by Frank Murtaugh
Rola Obaji grew up in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and Amman, Jordan, where her father, Ali Alhindi, ran travel agencies. She and her two younger siblings traveled the world for what amounted to business trips with their dad. As a result, Obaji’s world view comes from a variety of perspectives, from Paris to Istanbul, from Los Angeles to New York City. The new CEO at McDonald Murrmann Women’s Clinic has called Memphis home for more than a quarter-century now — she fell in love with her husband, Dr. Suhail Obaji, on a visit to Memphis in 1989 — but continues to draw from her global journeys in raising a family and running a business. Perhaps most poignant are her memories, not that long ago, of college life in Syria, at Aleppo University.
“My mom is Syrian, my dad Jordanian,” explains Obaji. “I was born in Aleppo, but I lived between Jordan and Saudi Arabia during my school years [before college].
“Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon . . . these places are beautiful. We have beaches, mountains. It’s very European. It’s nothing like what you see [in the news today]. It’s like judging the United States on the worst neighborhoods in Chicago or Memphis. My kids love to go to [the Middle East]. It has a lot of history, and for all religions. It was inspiring, growing up there. Traveling as I did, it made me more open-minded, more accepting.”
by Frank Murtaugh
Gina Sweat and one of her heroes, Larry Bird, share two distinct foundational qualities: They each grew up in a small town (Sweat in Middleton, Tennessee; Bird in French Lick, Indiana) and they each played basketball. Sweat’s career on the hardwood ended after her college days at Freed-Hardeman, but you’d have a compelling debate in measuring which career was less likely. Bird, you probably know, became a Hall of Fame forward for the Boston Celtics. Sweat became — just last January — the first female Director of Fire Services in the history of the Memphis Fire Department.
“Over the last few months, I’ve been asked how I got here a lot,” says Sweat. “Looking back, it almost seems purposeful. But I wasn’t focused [on reaching this office].”
Sweat spent her childhood days in and around her parents’ grocery and bait shop. Her mother was only 18 when Gina was born, and she gained a sister after her 10th birthday. So in some respects, Sweat had a peer leader in her own mom and an important leadership role to play for her only sibling. “Growing up,” says Sweat, “my mom was one of my best friends, and she is to this day.”
by Frank Murtaugh
Ashley Coffield grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with a twin sister. Walking the halls of Lakeside High School, both Ashley and Courtney grew accustomed to being identified as “the twins.” But never did they hear such a tag from their mother. And not once were they dressed as children to serve as mirror reflections of one another. They were raised as the unique, distinctive individuals they happen to be. Meet Ashley today and it shows.
“I went to a great public high school,” says Coffield, since 2013 the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region (PPGMR). “I was encouraged to be a leader and to get involved in my community. I was involved in student government; always wanted to make things better. I was the kid who talked out in class and said, ‘I don’t think that’s right.’ I’d go to the principal’s office and say we should do things differently.”
The Coffield sisters made a conscious decision to go their separate ways for college, with Courtney attending the University of Arkansas and Ashley heading to Memphis to attend Rhodes. (“I loved the urban environment that Rhodes sat in, and I wanted to try a big city. I liked the small class sizes.”) After graduating in 1992 with a degree in urban studies, Coffield earned a master’s in public administration at Texas A&M. She then moved to Washington, D.C., and started a career in healthcare advocacy, thriving on the buzz — and reach — found in the nation’s capital. “People there,” she says, “in their own nerdy way, think they’re the center of the universe. My focus when I left graduate school was finding a job with a focus on population health.”
Coffield seemed to have found a home at Partnership for Prevention, a nonpartisan collaboration between corporations and government leaders tasked with studying and implementing disease-prevention strategies. She was named executive director in 1998 (still shy of her 30th birthday), but chose to return to Memphis in 2001 when she and her husband, Mac, decided to start a family. (They’re now the parents of two boys, ages 12 and 15.) Coffield continued to work with Partnership for Prevention from her new Memphis home, and joined the board of Planned Parenthood, where she’d been a patient and volunteer during her days at Rhodes. Shortly after leaving the board, having served the maximum nine years, Coffield got a call with a request to help in the search for the local affiliate’s new president.
“The head of the search committee asked if I would help as a non-board member,” explains Coffield. “I said, ‘I’d love to do that, but let me think about it, because I might apply for the job.’ It took me a while to make the decision because I knew how hard this job would be and I wasn’t sure I was the right person. I wanted to connect with Memphis in a more substantial way. I was a little lonely professionally [telecommuting for Partnership for Prevention]. But this is a 24/7 job; we’re never really closed. I needed to know that I could fit that in and keep focus on my family.”
Leading an affiliate of Planned Parenthood means you are, to a degree, following the lead of the national entity (currently under the leadership of Cecile Richards). There are guidelines, standards, and a shared mission. Affiliate presidents gather quarterly to share ideas and exchange views on policies and procedures, and the national office offers expertise in public policy, law, and communications. But beyond the standard mission (healthcare, education, and advocacy), there is room for every affiliate — as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit — to steer its own course. “I had absolutely no doubt about the mission,” stresses Coffield. “I’ve been a Planned Parenthood donor for 25 years and a volunteer for much of that time. I believed in it very strongly. I’m a risk-taker and I don’t have a lot of fear in standing up for this mission. But at the same time, I knew I was going to be in the spotlight from time to time, and that made me nervous. I had always been a behind-the-scenes person.”
That spotlight Coffield mentions can be especially hot under the Planned Parenthood brand. The organization — which marks its 100th anniversary nationally this year, and 75th in Memphis — is often politicized and dangers exist, from sham videographers (depicting the “sale” of fetal tissue) to gun-wielding, pro-life radicals like the man who attacked a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs last November, killing three people.
“When we’re attacked,” says Coffield, “we can all feel scared and confused for a few moments, but it’s remarkable to me how quickly we all come together. When the shooting happened in Colorado, we were on the phone with Cecile by the end of the day, with legal counsel. It happened on Thanksgiving weekend and we had made the decision to close. But we talked all weekend about what we’d do Monday morning to make our staff and patients feel safe. How would we move forward?”
Leadership is easily measured by how a person acts. Less clear are the qualities that go into not acting at times of duress. “There’s a lot of support for us in the community,” says Coffield. “I can’t focus on what’s important if I’m distracted by [threats of violence]. I’m not going to let those things distract me from what’s important. It’s a total waste of time. It’s important for the staff to see that I’m ignoring it. By and large, they do too.”
The local Planned Parenthood affiliate is one of 58 across the country and, with a staff of 30, one of the smallest. It’s staffed almost entirely by women — with a five-person management team — but Coffield emphasizes her team’s greatest strength is its diversity. “I have a very consultative management style,” she says. “I like to hear from everybody’s perspective, and I like to synthesize that before I make a decision. I don’t like to bark orders, I like there to be consensus. It’s worked out really well, people appreciate it. A diverse staff makes a stronger organization. If you can’t work with people who have really different life experiences than you have, and you’re not willing to listen and be open-minded to the way they’ve experienced the world, this is not the right place for you.”
If Coffield’s career ambition was to impact population health — and particularly here in Memphis — it’s hard to imagine a better fit than the role she now plays, and the impact is measurable. Abortion makes the news, and PPGMR performed more than 3,300 in 2015. But that’s a fraction of the difference in health quality the organization is making. Almost 13,000 patients visited the clinic last year. More than 170 classes on sex health were conducted. More than 4,000 HIV and STD tests were administered. And 645,000 free condoms were distributed.
“We stand for full equality and dignity for all members of our region,” says Coffield. “We’re going to be here to provide you healthcare regardless of who you are or what decisions you’ve made. We’re going to come at you with no judgment. It’s an important part of the culture. We listen; we hear what the patient wants. There are so many options for women today. We’re living in the golden age of family planning.”
by Frank Murtaugh
There aren’t many guarantees in life, but you can take this to the betting window: Jen Andrews knows more about the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy (SFPC) than you or anyone else. The 32-year-old Andrews is the newly named executive director for the nonprofit that manages — and is currently transforming — the 4,500-acre park. She was also, you see, the SFPC’s first employee.
Upon graduating from Rhodes College with a degree in English literature in 2006, Andrews set her sights on a graduate program at the University of Arkansas. But she needed a year to raise money, so she applied for a new position with what was then called the Shelby Farms Park Alliance. “When I took the job, we didn’t have office space or computers,” says Andrews. “No phones. It was just the two of us. [Laura Morris was the founding director.] Some of my first duties were calling FedEx and First Tennessee to see if I could go into their warehouses and take some of their old furniture.”
Andrews grew up in the tiny (pop. 4,000) town of Marianna, Arkansas. (“You grow up and either become a Little Rock person or a Memphis person,” she explains. “We were always Memphis people.”) She developed a love for lakes and green space by visiting her grandparents, whose property sat on a former junkyard on the edge of town. “I grew up scraping my knee,” explains Andrews, “getting dirty, climbing trees, making mud pies. I spent a lot of time alone out there. I’m very comfortable being alone. I’m independent, introverted. I feel like I developed my imagination out there, learned how to dream. It was really a magical place.”
Andrews took to sports, first as a gymnast, then as a basketball player who led Lee Academy to a runner-up finish in the 2002 state tournament. “Basketball is my true love, but unfortunately I’m 5’2”,” she says with a smile. As a sprinter (100 meters and 200 meters) for Lee’s track team, she caught the eyes of Rhodes recruiters and became the first member of her family to attend college.
In addition to taking on the pole vault at Rhodes, Andrews discovered a passion for post-colonial literature. “I was studying literature from places that had been colonized and then decolonized,” she says. “African, Pacific rim, Caribbean, some Irish. Growing up in a small town, there are things you don’t get access to. I was really interested in broadening my horizons. I hadn’t really considered literature from places other than England and America. I knew it existed, but I hadn’t given it credibility. I was moved, and got excited; there was so much I could still learn.”
That yearning to grow — in mind and spirit — fueled Andrews’ early days in support of Shelby Farms, her initial mission simply to secure the land from the threat of development. “What we were trying to do in those early days,” she reflects, “was get a conservation easement [a legal designation that protects the land as a park], so we could stop fighting. Once we protected the park, which meant the county couldn’t sell it to developers, we transitioned from a defensive posture to an optimistic, future-focused organization. What could the park be?”
Fast-forward to 2016 and the SFPC is nearing completion on its $52 million “Heart of the Park” project, its largest component being an expansion of Patriot Lake from 52 to 80 acres. There will also be a new visitors center, an events center (with a restaurant), lakeside pavilions, and a pedestrian promenade adjacent to the lake. Taken together, the massive transformation has further reinforced the art of the possible.
“I think I was the first true believer,” says Andrews, “other than the people who had been involved [before SFPC]. When I was at Rhodes, I didn’t even know the park existed. I was part of a first wave of people who were willing to dig in, see the potential, and do something about it. It was hard in the early days because there was no job security. There was no guarantee we could raise enough money to pay salaries. The county budget for the park at the time was $575,000. We were creating an organization that didn’t exist.”
Now overseeing a staff of 30, Andrews hasn’t had to look far for leadership standards. “Linda Brashear, our director of park operations, has been a great mentor and a great example,” says Andrews. “We have very different personalities. I’m an introvert, logical. She’s one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet; extroverted, loves people. She shows me a different path. I’m interested in things that are different from my experience. Tina Sullivan at the Overton Park Conservancy is another great leader, the ultimate diplomat and highly principled.”
Andrews’ parents were teenagers when Jen was born, so there’s a form of leadership in their simply keeping a family together, and growing. “My dad [Mark Andrews] may be the only person even more introverted than I am,” she says. “He’s brilliant and totally independent, completely nonjudgmental. He taught me from a really young age to think for myself and question assumptions, my own and others.”
A military contractor in Afghanistan for 10 years, Mark now teaches work-skills to inmates as part of a rehabilitation program while Andrews’ mom, Lori, is a preschool teacher. Andrews’ only sibling — a younger sister — is a middle-school teacher. “I’m the only non-teacher in the family,” notes Andrews. “Leadership and service are big deals in my family. My parents really focused on integrity because it’s something that can’t be taken away. You can always tell the truth. You can always be generous, even when you’re poor.”
Now in a position where her hiring skills are important, Andrews has paid special attention to a few qualities she considers seeds of leadership. “I enjoy building a team and fostering talent,” she says. “I’ve hired a lot of young and hungry people. I always look for critical thinking; they’re likely to have good judgment and be resourceful. At a small nonprofit, resourceful people tend to do very well. And accountability, someone who can demonstrate they’re willing to take ownership of something. I can’t think of any leaders who aren’t highly accountable.”
Andrews is convinced opportunities for talented young people will bring new leaders, and help Memphis grow as a city. “When I graduated from Rhodes, there were two people in my class who planned to stay in Memphis,” she says. “It was unusual. At last year’s graduation, they polled the students and something like 60 percent said they would be staying in Memphis. I didn’t plan on staying until I got involved with building something that would make Memphis a better place, and that was addictive.”
Andrews’ appreciation for good leaders extends into the realm of science fiction. An avowed Trekkie, she lights up at the chance to distinguish her preferred Starfleet captain. “Jean-Luc Picard is a great model of leadership,” she says. “James Kirk was impulsive, where Picard is logical and rational. He’s highly intelligent. He was an amateur archaeologist, very interested in people and cultures.” A life-sized Spock stand-up poster greets visitors to her office. The universe’s most famous Vulcan is wearing a Memphis Grizzlies headband. Stoicism with a little grit-and-grind. Let’s call it a Jen Andrews recipe for progress.
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