Leadership That Lifts Communities: Conversations with Local Black Leaders

There have never been more Black CEOs on the nearly 70-year-old Fortune 500 list. Eight such executives joined the ranks in 2023.

While Fortune isolated this record-setting achievement alongside the achievements of those leaders, the publication also recognized that their representation on the list remains low – standing at 1.6% despite a labor force participation rate of 13%.

Locally, Black business leaders weighed in on respective accomplishments and experiences, while offering words of wisdom to those looking to bring more diversity to leadership roles.

Commitment to Community

“My biggest professional challenge was finding how I could mesh my passion for meaningful work with my professional career,” said Marcus Bell, CEO of Omaha/Council Bluffs Bridges Out of Poverty. “I always had jobs that I enjoyed, but outside of my 9-5, I would always volunteer to do something meaningful in the community, like mentoring or being of service.”

In the nonprofit world, Bell said his work can have a “true impact every day.”

Much can be gleaned from how admired leaders overcome setbacks.

“I continued to show up and do the work,” Bell said. “I was blessed to have mentors who looked like me, who poured confidence and positivity into me, that pushed me to realize my potential.”

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Black mentors and leaders gave Bell the confidence to not shy away from leadership.

“I never intended to be a CEO,” he said. “This work came and found me, because I was present, showing up well and doing the work that needed to be done to push our community forward.”

Candice Price has established a thriving business in a competitive industry while expanding Home Team Auto Sale’s operations, an achievement she said reflects a commitment to growth, resiliency, and creating additional service and employment opportunities.

While licensed auto dealerships owned by African-American women are few and far between, Price is looking to change that.

She takes particular pride in Home Team Auto’s status as one of only two Buy Here Pay Here (BHPH) Institute’s Morning Show White Hat Way Dealers of the Year. She said the acknowledgment is a testament to its ethical, customer-focused approach. Altogether, Price said these achievements are valued deeply as significant milestones to drive cultural and societal change.

“It reflects my commitment to challenging norms and breaking long-standing barriers for minorities and women in fields where they have been historically underrepresented,” Price noted.

She currently serves on the board of directors of the Nebraska Independent Auto Dealers, committing herself to inclusive representation, equitable opportunities, and progress toward a diverse, inclusive professional landscape.

The path to her success hasn’t been smooth. Price characterized the challenge of balancing financial stability while not compromising on quality or community commitments.

“[It] required great sacrifice by not only myself and my business partner, Ron Devers, but also by our friends and family,” she remarked.

Price referred to sacrificing short-term gains for long-term stability, particularly through reinvestment, as a “critical decision” that has been “invaluable.”

Empowering Others

A military veteran, Wayne Brown has served in numerous capacities within the community and local nonprofit circles – from leadership with the Avenue Scholars Foundation to the Omaha Community Foundation. Brown was vice president of programs, tasked with managing education, youth development, employment, and career services programming.

“While I’m honored by several achievements throughout my career, my proudest accomplishment undoubtedly lies in witnessing the growth and success of future leaders,” he said. “This encompasses the students and families I’ve been privileged to serve, but seeing young leaders blossom under my care and guidance holds a particularly special place in my heart.”

Nicka Johnson gets great satisfaction from having a positive impact on thousands of lives worldwide in her role as the CEO of Budget for Success (BTS) and by transforming individuals’ relationships with money. To date, her clients have collectively saved $4 million and counting.

“This achievement is a testament to the effectiveness of our financial literacy programs and the dedication of our team,” she said.

Giving individuals the tools to make informed and responsible financial decisions can have positive influences on livelihood and economic development.

“Empowered individuals are better positioned to make sound financial choices, positively impacting the economic landscape at both individual and societal levels,” Johnson said.

BTS is also actively addressing disparities in financial knowledge and access to resources.

Johnson spoke to the personal and professional challenges of navigating life as a Black leader, noting “There are times when it feels lonely.”

“I hold onto my identity because I know my impact extends beyond myself,” she said. “I’m not just transforming my community. I’m influencing the world by emphasizing the importance of financial literacy.”

As a leader, Johnson has navigated unfamiliar territories where there are few people of color in C-suite roles and readily available mentors, which makes handling specific situations daunting.

“While I may not always have the perfect answer, my approach involves relying on prayer, journaling, and allowing my ethics and integrity to consistently guide me in making sound decisions, both internally and externally within my business infrastructure,” she stated.

Leveraging Resources

Dell Nared, Jr., chief inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging officer, spearheads the Greater Omaha Chamber’s comprehensive CODE (Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity & Equity) program.

“This program has provided extensive education and networking opportunities to over 3,100 individuals, impacting 452 businesses and organizations in the Greater Omaha area,” Nared said.

Among its most successful programs, the Growing Home Program and Career Development Week have supported historically marginalized scholars in their college transitions.

“These initiatives represent tangible progress in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in our community,” Nared said.

But the implementation of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives as a leader in an organization is no small feat as existing structures and cultures can create obstacles.

“It is important to strike a balance between the need to bring about systemic change and the need to work within the existing structures,” he said.

Nared referenced a multi-faceted approach of partnering with DEI practitioners, leveraging data-driven insights (from initiatives like the CODE Assessment), fostering open dialogue and collaboration, and continuous learning and adaptation to best practices.

Lighting the path

Bell credited organizations like 100 Black Men of Omaha, Empowerment Network, Greater Omaha Chamber and the Aksarben Foundation as “greatly beneficial” to his career.

 “Even if you feel out of place or you haven’t reached a certain level, just continue to keep showing up, be yourself and be present,” he urged. “Show up and ask yourself, ‘What lessons can I learn from today’s interactions?’ Stack the lessons on top of each other and you will begin to get more and more comfortable in your skin.”

Price said to embrace every opportunity to learn and network.

“Understand that challenges are not setbacks, but stepping stones to greater achievements,” she said. “Most importantly, believe in your unique value and contributions to your industry and community.

“Do not be afraid to be vulnerable or to admit when you need help. You may just be surprised who shows up and where you may end up adding value in return.”

Brown noted that experiences can offer a unique perspective on
the world.

“Leverage that unique perspective to offer fresh insights and solutions, and I believe that diversity of thought is crucial for progress,” he explained. “It’s not about being special, but contributing something valuable others might not have considered.”

Johnson offered advice to those experiencing imposter syndrome.

“You’re not underqualified or overqualified; you’re exactly where you’re meant to be,” she said. “The job and position are rightfully yours. So stop questioning and wondering ‘Why me?’ and start affirming ‘Why not me?’ Give yourself credit for the silent battles and storms you’ve faced, even if no one else knows.

Nared has found considerable value in meetings of The Circle, a network of DEI area practitioners and professionals who understand the unique challenges and opportunities and provide guidance, support, and encouragement.

He suggested recognizing growth and development as
“iterative processes.”

“Seek out mentors, leverage resources and networks, and embrace the journey of continuous learning and improvement,” he said. “Remember that your unique perspective and experiences are valuable contributions to the spaces you inhabit. Trust in your abilities and stay resilient in the face of challenges.”