Phil Hardin was one of Mississippi’s most notable entrepreneurs. In the 1930s, Hardin bought a bankrupt bakery business in Meridian and built the Hardin Bakeries Corporation into a highly successful business operation with production plants for bread and buns in Meridian, Jackson, and Tupelo and a sweet goods plant in Columbus. In addition to being a savvy entrepreneur, Hardin also had a strong sense for the importance of being a good corporate citizen and responsible member of those communities. In 1964, he read about the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation and the good works it did, and he asked his tax attorney to set up a foundation for him. Upon his death in 1972, he essentially left his entire estate to his foundation which has the purpose of improving education in Mississippi. The foundation was originally endowed with approximately $8 million which has now grown to around $50 million.
Unfortunately, Mississippi has too few foundations like the Phil Hardin Foundation; however, our state is significantly benefiting from the ones like this that we do have. I recently visited with Rebecca Combs-Dulaney, the CEO of the Phil Hardin Foundation, about her thoughts on leadership and the future of education in our state. Combs-Dulaney moved around a lot in her youth as her father was a physicist who worked in national defense; however, she spent her formative years in Rochester, N.Y. She received her undergraduate degree and master’s degree from State University of New York (SUNY) and did post-graduate work in organizational management at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y. Combs-Dulaney formerly served as the executive director of the reading ASSIST Institute in Wilmington, Delaware, a tri-state research and training institute for teachers and tutors. Prior to her non-profit leadership, she held the position of vice-president for Rochester Wealth Management, an investment firm in New York. She was recruited to Mississippi five years ago to run the Foundation and has embraced Mississippi as her new home.
Combs-Dulaney shared with me that she believes it is important to have a sense of history. She noted, “There are so many examples in the political, business and economic realms of what works, and what doesn’t. We continue to invent new products and new innovations, but how to make them successful has some historical constraints.” She makes a great point and one I think does not get talked about enough. Combs-Dulaney is involved in numerous leadership positions including being chair of the Mississippi Association of Grantmakers. With the focus of the Phil Hardin Foundation being on education, Combs-Dulaney is obviously passionate about that arena and is putting a strong emphasis on early development (0-5 years of age) through a program called Best Early Education Practices. In this program, parents are equipped to create a learning environment in the home.
One of the real opportunities she sees for our state is to tap into national foundations and other sources of funds to support our non-profits. Combs-Dulaney is a strong advocate of investing the time to create relationships with these national resources. She acknowledged, “It takes time and effort, but there are significant opportunities for non-profits to enhance their funding by building these relationships.” Combs-Dulaney works with non-profits around the state to help them see the opportunities for this type of national funding. When you look at the challenges and the opportunities that exist in our state it is great to see leaders like Combs-Dulaney who are actively partnering in the private, public, and non-profit realms to invest in positive systemic change for our future. It is these type partnerships that I believe will propel our state forward.