The second annual African-American Leadership Conference drew 300 people Friday to the downtown Hilton Omaha for networking, career advice, celebration, inspiration and challenge.
The attendees networked with fellow black professionals. They received practical advice on career advancement for themselves and others from local business executives.
They celebrated progress since the Omaha Empowerment Network started in Omaha in 2006 and heard challenges to keep moving forward.
And they drew inspiration from such nationally known speakers as Randal Pinkett. Most widely known as the Season Four winner on NBC's “The Apprentice,” the entrepreneur is CEO of BCT Partners, a national consulting firm.
Pinkett shared success strategies from his book “Black Faces in White Places.” Among them: Commit to excellence in the workplace and use failures to build success.
“Do not let a setback set you back because a setback is a set-up for a comeback,” Pinkett said.
Excellence, he said, is “not a solution to racism, but it's the best counterattack.”
Pinkett said barriers still exist for people of color in corporate America. But he urged the audience to drop the notion of a glass ceiling, and replace it with the “ever-changing game,” in which teams work together to level the playing field for everyone.
Dozens of people lined up to buy autographed books from Pinkett and the other nationally known speakers, George Fraser and Eric Mahmoud.
Most attendees were local, but people also came from such places as West Virginia and Alabama, in part to check out the Empowerment Network.
Willie Barney, Empowerment Network president, and other speakers noted through the day-long event that the African-American student graduation rates in Omaha Public Schools had improved from 56 percent in 2003 to 72 percent in 2012. He said summer jobs programs and other efforts had improved black employment.
Those are gains to celebrate, he said. But there's a long way to go, Barney said, calling 20-plus-percent unemployment in north Omaha “totally unacceptable.”
He urged attendees to work together toward goals of 95 percent graduation rates and 95 to 98 percent employment in all parts of metropolitan Omaha.
Cydney Franklin, manager of business assistance for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said the conference was uplifting and encouraging.
“You get to meet a lot of black leaders in the community,” she said.
During the conference, Franklin was part of a panel of young professionals from Omaha who addressed the question, “Are we winning?”
Their answers were mixed.
Earl Redrick, Omaha field officer director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said “yes” of young black females in Omaha, but “no” of young black males.
“Everywhere I go I see a lot of young black females involved in community activities, getting advanced degrees” and so on, he said.
But not so much for young black men. As a demonstration, he asked the audience, of well over 100, for a show of hands of men under 40.
“That's maybe six,” Redrick said. “That's abysmal.”
Kris Kuhn, a Union Pacific account manager, said he agreed, to a degree. Individuals are making progress, Kuhn said. Black employment in metropolitan Omaha is improving, but still a far cry from Omaha's overall unemployment rate.
Symone Sanders, community outreach manager for the Empowerment Network, said young people need to network and assert themselves more, and Omaha corporations need to work harder to find, develop and keep young talent in the city.
Franklin said young African-Americans are involved in many initiatives and vying for leadership positions in Omaha, although she said they number too few. Yes, Omaha “can be considered to be lacking” for young black professionals, she said, but people don't have to accept that or leave the city.
“Find out what your strengths are, and contribute them,” Franklin said. “You need to be the person who's creating the quality of life that you want ... and making Omaha the kind of community you want it to be.”