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WILLOUGHBY: Michael Harris is inspiring leadership

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Leaders help us not only better understand our present reality; they also share a vision of what could be. Former presidential advisor David Gergen observed, “A leader’s role is to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.”

Visionary leaders point us toward a better future. They inspire us. I recently visited with Michael Harris, founder and CEO of Community Business Strategies Inc., who inspired me with his vision for the State of Mississippi. He first educated me on the realities of African American owned businesses in our state. African American’s represent almost 37 percent of the population, but less than one percent of revenues are from African American owned businesses. Census data shows that African American owned businesses in this state have fewer employees and smaller payrolls as well. He shared, “Black-owned businesses employ on average .28 employees with $5,205 in annual payroll per business compared to 2.58 employees and $71,810 in annual payroll per business for white-owned businesses.”

Harris grew up in Florida and California. He graduated with degree in communications and public policy from University of California (Berkley) and earned his M.B.A. from Sonoma State University. In 2003, Harris and his wife moved to her hometown of Jackson, and he began to study the current business climate in the African American community. These observations and studies led him to launch his company and to try and make a difference. Harris has a vision of a vibrant and robust African American business community. He shared, “Our goal is to increase the quality, number and size of African American owned businesses.” He is trying to do this by working with business leaders and organizations in a very purposeful and systemic way. Harris is developing, promoting, and implementing community based business strategies and programs to “improve the business culture, collaboration, capacity and innovation within the African American community.”

While his programs have focused on fueling entrepreneurship in the African American community, we discussed the positive impact that more successful black-owned businesses would have for all Mississippians. Harris has done a good job of reaching out to a broad and diverse group of people and organizations to help with this mission. I like his focus on developing a strategic plan to better leverage the resources available and to fuel more collaboration. He shared with me an interesting fact that one of the greatest “success” factors for creating and developing a successful business is actually growing up in an a home with parents who owned businesses. I know that I was truly fortunate to have grown up in a home where my parents owned a small business, and it had a profound impact on my own interest in entrepreneurship.

To promote an entrepreneurial culture, Harris and others have used a multi-prong approach that focuses on collaboration for innovative business, including teaching entrepreneurship to students, creating business roundtables, and networking opportunities. As author Wilferd Peterson noted, “Big thinking precedes great achievement.” Harris is currently trying to pull together key stakeholders for some “big thinking” and strategic plan development. Harris’ own leadership style is thoughtful and diligent. Despite challenges that he has encountered on this journey, he remains optimistic and hopeful of a better future. I have respect for leaders like Harris who have a vision for the greater good and seek to deploy their time, talent, and energies in helping realize that better future. I have learned over the years that these type leaders have dogged determination because they lead from the heart, and they ultimately become the true difference makers in our society. I am sure that Harris will press on encouraging and leading our state on this positive path.

Up Close With Michael Harris

Title: Founder/CEO, Community Business Strategies Inc.

Favorite Books: The Entrepreneur’s Manual Richard White

First Job: “I worked for my dad as an independent contractor installing garage doors in Florida, and I later had a grass-cutting business. ”

Hobbies/Interests: “I am passionate about my work and spend most of my time on that because I love discovering and sharing new ideas. When not working, I enjoy my church activities. ”

Martin Willoughby is a business consultant and regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. He serves as Chief Operating Officer of Butler Snow Advisory Services, LLC and can be reached at martin.willoughby@butlersnow.com


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