The African American Leadership Academy was founded in 2005 after local power couple Donna and Larry James and other prominent black leaders in Columbus realized there was a need to develop a more diverse set of leaders for the future.

Erika Clark Jones has a history of bringing people together to address important issues in Columbus. She got her start in local government in 2000 during Mayor Michael Coleman’s administration as a senior policy adviser and steadily climbed the ranks to become director of community strategies for Columbus Public Health. 

She was, by late 2016, serving in the top tier of city government. In 2017, Mayor Andrew Ginther named her executive director of the new CelebrateOne initiative to reduce infant mortality, one of the biggest crises facing the city.

No pressure on Clark Jones, right?

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But, as they say, timing is everything. Just as CelebrateOne was preparing to launch, a colleague mentioned a professional development organization that helped African Americans sharpen their leadership styles to increase the odds of career success. Knowing she had a daunting challenge in front of her, Clark Jones signed on to become one of 19 members of the 12th cohort of the African American Leadership Academy.

“I was concerned. Was I going to be able to deliver on this huge community goal?” she says. “It was a high-profile position and a tough community problem. I had some anxiety about it and so it seemed like a really good time to look into (the academy).”

Over three years at CelebrateOne, Jones helped reduce the number of infant deaths in Franklin County by 23 percent. In January she became CEO of the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County, another position that comes with a glaring spotlight as Ohio sits in the heart of the opioid crisis. 

“The academy was one of the most beneficial learnings I’ve had in my professional career,” Clark Jones says. “For eight months, I had permission to work on myself. Most of us, we’re so busy. Busy on the job, in the community and responding to the demands of family, church and relationships, and there’s never time to focus on yourself. This allowed me to take eight months to do so, unapologetically.”

Diversity in representation

The African American Leadership Academy was founded in 2005 after local power couple Donna and Larry James and other prominent black leaders in Columbus realized there was a need to develop a more diverse set of leaders for the future. James is a business consultant who once was president of Nationwide Strategic Investments and her husband, Larry, is a partner at Crabbe Brown & James.

“When people were looking for diversity in representation on commissions or boards, there were a handful of African Americans they would call and that’s all they knew,” says Donna James, the academy’s executive director. “We didn’t have the capacity. We were getting older. There needed to be an awareness of the depth and plethora of others in the community. The academy was born out of that need to give back and help lift up an already strong cadre of leaders.”

Over the years, some of the city’s most prominent black leaders have gone through the program, forming an alumni group now made up of more than 200. They refer business to each other, sit on each other’s boards and help open doors for people who touch their networks. 

The classes are made up of a cross section of 12 to 20 fellows. Entrepreneurs mix with educators, and nonprofit leaders mix with those climbing corporate ladders. Participants leave with an enhanced understanding of areas that are critical to their personal growth, community engagement and leadership capabilities. 

“What’s been innovative is that we are not trying to get you to do a community project,” James says. “You, as a participant, are the project. We have crucial conversations about navigating leadership as African Americans.”

The academy formalized its curriculum in 2008 when Audra Bohannon, a senior client partner with consulting firm Korn Ferry in Boston, began facilitating a learning experience called “Efficacy for Professionals of Color.”

‘The best you’

Columbus CEO magazine reached out to some of the academy’s alumni to talk about the impact the program has made on their lives and the black community. Here’s what they said. 

“African American leaders … didn’t have connections at key levels and weren’t on the Rolodexes of leaders in the broader community to sit on boards or be engaged in high-level community initiatives. They had to figure it out on their own. The academy gave us the connections to know you weren’t alone.” – Mo Wright, the academy’s director of strategy and programs and the president and CEO of RAMA Consulting Inc. 

“You don’t appreciate the burdens you feel when you are in a position of leadership. OK, somebody else did this so now I have to be able to do this, too. That can weigh heavily and you say to yourself, ‘How about I try not to mess this up.’ With the academy, it all comes back to investing in yourself to make sure you are the best you when you are given these career opportunities.” ­—Janica Pierce Tucker, partner-in-charge, Taft Stettinius & Hollister

“Often, as African Americans, we dive deep into technical thinking as a way to advance a career—master’s degree, PhD, MBA—but we don’t understand why our careers aren’t progressing. Social, relational and political savvy are all part of it. The academy helps you unpack that.”—Bo Chilton, CEO of IMPACT Community Action. 

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.