This article originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal; Photo credit Aleks Antonío Photography for MBJ
A friend of Courtney McNeal likes to say that she’s had “nine lives” at Innovate Memphis, and there’s truth to this joke. For nearly six years, McNeal has held a variety of roles with the nonprofit, which designs, incubates, and sustains solutions to address long-standing civic challenges in the local community.
She started as a community outreach specialist in 2017, then became a strategic partnerships manager in 2020. In 2021, she moved up to the role of City innovation director, and held the position of interim executive director for a portion of 2022, between the departure of Justin Entzminger and the hiring of Jessica Lotz.
Then, in February 2023, McNeal was named Innovate’s chief of staff, a new role for the organization that has her overseeing HR and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) processes while maintaining her previous duties as city innovation director.
Positively impacting Memphis remains a priority, and, as McNeal put it, “I personally feel like everyone in Memphis — no matter your race, your socioeconomic status, your religion, or anything — should have access to resources.”
Her desire to help improve the city, however, goes beyond her position at Innovate. McNeal is a native Memphian, and from an early age, her parents instilled in her the importance of being community-oriented. Here’s how she wound up at the nonprofit, and what her plans are for her latest role.
Growing up, McNeal and her brother had access to a great education and plenty of resources, but her parents didn’t want this to determine where they spent their time or whom they associated with.
Her father was the director of a community center, and later an entire zone of community centers. And these were the places where McNeal was expected to hang out with her friends after school. Some days it’d be the Davis Community Center. Other times, it’d be the Orange Mound Community Center. McNeal also participated in an array of activities. She played basketball and cheered. She attended summer camps and participated in an annual dance showcase for those camps, organized by the City of Memphis.
“Those experiences really helped me,” McNeal said. “Because I can adapt to any environment. Just understanding and being relatable, it truly does help in my work today.”
When it came time to select a college, McNeal chose to stay in the Bluff City, drawn to the University of Memphis by its hometown spirit and robust sports program. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional studies in 2011, she returned to the U of M for graduate school in 2013 and received her master’s degree in public administration in 2015.
While in graduate school, she worked as a housing and community development fellow for the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis — which would ultimately become the nonprofit BLDG Memphis. This is where McNeal was exposed to the world of community development. She met lots of people and fostered meaningful relationships.
“I got to learn so much more about community development and all the types of civic engagement,” she said.
Once she finished graduate school and her fellowship, McNeal tried her hand in education reform, working as a community outreach specialist with Freedom Preparatory Academy Charter Schools. The job helped her get her feet wet, and she considered it “a necessary step” that she had to take.
But at the same time, McNeal knew it wasn’t what she ultimately wanted to do.
One day, while doing yoga by the river — a program offered by the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC) — McNeal ran into an official with the City she knew from an internship she had done.
The official asked her if she was looking for a job and connected her to Innovate Memphis, which then hired her. Initially, she was only supposed to work an 18-month contract. But as McNeal said: “Here I am today going into my sixth year. So, that’s my story.”
It’s a story that’s not complete, as McNeal is now immersed in her latest role as Innovate’s chief of staff. She’s strengthening the organization’s HR functions by formalizing its intake, retention, and recruitment processes. She’s also spearheading its new DEI policies and practices; recently, she held her first DEI session with Innovate, which she believes went well and was positively received by employees.
McNeal knows conversations surrounding DEI aren’t always going to be comfortable. But sometimes, she explained, you need to have those conversations. To her, it’s important work.
“This world is changing. The climate of this world is something that we never thought we would see again,” McNeal said. “And I know I can’t save the world. But I feel like it’s a part of my purpose to address some of those things that are happening in it.”
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