Carolyn Chism Hardy’s story is one of great triumph against the odds. Born into a large family that was rich in love but poor in circumstances, she credits her strong, determined mother with instilling in her children the drive to overcome obstacles to become educated and succeed professionally and personally. With grit, an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong sense of self, Carolyn carved a career that has taken her from entry-level staff accountant to owner of a family of companies. As the first African American woman in several of her jobs, she knows what it means to take the risks associated with being a pioneer, and she’s happy to blaze a trail for other young entrepreneurs. Her book, Look Up: Five Principles for Intentional Leadership, is a goldmine of advice — both practical and inspirational. We are excited to introduce our newest FACE of Memphis, Carolyn Chism Hardy!
Did you grow up in Memphis? Where were you educated?
I lived in 13 houses by the age of 12. My parents purchased their first home in Orange Mound. I got my bachelor’s degree in accounting and my master’s in management from the University of Memphis — back then, it was Memphis State.
I’m also a CPA. I took the test after somebody told me I couldn’t pass it. This belittling became a challenge!
You were the seventh of 16 children. What was it like to be a part of such a large family?
It was always noisy! Thanks to that environment, I can drown out anything and concentrate on what I’m doing. I learned to multi-task, too. I had to balance my studies with looking after younger siblings and doing chores.
It had its rewards, as well. I learned from my older siblings. I always had somebody looking out for my best interests. My older siblings were very proud of their younger brothers and sisters and were willing to make personal sacrifices for us. During my first semester of college, my dad paid for tuition, and my oldest brother and sister paid for the books.
To pay it forward, I taught my younger siblings good work habits and ethics by bringing them around when I was working. My mother emphasized the importance of exposure, and my dad emphasized hard work.
Can you tell us more about why exposure was so important to your mom?
My mom was a maid, working for a doctor. She often heard his kids say they wanted to be doctors like their dad. Mom was terrified that if the doctor’s kids want to be doctors, her children would want to be a maid.
My mom’s ambition was to graduate college. After marriage, she replaced her dream with a bigger dream for her children. Her whole life was dedicated to motivating her children to seek higher education as the key to professional and personal success. She put all her energies into preparing my oldest sister, Juanita, to pursue a college degree to become a professional and a role model. Juanita became a successful teacher and assistant principal. Mom wanted my oldest brother to become a skilled craftsman — my brother finished mechanics school, then got a painter’s license.
After that, she had her role models, right there in the house, for the younger ones.
It was important to your mom that you be a role model, and you mentioned the idea of “paying it back.” How do you do that?
I connect young people I don’t even know to internships all over the city, using my connections. I’ll ask them to meet me for coffee and get to know them. I give them feedback on their résumé and coach them. When I attend events, my radar is out seeking ways to connect young people with mentors and job opportunities.
Building on my mom’s idea of exposure, I recently arranged for industry leaders — in a wide variety of professions — to speak to female high school students about careers. I want as many professionals as possible to be young minority women. I want girls to see that a profession or a dream job is not a long shot. There are women who look just like them, with similar backgrounds and stories, in a chosen career.
Can you give us a brief overview of your career?
My first job after I graduated was as a staff accountant with J. S. Smucker’s. I was there for almost 25 years. I left, after serving as plant manager, to join software firm Honeywell’s POM division for two years. Next, I moved on to Coors as VP of Memphis Operations. After four years, Coors decided to sell the plant. I purchased it to start Hardy Bottling on September 1, 2006. I was owner, president, CEO and, many times, chief bottle washer!
On May 11, 2011, I sold the facility and equipment to City Brewery. I leased my first container depot to start my real estate company in 2007. After 2011, we expanded this business by building and leasing other container depots.
Then my daughters and I started a grain company, Henderson Transloading. We handle grain for third party customers. We own industrial sales and MRO companies, allowing us to participate in the construction industry. Lastly, we are partners in a beverage brand called HTWO, which is hydrogen-infused water. You can find it in all Kroger stores.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge to your success?
The initial challenge was convincing banks that loaning millions of dollars to a black female was a smart thing to do! Securing the loan to purchase the facility and the necessary working capital was my number one barrier to buying the Coors plant to start Hardy Bottling.
The second biggest challenge was getting a skilled workforce. The professionals I needed wanted to work for companies that offered traditional benefit plans. Entrepreneurs don’t have traditional benefit plans. We can’t always offer 401(k)s and healthcare. Instead, we offer employees a better work experience that is more valuable than those benefits. My workforce loved the work environment. My employees were not micro-managed; they were valued, trusted and respected, and they could speak directly to me about ideas and concerns. This was initially a challenge, but over time, it became a positive.
What has been your biggest opportunity to grow?
Professionally, my time at Smucker’s was best because I had mentors who helped guide my career. A mentor at an executive level is an invaluable resource for growth.
From an entrepreneurial standpoint, my time with Coors increased my confidence level, and I realized I could do bigger and better things. I learned I could play in the big league. You must have confidence to be an entrepreneur, which has higher risks than the role of an employee.
Look Up gives your principles for leadership. What made you decide to write a book on this topic?
I share Mom’s belief in the need for positive role models. I continue to encounter a greater need than I can handle, especially after speaking engagements. Entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s want to talk about their business. They need advice, inspiration or motivation. I would love to sit down with each of them to have a conversation. How do you have thousands of those conversations? You write a book.
It also goes back to why my mom was so impactful. She put her life on center stage, told the truth about what she did wrong and what she did right. She did all that so her children understood the right thing to do. Look Up was my way of putting my life on center stage with the hope that I will have a similar impact.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
My three children. They are smart, ambitious and great people. I see the power of family and love that my parents taught us in the next generation. I’ve passed on what they taught me. Now I see my daughter teaching her children.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Follow your dream. Don’t let anybody stop you. By that, I don’t mean to ignore the advice of your loved ones! If they have concerns, listen to them, hear them out — then work together to develop a plan for success. Let others’ advice cause you to pause and think, but not deter you from your dream.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Business ambition, partnerships in creating a better Memphis, and traveling to experience and understand different cultures.
Thank you for the interview, Carolyn, and thank you to Abbey Bratcher for the photos.
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