Allison Black Cornelius is a visionary, a creative thought leader whose strategic genius is rivaled only by her altruistic heart. When faced with personal challenges and harsh realities, she takes action, pursuing justice, building companies, rescuing the disenfranchised, writing legislation and developing leaders, to name a few ways this dynamo operates. Need we say more? We are honored to welcome the President and CEO of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, the founder and CEO of Blackfish, a sexual abuse survivor, fierce advocate for abused children, a mother of four children and five beloved rescued pooches and today’s FACE of Birmingham, Allison Black Cornelius!
How did you come to be Founder and Principal of Blackfish and now President and CEO of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society?
I always wanted to be a newspaper publisher and went to work at the Birmingham Business Journal, where I eventually became General Manager. When I decided to help prosecute a man that had raped me as a child, I left the BBJ. After the trial, a friend told me I should go into the nonprofit sector. After seeing the problems facing children, women and families at my first nonprofit job at Prescott House, I decided to pursue a goal of getting to Montgomery and working in policy. The Governor appointed me as Deputy Commissioner of the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board – Children’s Trust Fund. In that position, it was clear to me that leadership was at the root of all failures and successes in policy-making, so I founded a consulting firm, Blackfish, to help develop leaders that make a difference in the world. It worked!
Describe Blackfish to someone who has never heard of it.
Blackfish develops leaders who make a difference in the world. We offer board retreats, strategic planning, leadership coaching, team-building, turn-around management, crisis management and merge consulting for nonprofit and government leaders. The firm has become one of the most successful consulting firms in the United States. We have worked with some of the most well-known leaders in the world and have remained true to our original mission of helping people and organizations, donating about 50% of our services.
What are the main skills it takes to be a good leader?
At Blackfish, we do not talk about good leaders — we use the term effective. Because the qualities of leadership can be used for good or evil, and we have to start focusing on what makes effective leaders. Effective leaders are inspiring, good stewards of resources and effective problem solvers. That’s it.
What advice would you give a woman who wants to enhance her life as a leader — whether at work, as a wife or as a mom?
I meet thousands of women in my work. We are bad about turning down opportunities because we fear not spending enough time with our family or that someone will judge us or that we will fail. We need to stop seeking certainty and start seeking clarity. Pursue what your heart tells you to pursue even if it does not make logical, rational sense. An inner calling to your purpose will never make sense, and it never comes at the right time. And finally, serve. If you see paper on the ground, pick it up; if you see someone in need, offer support. Your sacrificial service to others will do more for you and your family than you can imagine.
When did your passion for animals begin?
Two places — one good and one terrifying. First, my mother never met a stray she didn’t think she could save. I grew up with her rescuing animals. This taught me kindness and compassion for the fragile. Second, my offender would use small animals to threaten the children he raped and tortured. I learned at the age of 7 that evil people will use the fragile to threaten and control others. The link between cruelty to animals and violence to children and women has now been proven in research. I was determined to stop that cycle of abuse to people and animals
Tell us about the growth and success that you’ve had at the Greater Birmingham Humane Society (GBHS).
In two years, GBHS has gone from taking in 7,500 animals a year to about 20,000 – that is 70 every day. We went from one location and 33 employees to three locations and 80 employees. We are efficient and have only six administrative staff. We partnered with the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine and built one of the most successful shelter externships in the country. We sought and received one of the largest land gifts in Jefferson County, 27 acres off Sixth Avenue South, and we will build one of the largest animal parks in the United States and relocate our three facilities to that one location. This success is 100% about our players, our team. We don’t hire or support people who hate people and love animals. We love people and animals. Our mission requires it. We don’t use people to develop our mission; we use our mission to develop people.
What is most rewarding about your work?
Seeing an animal find a good home, the effect this has on the family and how this develops the confidence of our staff. They now believe they can make a real, needle-moving impact on this community, and watching them believe is marvelous.
Tell us about your work advocating for the prevention of sexual abuse against children.
After the rape trial, I began speaking out about child abuse. I helped pass Megan’s Law in 36 states, as well as the passage of Alabama’s Crime Victims’ Rights legislation. I helped write and pass legislation that created the Department of Children’s Affairs in Alabama. I have helped raise money for and founded more than 50 child advocacy centers around the country as well as Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) agencies. I have been told that I have helped raise more than $50M over my life for agencies that help abused children, and if that is accurate, then I am very blessed.
What is your favorite thing about Birmingham?
Birmingham has scars. But she uses those scars as a trail, a map to point her to a better future. I love that we are survivors and we are scratching our way to a different definition of who we are without forgetting what inspired us to change. I love her scars.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I hunt, fish, golf, drink wine and read — not necessarily in that order.
What the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
It came from General Colin Powell. He told me to watch out for people who warned me to stay away from others. He told me, if that happened, to make that person my next, first meeting. Lord was he right.
Aside from faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
I could not live without a pet, quality coffee and comfortable hiking and running shoes.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the fabulous photos of Allison at the Greater Birmingham Humane Society.