Economic Equity: What Is Your Professional Experience as a Black CEO?
This 21-minute podcast was released Dec. 17, 2021, as a part of the Timely Topics: Economic Equity miniseries.
“The impact that everyday people can have on policy and procedures” surprised Alice K. Houston when she first became a member of the board of directors at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In an interview with St. Louis Fed Senior Vice President and Regional Executive of the Louisville Branch Nikki Lanier, Houston shares her experiences as a child of the civil rights movement growing up in segregated Louisville, challenges she faced as a minority business owner, why she values education and her commitment to community service.
Nikki Lanier: Welcome to Economic Equity, a miniseries from the St. Louis Fed’s Timely Topics podcast series. I’m your host Nikki Lanier. And today I have the pleasure of speaking with Alice K. Houston, former CEO of HJI Supply Chain Solutions, member of the Board of Directors at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. I have to also add because this is like a little pat on my back that is also a Board Member for the Louisville Branch Office. So, she has served the Fed well. Served the Fed well. We’re just so happy to have you, Alice. Thank you so much for your time today. I’m excited to have this talk with you. I have a couple of questions I want to ask.
But before I do that, let me just add a couple of other observations of the potency that is Alice Houston. So, some of the listeners on this podcast may not know, if you’re not from the Kentucky region or you’re not maybe even in the Midwest, you may not know about all of the things that are true regarding Alice Houston and her commitment to community. But, you know, for me as a younger African American woman, traversing through my professionals trials and tribulations, all the bumps and bruises that come with that — just watching you, Alice, maneuver so graciously and so elegantly any stages that you have in the corporate sector, the community sector, helping even our elected officials oftentimes understand how to spread their wings more equitably, with a greater focus on broader communities. I mean, it’s just been awe inspiring to watch and so just know —
Alice Houston: Thanks, Nikki.
Lanier: — yeah, for folks like me we’re fans. I’m fangirling a little bit here. So, I’m super excited. So, today’s topic, of course, economic equity, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t start the conversation, Alice, by just asking you what comes to mind for you when you think about economic equity?
Houston: Well, you know, equity in and of itself is such a impactful statement. And when I think about equity, I don’t know whether you’ve seen the chart which shows different stages, you know, where somebody is on a stepstool and they’re banging on it and then there’s another ladder and they can see, and then there’s another ladder where they can see over a fence. It is to me providing the access, the means in which we can be our best selves. And for me that has always represented itself fundamentally in education. And Nikki, as I was reading your bio, I didn’t realize that we had so much in common in terms of HBCUs.
Lanier: Oh, no.
Houston: I grew up in the west end of Louisville — in segregated Louisville — two doors from Mohammed Ali in a very long block called Grand Avenue. And in that block, we had, of course, Mohammed Ali. We had principals. We had the first African American race car driver, Joie Ray. We had Georgia Powers who ended up being a senator from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. And so, I had role models. But fundamentally education was the rock and the foundation of what I was able to accomplish. I went to Virginia Avenue Elementary School where Reverend Ligon had us recite the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment. We sang the national anthem. And we sang ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ — all three verses. And so, we were imbued with the attributes of America as well as our heritage in the national anthem. I had tremendous role models. I grew up every summer on Tennessee State University’s campus where my uncle was the president. And so, I think that you and I both understand the fundamental attributes that growing up in a African American, Afrocentric environment kind of makes us what we are today.
Lanier: Oh, gosh, Alice. I agree. I mean, I think about my own upbringing and so much of that is anchored in that HBCU experience and being really deliberate and diligent and understanding the fulsome experience of Black Americans at every stage in my life in, in this country. So, thank you for that. That’s great context. as we think about the rest of these questions that we’re going to go through today, just having a firm understanding for our listeners and what you think about, Alice, when you hear this nomenclature. This idea of economic equity. So, let me share a little bit more about you and your spouse and then I’ll get into the next question. So, you and your husband, Wade, successfully ran HJI for many, many years. It’s a third-party logistics and supply chain management company and so you’ve recently promoted your daughter, Lynn Houston Moore, to the CEO role. And, gosh, Alice, you’ve just mentored so many women in the community — me, chief among them — and you’ve been just so focused on community service. But let’s talk a little bit about your business, about your company that you built from, from scratch. I’ve read recently that you discussed how companies can be judged based on their size and revenue and especially in the minority business community. Can you tell me about that and any other challenge that you’ve had to overcome specifically being a minority business owner?
Houston: We were very fortunate in the beginning to have Ford Motor Company as a advocate and a sponsor. And the intentionality in which Ford approached their supplier diversity — as you know, Henry Ford collaborated with the union because he wanted his employee base to be able to afford buying a car. And just like that the Ford family was intentional about its supplier diversity initiatives. And so, back in the 1980’s when the University of Louisville was very prominent in athletics, they put forth a initiative and a local buyer purchasing agent, Arnie Silvers, approached us about getting into the arena. And so, we started off in trucking and grew that business from a very small initiative into a half billion dollar company, divested of that, and then went back to HJI Supply Chain Solutions which is an order fulfillment for auto parts and all kinds of fulfillment in the supply chain arena. But one of the biggest challenges that we have had as you have indicated is we are in competition with very, very large companies. And I often say, but by the grace of God we probably shouldn’t be in this arena. And in many aspects, minority businesses are judged by revenue or locations or by the size of your entities. And that is a great challenge because we’re not a billion-dollar company. We don’t have 500 or more employees. We’re not located in 48 states. But those companies who will give minority businesses an opportunity, I promise you, that the commitment, the passion, the service, the quality, the flexibility, the ability to service you will be more prevalent and more pervasive than many of your large companies. But many companies, especially larger companies, when they’re dealing with minority companies, especially African American companies. They have a risk management assessment form and criteria. And if you don’t meet that criteria you are often excluded from even consideration. But HJI has been very fortunate in that we have been able to be at the table, be in the arena, and prove that we are capable despite our size, locations, our revenue to produce the product that the customer ultimately wants and needs.
Lanier: Yeah. And that no doubt, Alice, is due in significant part to your and Wade’s leadership and your passion and your vision as just consummate business professionals.
Houston: But, yeah, Nikki, I think you know, we come as you probably know from an athletic background. My father was a coach. Wade was the first African American recruit at the University of Louisville and went on to be what, the first coach in Jefferson County Public Schools, African American, and in the SEC. And I think athletics brings a lot to bear and a lot of similarities to the business community. It is competition, it’s teamwork, it’s resiliency. If a play breaks down you go to the next play. And so, there are so many similarities between athletics and competition and the business arena that I think that many people don’t realize. And I think that that has been a great part of our success.
Lanier: Oh, I definitely could see that. So, I mean, I’ve never done this but I could imagine building a multimillion-dollar business is not for the faint of heart and yet you’ve been able to do it successfully and immerse yourself in the community, Alice. Tell us why your community work is so important to you. How did that all come to be and, and how do you find the time?
Houston: Well, you know, Nikki, my very first job was at the University of Louisville as the Director of Educational Services at the then newly-formed Office of Black Affairs. And I held that position for three years and in the course of that, that position, I wanted to help our students fill out their financial aid forms. So, I went to Atlanta to learn how to fill out the financial aid form. Well, roll forward three years. When a vacancy happened at the Office of Financial Aid, the Dean of Students — who was Dave Lawrence who is Jennifer Lawrence’s grandfather — Dave Lawrence and Blake Tanner came over to my office and they said, we want you to be, we want to hire you as a financial aid officer. And I said, ahh, but I like what I’m doing. And they said, yes, but you have taken the initiative to help your students so we want you to come over here. So, long story short, I went over as assistant, and then subsequently associate director of financial aid at the University of Louisville where I served for 13 years. But Dean Lawrence, when he hired me, he gave me two positions. One was the cheerleading sponsor. And I said, Dean Lawrence, why cheerleading sponsor? He said, oh, you were a cheerleader at Central so you can be the cheerleading sponsor. I said, OK. And the other position that he gave me which was so impactful was to be the University of Louisville’s representative on the local Urban League board. — which subsequently I had the opportunity to serve on the National Urban League Board with Vernon Jordan. But what that did was to imbue in my DNA the commitment of community partnership, service, and philanthropy. And I think that along with athletics and the importance of teamwork. And, at that particular time, there was James Miller, who was the president of the University of Louisville, wrote a book and, I mean, the book was like 1,100 pages, but if you broke it down, it took amoeba all the way through complex organizations. And fundamentally it says that we’re all connected. We’re all connected. And it is almost as if, I believe, that until the least of us has opportunity educationally and economically as far as health and housing and safety, we as a community will not be able to survive. So, I always go back and I thank Dean Lawrence for giving me the opportunity to serve in community and that’s something that I’ve never forgotten. And I’m very fortunate to have a partner in Wade that agrees philosophically, morally, ethically, and financially toward that end, too.
Lanier: Yes. Oh, I know that makes a huge difference. Oh, I just love so many nuggets came from that answer and, and those before them. Gosh, I just love that, Alice. I just think that, you know, this idea of until the least of us are risen, you know, the rest of us are kind of burdened by the reality of mediocrity. One of the things that I worry about a lot is that we’re not paying enough attention to what happens to the rest. And I wish more for-profit organizations would, would focus on that. But you are certainly doing your part in the non-profit sector to assure that that is amplified, and even with your work with Impetus now, you know, there are some opportunities to, to really help to continue those conversations. So, speaking of Impetus and some other work that you’re doing in community, can you talk a little bit about just what has to happen in your opinion to really lift up women and minorities in the business sector and increase economic equity?
Houston: Well, you know, Nikki, you know, I am a child of the civil rights movement and so much of that has formulated my thoughts, my fears, my ambitions, and my suspicions. And so, I really think that we have to have a return to our character and our mission, our values. We are so separated and divided as a country, as neighborhoods, as communities. And so, the thing that I admire so much about the work that you have led, and that Jim Bullard has led at the Fed, is informational. You know, I did a series of talks about a year ago before the pandemic and what I thought was racism and prejudice I found to be misinformation and ignorance. And so, I firmly believe that to the extent that we can make people aware and, kind of combine their information with their heart, you know, we can make a difference. And so, I think that information, learning, and being out there together, we’re not going to solve anything by going in our corners. And let me say this: During the protests and the pandemic, I went into my corner. I went into my corner in the fiercest manner. I was tired. I was exhausted. I was mad. I was sad.
Lanier: Oh, yeah.
Houston: I was in a really, really, really bad place. Probably depressed. And Diane Medley, one of my white female friends, just wouldn’t let me stay there. She invited me first by telephone and then we got a group together to talk and we exchanged information and ideas and books. And in the final analysis, it’s going to take one-on-one, I think, communication, dialogue, understanding with those people that we trust. And then a wider arrangement of organizations like the Fed who put forth information and bring diverse entities, individuals, communities, together to articulate what information and statistics and analyses, and the impact, because in the final analysis, people want to know how is all of this going to affect me?
Houston: My family, my grandchildren, my business, my community. And I think that we have within our capabilities the resources to do that. But it’s going to take intentionality. This is not going to happen casually and it’s going to take intervention and intentionality.
Lanier: Yeah, I agree. I agree. Well, one last question for you, Alice, and this is just specific really to your role of being a director with the St. Louis Federal Reserve. What surprised you the most during your board service? What didn’t you know about the Fed that you now know?
Houston: I didn’t know a lot about the Fed. Being a director on the Federal Reserve has been one of the most rewarding and impactful experiences that I have ever had. And the willingness of a board to listen to everyday people, you know, everyday business people, everyday bankers, to get a sense of what is really going on in the lives and in the communities. And the openness, especially with Jim (Bullard), to accept and to hear and to react to those comments and opinions and the ground root is I think, something that I don’t think the general public really understands. The impact that everyday people can have on policy and procedures.
Lanier: I would agree that the Fed is just, there’s just so much dimension and texture to our work and we are better for it by having folks like you working alongside of us, Alice. So, on behalf of our bank and branch, I just want to thank you for your selfless leaning in and giving us your best every time you encounter us. Every single time you are around that conference room table you are giving your best and we are better for it. So, I just want to thank you so much for your time today.
Houston: Thank you.
Lanier: Oh, of course, of course. I really enjoyed discussing these experiences. So, ladies and gentlemen, for more from our Economic Equity podcast miniseries visit the St. Louis Fed’s website at stlouisfed.org. You can also stream and subscribe to all of our podcasts on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. Thanks so much.
This podcast series fosters conversations on advancing a more inclusive and equitable economy.