not a gossip column. … It’s full of facts and pertinent useful information. I look forward to hearing and seeing new things.”
PPT gives DeRu an up-close look at what makes Birmingham great. “There is no place like [Birmingham]—the history made here; where we are and what we have gone through; the people that call it home; the obstacles overcome; the places, people, and things that stood out in the world,” she said.
Former Birmingham mayor William Bell Sr. has known DeRu for decades.
“She has a worldview with a local impact of how things can change the community and a vision for what the community can look like,” Bell said. “While the average person just might see that one dimension or aspect of a person’s life, [DeRu] digs deeper into the personalities, their culture. … She can pull those special attributes out for everyone she encounters. She’s a special person.”
Pillar in the Community
DeRu was born and raised in Fairfield, Alabama, in a two-parent household with her older siblings: Rodger, Collie, Patricia, Iva, and Agnes. Their mother was a nurse and seamstress, their father was a businessman. Both of DeRu’s parents grew up on farms in Uniontown, a city in Perry County, Alabama.
DeRu attended and graduated from Fairfield Industrial High School. She then attended Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and public administration. Her thirst for more knowledge influenced her to further her studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where she took courses that emphasized public administration, strategic management, cultural diversity, resource management, project implementation, and other related topics.
During her childhood, DeRu and her siblings would occasionally visit her grandparents’ farms, which also served as sources of education.
“[My siblings and I] would ride horses on the highway to my aunt’s farm. We grew up being open, free, loving, and caring,” she said, adding that she vividly remembers one of her grandfathers having a descendant of a former slave on his farm, she was told.
“[He] would try to tell us stories in his own language, but it wasn’t English,” DeRu recalled. “One thing I remember was that he would mimic the goats. We would call him the ‘Billy Goat.’”
Being around her grandfather’s descendant of a former slave piqued DeRu’s interest in learning about the history of slaves and her family: “I wanted to know more about my background, specifically [Native Americans] and African Americans,” she said.
As part of her research, DeRu learned that her family had ties to the Creek, Muscogee, Choctaw, Cherokee, and other Native American tribes that had to come together wanting to remain in peace with one another after various wars and the change in the country as Europeans came, she explained.
“They farmed, and agriculture was their main mindset. … They also traded [animal] skins and nut oils,” DeRu said. “The Trail of Tears, [a period during the 1800s, during which the U.S. government forcibly relocated several Native American tribes from their ancestral homelands], tells stories of various tribes and their removal as white settlers took the land. The tribes moved west, some to Oklahoma.”
In addition to being a student of Native American and African American history, DeRu is a world traveler who lived in Africa for many years.
“Wherever I went on the continent of Africa, I felt more at home than I did in America,” she said.
While living in Africa, one thing that stood out to DeRu was the dedicated, focused, and hard-working nature of the people among whom she lived.
“They put their all into whatever they are doing and never give up. They set goals and accomplish them. I have seen [people from Africa in places] all over the world [excelling in] all kinds of businesses and things,” she said. “[Many are also] very close to nature, herbalists, and naturalists.”
DeRu spent about eight to 10 years off and on traveling internationally. While in Africa to study and learn more about her family’s history, she got married and had her one and only son, LeBoise.
“I have one child, a son, [as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren] that need to know all of what their family from Africa is about—past, present, and future. They are judges, lawyers, secretaries of state, and [entrepreneurs]. I had one brother-in-law called ‘The Quintessential Professional: Samuel Olufemi DeRu,’ with a book of the same title, who would say, ‘It is as if you have come home, as if you have always been here, but left for a visit in the world. Welcome home!’
“So, I must say that, even though I stayed there for a period of only eight to 10 years continuously, I did go in and out of the country as often as I could after that. [During my travels, I learned of] coups and political events that hindered some progress and growth in many parts of the world,” she said.
DeRu can remember the excitement and fun she and her son shared in different parts of the African continent. One time, in particular, was when they were stranded in Ghana when they were supposed to be headed to Nigeria.
“The plane circled the airport in Lagos, [Nigeria], for some period of time and then was redirected to Accra, Ghana,” she said.
“When we landed, there was no one to meet us. The airport shut down leaving us stranded not knowing where to go. I had to leave with a Nigerian Airlines [flight attendant] from the last flight into the airport,” she said.
With nowhere to go and no one to call, DeRu and her son was instructed to go to specific locations in Ghana.
“We did as instructed and lived with people in the city and on the ocean,” she recalled. “That was very nice.”
While in Ghana, DeRu was able to travel to markets for food, as well as purchase other necessities she and her son needed: “We had what we could carry.”
Before being informed by the embassy to go back to the airport to be taken to Nigeria, DeRu got to meet and make friends with people from various organizations and people.
The Business Mind
While traveling back and forth from overseas to America, DeRu imported and exported all kinds of commodities, art, fabric, clothing, jewelry, semiprecious stones, leather goods, carvings, literature, oils, incense, and other items from various countries in Africa and islands in the Caribbean, as well as from Mexico. She eventually founded Alkebu-Lan Images, an importing and exporting business.
DeRu also made it a priority to build a strong network in the U.S. for business purposes.
“When coming home, I was importing and exporting. I needed to determine what I could do and see, know who, what, and where things were when it came to the growth of Birmingham and Alabama, so I attended various events and joined several organizations, such as the Birmingham Association of Black Journalists (BABJ), the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), the National Association of Female Executives, and the Executive Women’s Golf League,” she said. “On a local level, I created events for organizations I was affiliated with, and I met people from all walks of life.”
At many of those events, most of the attendees were elected officials or people planning to run for office at the time.
“My next door neighbor, Mrs. Alma Dennis, [who served as the Bush Hills neighborhood president for many years and died last year], introduced me to many people at various levels of government, as well as anything that had to do with our community, including Birmingham-Southern College. There were so many people doing so many things, and I wanted to help how and when I could.”
After returning to the U.S. from Africa in 1985, DeRu became a musician and a music teacher.
“I play a little bit on the organ and the Kalimba, [a handheld musical instrument with a wooden soundboard and metal keys that are played with the thumbs and fingers],” she said. “I also tried some other string instruments.”
In addition, she taught piano in Swahili at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, in the summer between 1987 and 1988.
“I was a musician, and I played the piano and also managed musicians,” she said.
In the early 1990s, DeRu returned to Alabama and successfully obtained clients who were in need of the marketing, advertising, public relations services provided by DeRu and Associates, a company she founded in 1992. Her hard work and the dedication she demonstrated toward her clients caught the attention of Dr. Jesse J. Lewis, founder of The Birmingham Times and dozens of other businesses.
Lewis and Associates
The connection between DeRu and Lewis was partially established through his children.
“I knew his children, and my family knew him. My aunt and uncle were close friends with Lewis when he was in the music industry, and they played golf,” DeRu said. “My aunt that told me that he [was looking for] someone to help with his newspaper, [The Birmingham Times], and his communications, marketing, advertising, and sales consulting firm, [founded in 1954 as Jesse J. Lewis and Associates and eventually named The Lewis Group (TLG) and later Agency 54].”
In 1993, DeRu joined TLG, where she assisted with marketing, advertising, and public relations.
Working with Lewis for decades, DeRu she started off with him and worked only four hours a day.
“Then it became five, then six, then eventually day by day. After about a month, he gave me the keys to the building and said I could do my business there as long as there was no conflict of interest,” she said. “With time and more to do as we grew, I could not do as much for DeRu and Associates, so I bought my contacts and my clients’ businesses over to TLG.
“My job was to create new opportunities for minorities. … We worked with people and businesses [Lewis] had never worked with before, such as the Talladega Superspeedway,” said DeRu, adding that her business was a nice fit for TLG.
“[Lewis] had done so many things and started so many businesses that I could just add on to what I knew to create a better team effort,” she said, adding that Lewis often offered advice.
“He often said, ‘[The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] would not want you to take off on his birthday if you were serious about growing and living a better life.’ He also would say, ‘Holidays are for people that have everything that they need.’ [Lewis] often would say things that were different about people if they were rich or poor, about their habits and how they think, and so much more. He said to stay the course: ‘Even if the day is done, stay late.’”
Working with TLG also served as an ideal way for DeRu to be present in the community and meet elected officials.
“TLG started working with many campaigns and assisting the candidates,” she said. “They came to us for advice. We ended up doing a lot of that and getting to meet, know, learn, and become closer with clients.”
DeRu met former Birmingham mayor Bell when his son and her son attended Ramsay High School. She got to know several other future office holders, as well.
“I met Larry Langford, [who served as the mayor of both Fairfield and Birmingham and died in 2019], when he was working in local TV,” DeRu said. “I grew up with former Alabama State Rep. Rod Scott. When meeting people seeking office, we were able to meet family members. Alabama State Sen. Rodger and Judge Carole Smitherman have been friends for many years, and I truly appreciate all that they have done in our great city of Birmingham. I watched their daughter, Crystal, grow up, leave [the city for college], come back home, and become [president pro tem of the City Council]. I could go on about the many people that ran for office and won, such as former Birmingham City Councilor Elias Hendricks and Jefferson County Tax Assessor Gaynelle Hendricks.”
With a super-busy schedule, DeRu, who is also co-founder of the Birmingham chapter of the Executive Women Golf League, still spends time with DeRu and Associates.
“My day-to-day consists of communicating with clients via phone, email, and social media to help them with their various needs, whether its writing proposals selling advertisements, creating content, planning, and taking photos as needed for commercials, radio, or television,” DeRu said.
Wanting to help minorities gain access, as well as expose them to opportunities and open doors that had not been available to them, is what inspired the innovator to launch her company in 1992.
“I am about economic equity, diversity, fair opportunity, and generational change. I felt that there was a void in the market highlighting people doing things, new places opening up and growing, and various happenings that needed to be shared. This was to help put and keep them and our community on the minds of many in the world,” she said.
The field of communications has grown tremendously since DeRu first ventured into the industry, but some things have not changed. “I get referrals. I attend networking events. I do some advertising in publications and on social media. I also do cold calling to individuals and businesses that may need my services,” she said.
DeRu also makes it a priority to spend time with her son, LeBoise, her seven grandchildren, and her two great-grandsons—and she is excited about welcoming her great-granddaughter who’s on the way.
“Family is everything. You never know when a member of the family will not be around anymore, whether they are young or old, so spend time with your loved ones as much as possible,” she said. “Also, you’re never too old to learn, and I’m learning a lot from my grandchildren when it comes to the technical things.”
In April 2022, DeRu’s grandson Le’Kameren, 22, was a victim of gun violence. His cause of death inspired her and her family to launch” a nonprofit in memoriam of K.A.M. KINGS AMONG MEN in his honor.
Updated at 2:14 p.m. on 1/6/2023 to clarify portions of the story.