Nexus Leaders

Strengthening Memphis one leader at a time

Kemmons Wilson, along with Sandy Wilson, founded Nexus Leaders 20 years ago to help launch the next generation of leaders committed to strengthening our city. The primary goal is to encourage and equip the next generation of community leaders through mentor/protégé partnerships and a yearly program implemented by Nexus’ Executive Director, Heather Hunt.

Each year, a new group of 35 protégés are selected based on recommendations by previous participants, board members and the corporate community. These emerging leaders are paired with 35 mentors, who are proven leaders within their profession and Memphis. Heather says, “We are intentional about preserving the class size of 70. This allows us to provide an intimate group, and everyone can get to know each other well.”

Lewis Williamson, a Nexus mentor and board member, discusses the process of recruiting mentors. “We recruit mentors whose character, commitment and competence we would like to see ‘duplicated’ in Memphis.” He laughs at the initial response he often receives from a successful Memphis leader: 'I just don’t have the time.' To which Lewis responds, “Wait a minute – how do you know how much time is required?”

The yearlong commitment includes monthly meetings between protégé and mentor as well as monthly programs including dinner, fellowship and a notable speaker from the Memphis community.

Lewis mentioned that at first he thought the meetings had to be formal, but then he realized that a Grizzlies game or a more casual get-together often worked best for establishing strong relationships. Frank Crump, one of Lewis’ first protégés, shares, "Our monthly sessions were often at the Williamson’s home. It was very informal, and our conversations would range from business discussions to personal decisions that I was facing. It is beneficial as a protégé to be able to develop a trusting relationship with someone who has already experienced your current phase of life.”

Alissa Campbell Shaw, another Nexus mentor, says, “I’ve walked with my protégé, Ellen Celosky, at Shelby Farms, we have volunteered together at local non-profits, and we have had great conversations while enjoying a meal together.” Ellen adds, “Alissa and I are able to have very honest conversations, and I believe that has happened because a major component of the program is trust – trusting the process, trusting your mentor and trusting yourself. Alissa was vulnerable and led with openness, which I responded to very positively and quickly.”

The vibrant speaker schedule for the current class includes Jason Wexler, President of the Memphis Grizzlies and Elizabeth Rouse, President and CEO of ARTSMemphis. Frank says, “The monthly group sessions are helpful for multiple reasons. They are a way for all of the protégés and mentors to interact and get to know one another. Additionally, they allow everyone to be inspired by and learn from the guest speakers who cover a range of topics, including how to give back to our Memphis community.” Alissa adds, “I take notes during each session and continue to find little nuggets of wisdom from each leader.”

Protégé Ellen adds, "There are so many unique obstacles that women face daily in the workforce. I am expecting a baby in March, so I regularly look to other working mothers like Alissa for advice and counsel because that’s a layer that can create an additional set of challenges."

Addressing challenges facing women in the workforce, Alissa says, “My primary goal is to help other women to thrive personally and professionally. My job is to listen more than to talk. I want to build their confidence so that they can continue upon a successful path. My ultimate hope is that they will similarly serve as a mentor to develop a future pipeline of talented women leaders along the way.”

Even founder Kemmons Wilson has personally benefited from the Nexus program. “There is great fulfillment in investing in the future,” he says. "I have mentored a diverse group of twenty protégés and I have learned far more from them than they did from me. The relationship works in both directions.”

One of Kemmons’ first protégés was Kennon Vaughan, founder of Downline Ministries. Kemmons asked him, “What are your dreams and plans for your life? How can I help you?” Once he got the ministry off the ground, Kennon asked Kemmons to be the chairman of the board, a position he still holds today. When Kennon decided to establish Harvest Church and be the lead pastor, Kemmons joined as an elder. “So, the tables are reversed as I now sit at his feet every Sunday morning,” says Kemmons.

The success of the Nexus program is evident in the fact that each year the program receives more applications than spots. Memphis leaders offer keys to success in their monthly meetings, and the protégé/mentor relationships are lifelong. Heather says, “We just provide the nexus – opportunities for people who might not otherwise meet but who are like-minded in the fact that they want leadership skills and they want to help our city move forward in a positive light.”

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