A Decade of doing
The Urban CEO works to equip people and create sense of community
By Lisa Mayfield Spence
Photography by Dsto Moore
For 10 years, The Urban CEO, a Macon-based organization dedicated to serving the community and building its leaders, has been living its mission “to serve, unify, empower and equip individuals in a way that positively impacts their quality of life.”
What started a decade ago as a vision for founder Dominique Johnson has grown into an organization dedicated to relentlessly focusing on creating champions for the community and beyond.
As a partner with Mercer University’s Upward Bound, TRIO and AGAPE Ministry programs, Johnson is accustomed to keeping his pulse on the challenges facing today’s young adults. At the same time, his work as pastor of Kingdom Life Inc., a church whose mission is to cultivate positive change within the local community, has helped form his vision for the greatness that lies in Macon’s people.
Also the CEO and chairman of The Urban Community Empowerment Organization, a nonprofit group geared toward providing community and cultural enrichment through mentoring and economic empowerment, Johnson found himself uniquely positioned to create an extraordinary community one champion at a time. Thus, The Urban CEO was founded.
Meanwhile, LaTravius Smith, a graduate of Jones County High School, had enlisted and served in the United States Army for eight years before returning to raise her family in Macon.
“Back in 2008, a mutual friend thought that LaTravius and I should meet and consider combining our efforts in community service,” Johnson said. “Within the first 10 minutes of the meeting, we realized we already knew of each other from our childhood years.”
Both Johnson and Smith grew up in East Macon, then departed for education and military service, respectively. Upon returning home a few years later, they found that their beloved community seemed to be on a slow decline.
“The once thriving community of upper middle-class families of diverse backgrounds had suffered from the loss of businesses and employers like Royal Crown Candy, Keebler, Brown & Williams, etc.,” said Smith. “There was blight, unimproved roads, poor graduation rates, shadow banking, predatory lending and a number of unfortunate conditions that had come to bear particularly upon black, indigenous, people of color.”
By fall 2008, Johnson and Smith, together with several friends and volunteers, organized and hosted a very successful community Back-to-School Bonanza, an event which would become the basis for their first signature program known today as RaiderFest, a nod to the Northeast High School zone in which the event takes place. The pair went on to utilize the Rosa Jackson Community Center as the hub of activities to stay engaged with the East Macon community.
Initially, the group was called the Macon Community Enrichment Organization (MCEO), whose goal was to determine the root causes of the decline in East Macon, then address those issues while empowering residents to help implement solutions.
“Events like RaiderFest helped the organization create relationships and build trust within our community so that we could hear from them how we could help them,” said Smith, founding member and now COO of The Urban CEO. “We knew that we needed to serve the people and build trust so that they can be equipped to become empowered.”
Now called The Urban CEO, the organization lives up to the high standards of its moniker and serves to be a catalyst for community transformation through education, leadership development, economic empowerment and civic engagement.
“We are committed to supporting efficient 501(c)(3) organizations that enhance the quality of life for citizens in the Macon-Bibb community,” said Benji Griffith, grant director for the Griffith Family Foundation. “Urban CEO’s signature programs create effective and compassionate leaders in Macon and Middle Georgia, and empower and celebrate the people who live here.”
Toward that end, Johnson seeks to help people lead lives of influence, no longer casualties of where they’ve come from or their previous choices. Passionately committed to helping the average person build extraordinary communities using who they are and what they have, Johnson is driven by his love for people and deep desire to see communities thrive.
“I am relentlessly focused on creating champions,” Johnson said. “I enjoy helping them discover their true identity, achieve personal wholeness and live a life of influence.”
URBAN LEADERSHIP ACADEMY
One of the ways The Urban CEO works to achieve these lofty goals is through the Urban Leadership Academy (ULA), an eight-month interactive development program for nonprofit and small business leaders and entrepreneurs. Through consulting and training sessions, the academy focuses on strategy development, business acumen and the leadership skills needed for effective community engagement, and is designed to equip graduates to make lasting social impact, according to Johnson.
“We have provided nearly 100 Urban CEOs with an expandable toolset to accompany their skillset and mindset to have a transformative impact as an entrepreneur, nonprofit organizer or civic official, and practice the fundamentals of fiscal fitness to build a legacy of wealth,” he said.
The ULA provides practical, MBA-level content and training from leading small business owners and C-level executives, according to Smith. Each session is carefully designed to provide principle-centered learning, interactive and engaging examples and ongoing access to supporting templates, tools and relevant coursework. To further anchor the training, the ULA includes a group capstone activity, a recommended reading list, virtual follow-up sessions and more.
According to Macheita Adams, a ULA graduate, the academy has transformed the urban community.
“Those who complete the academy leave with a passion and hope for the community,” she said. “We have a heart to make a dollar and a difference.”
Many academy attendees become community leaders or entrepreneurs who have small businesses, Adams said.
“The academy teaches that to be an effective leader in any community, you must have a clear understanding of cultural diversity and sensitivity. We learned that we are called to serve, and that it is important to walk in integrity. Challenges will come, but we can never compromise character,” she said. “The academy left a mark with this question: ‘Not what if you fail, but what if you succeed?’”
Bethany Rogers, executive director of NewTown Loans, is also an academy graduate.
“The ULA is an important resource for Macon-Bibb,” she said. “The training program not only equips participants with the practical financial and business planning tools that are needed to be successful as entrepreneurs, but it also carefully walks participants through the personal, historical and even spiritual challenges that arise.”
Now in its sixth year, the ULA currently is grooming its sixth cohort, set to graduate in 2022. This class of leaders will help to drive program expansion by their response to the program’s new hybrid model, said Johnson. In-person and virtual sessions, registered agent services and a new session on effective communication and public speaking highlight the model.
“No other entrepreneurial program locally offers that personal development alongside the professional development piece,” Rogers said. “That has proven to be an exceptionally relevant and valuable training combination for Urban CEO alums over the years.”
One of the greatest resources of The Urban CEO is the ULA alumni network, Rogers said.
“The ULA team does an excellent job of maintaining an active alumni group, and as the group grows and more ULA graduates experience success, they will be able to empathize with, advise and maybe even invest in some of their cohorts who are just starting up their ventures,” she said. “I believe in another 10 years, we will hear stories about ULA graduates teaming up to make successful investments and improving the trajectory of the ULA grads coming up behind them.”
REACHING BEYOND LEADERSHIP
Much has been accomplished through The Urban CEO in the last decade, including the development of not only the ULA, but also two other signature programs. RaiderFest is conducted in partnership with the Bibb County School District, community businesses, charitable and faith organizations and others to provide the Northeast High School feeder zone with school supplies and support services designed to increase the probability of student success. RaiderFest provides backpacks, school supplies and personal hygiene items to about 2,000 students attending the elementary, middle and high schools in this zone.
Big Man on Campus is another signature program. Once targeting young black men entering college, the program has reorganized to partner with the Bibb County School District’s E3 initiative to prepare all graduates for both college and career paths. Big Man on Campus helps students to “own their college experience,” according to Johnson. “It prepares recent high school graduates and current college students to be leaders inside and outside the classroom.”
The one-day boot camp for young men features interactive sessions on time management and goal setting, personal and college finances, strategic choices and leadership involvement and professionalism, he explained.
Over the years, one or two young women also have participated in the program, which by mid-2022 will be revamped and renamed to represent the inclusion of females.
“The intention was never to exclude women,” Smith said. “The data demonstrated that young women were more likely to attend college and do very well socially and academically, while young men were less likely to consider college and showed a greater risk of drop-out, criminal activity and high mortality rates at a young age due to lifestyle, disease or violence.”
Beyond these signature programs, The Urban CEO has gone above and beyond expectations to provide for countless members of the community during times of need. The organization’s mentorship outreach initiatives, for instance, allow children and young adults to gain greater knowledge and experience in both personal and professional endeavors through college tours, free one-on-one tutoring and professional luncheons, according to Smith.
The Urban CEO also provides one-on-one consulting sessions for emerging leaders and teams who desire a more intimate and customized path toward leadership development and growth. In addition, organizations may license The Urban CEO curriculum for use during company retreats and workshops, said Smith.
Additionally, The Urban CEO has worked with the Rosa Jackson Center Advisory Board to fundraise, develop programming and provide volunteer opportunities.
“Our neighborhood centers often struggle in urban communities due to the disparities that limit a family’s resources,” Smith said. “Municipal budgets, too, tend to provide capital and personnel costs, but don’t necessarily include direct program support. The Rosa Jackson Center Advisory Board is eligible to, and has applied for grants.”
The Urban CEO also has worked to provide forums, panels and pop-up events that focus on mental health awareness, education, hygiene, vaccinations, clinical expertise and more. The organization serves as a coordinator of no-cost emergency mental health care access for the underinsured and uninsured in partnership with a diverse network of mental health providers.
“We have helped more people in our urban community shift to a more positive perspective of mental health by observing mental health practices and overcome the stigma of therapy by providing no-cost access to a client-centered appointment process,” Johnson said.
The Urban CEO has addressed the specific needs posed by a global pandemic over the past two years as well. The organization has served as a hub of coordination and distribution of food, clothing and personal hygiene items to serve residents who faced homelessness prior to and during the pandemic.
“We have strengthened community partnerships to achieve the goals of one Macon that embraces and thrives in diversity, equity and inclusion,” Smith said.
Looking toward the future, Johnson anticipates good, organic growth of the organization in capacity and maturity to foster community-led sustainable solutions to maintaining a diverse, inclusive and equity-conscious environment.
In the past 10 years, Smith and Johnson have been co-creators of a grassroots movement in social transformation to restore the pride of the east side and “a Macon that thrives,” Smith said. “We have led and joined efforts to mitigate the food desert crisis and homelessness. We have implemented sustainable solutions to keep the community in community centers, developed signature programs to engage, educate, equip and empower in the areas of mental health and wellness, financial literacy and civics.”
Johnson added, “I hope we’ll join with more partners to amplify the impact of a unified community, provide civic ambassador programs to help citizens engage in community civics from an informed perspective, and do whatever it takes to meet the changing needs of our audience.”
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
Join Urban CEO’s outreach notification list for volunteer opportunities. Text ‘volunteer’ to 478-254-7774.
Donations may be made to: $TheUrbanCEOINC
To learn more about partner and sponsorship opportunities email email@example.com.