Montgomery Business Journal

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March 2014

Zillah M. Fluker is president of Emerge Montgomery, an organization of young professionals that is a program of Leadership Montgomery in partnership with the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. Fluker was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky

Montgomery Business Journal: What are your responsibilities as president of Emerge Montgomery?

Fluker: My responsibilities are to have oversight of Emerge Montgomery. My job is to make sure we stay focused on the mission and the goals of Emerge and make sure that we integrate them to the broader goals and objectives of Leadership Montgomery and therefore the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. My job is to inspire and motivate volunteers because we are all volunteers to really step up to the plate and fulfill the objectives we’ve identified as the means to reach our goals.

MBJ: What are the goals of Emerge?

Fluker: We use the words connect, grow, voice and interact – making sure that we are networking; we are serving as a tool to help recruit and retain young professional talent into Montgomery, but also making sure the perspective of that population is heard by not only the business leadership, but also the political leadership. Then, more importantly that there is constant activity that supports the growth of this young professional population both as individuals, but also as a group.

MBJ: Are you being heard?

Fluker: We are absolutely being heard. We have seen a lot of our ideas taken by the business community as well as by the political community and implemented into real programs and initiatives.

MBJ: Would you please give some examples?

Fluker: One of the best examples is probably the participation in Mayor Todd Strange’s mayoral council, where he meets with us once a month. We have breakfast and we just talk about what is going on in Montgomery. There are numerous instances where we have shared ideas there and he has then implemented. One is a perfect example of what Montgomery now does as a New Year’s Eve celebration. That was born from discussions at that mayoral council.

MBJ: There was a huge crowd downtown this past New Year’s.

Fluker: This was our second year. There are other examples of input in things that were already along the way.

MBJ: How long have you been a member of the organization?

Fluker: This will be my third year.

MBJ: What other positions have you held in the organization?

Fluker: I came on board and immediately was elected the member-at-large and then I was elected last year vice president. The way our structure works, the vice president with a vote of confidence transitions to the president after serving the year term as vice president. I got the vote of confidence back in November and assumed presidency on Jan. 1. Prior to that, I was a graduate of the Torchbearers leadership class, which is an extension of Leadership Montgomery and that is what introduced me to Emerge.

MBJ: What have you learned about Emerge and what have you learned about Montgomery during your time with Emerge?

Fluker: I moved back to Montgomery about three years ago. (She has a bachelor’s degree in history from Alabama State University.) I’m originally from Zimbabwe, Africa. I grew up in London, England.

MBJ: What have you learned about Emerge?

Fluker: I’ve learned a lot about Montgomery, but what I learned about the group is that we have a large eager and thirsty group of young professionals, who are diverse and have interests in really seeing Montgomery continue to progress and figure ways how they can have input in that progression. There is a very large number and we cut across from the private and the public sectors. We’re educators; we’re business professionals and there’s a desire to do more and to have a more significant role.

MBJ:  and what have you learned about Montgomery during your time with Emerge?

Fluker: What I’ve learned about Montgomery is that Montgomery is a lot more open to new ideas than our history and tradition may suggest. When you look at the mayor wanting to have conversations with 22-, 24- and 30-year-olds to get a perspective on how to do his job. When you look at the business leaders and the Chamber sitting down and having luncheons with us and telling us about what they do and how they do what they’re doing as seasoned professionals. That’s really indicative of a much more progressive Montgomery or as we call it a Montgomery 2.0 than what people perceive Montgomery to be. We have to do a better job of telling the story though.

MBJ: What are the organization’s goals for 2014?

Fluker: We have some really special goals for this year. Our population is primarily black and white – from a race perspective and Montgomery has a growing Asian community. One of our primary goals is to recruit more Asian young professionals to be a part of Emerge Montgomery. We will be reaching out to Hyundai as a source, but also the academic communities have good representation of people of Asian background. That gives us a chance to expand our diversity – diversity is one. The other one is also in the spirit of diversity. We are a population from age 22 to 40, which means we have everything from recent graduates of college to singles to people who are engaged; married; and with children. When you look at a lot of our programming, it is really focused more on everyone except for the families. We are looking at making sure that we do more activities to include young professionals who may already have a family. We will continue to offer them a chance to network.

MBJ: Will Emerge have special events for members with families?

Fluker: Yes. We did do one event that was family-oriented. We would like to target that audience this year on a quarterly basis. The third and most important goal is that Montgomery is a large, college town. With all the colleges and universities represented in Montgomery, we have a unique opportunity to help retain that talent in Montgomery and Emerge is the leader and the best organization positioned to attract that group. For this last year, LEAD Summit, which is our biggest conference, we targeted students from Huntingdon, AUM (Auburn University at Montgomery), Troy and Alabama State University to participate. Of that population, 31 of them will be coming on as members. They are juniors and seniors that are 22 years old or older. Just to have that stronger relationship and to also give them examples of what it is like to be a young professional living in Montgomery post-graduation from college.

MBJ: Please talk about The Executive 2 EMERGE speaker series. How long has it been a program of Emerge?

Fluker: That’s always been in existence and we will continue that. That’s the one I mentioned to you when we bring in mid- to senior-level executives to come in and talk about what they do; what kind of challenges they are facing; and also share with us how we could map our careers to where they’ve reached in their success.

MBJ: What does a successful year look like for you leading the organization?

Fluker: To me, a successful year looks like you have an active membership – having good and consistent participation levels. We have a lot of people who join Emerge, but as far as participation and events – while we have good turnouts, we would love to see more members involved in our committees and actually helping us put on some of this programming. That way, we can incorporate those diverse ideas. Having members who have been a part of Emerge in the past, come back because we lost a lot of our membership to people’s lives becoming busier – so we would love to see a reclamation of our membership. I think we have lost a lot of our members, quite frankly to families and if we (add family-oriented events) we can bring them back. The third thing for me would be successful programming, particularly with the LEAD Summit, where we are shaping it now to cater more to this collegiate population - a successful LEAD Summit. I cannot close without saying, identifying resources and funds to make sure that we have the capital to put on the program that we have.

MBJ: How many members does Emerge have and how large is the database?

Fluker: The database is well over 1,000. Our membership is 200 to 250 and our active members are 50 to 75.

MBJ: Are there concrete goals for membership?

Fluker: I would love to see 300 paid members before year end.

MBJ: “The mission of Emerge is to provide an environment for young professionals to network, develop professionally and socially, and participate in partnerships in order to attract, retain and improve quality of life for young professionals in the city of Montgomery,” according to the organization’s website. How has the organization done the past five years?

Fluker: Overall, we’ve done well. Looking at those different pieces of the mission, we have been successful in networking and the professional development and of course the social component.  I do think we could do a little bit more and my goals are really focused on the retention piece and the attraction piece. We have a lot of room for growth.  We’re looking for new ideas. We’re looking for new people. We love it when people come in from different cities and they have experienced life differently. I would argue that one of the things that my constituents were drawn to and placed me in this position (associate vice president for the Office of Development at Alabama State University) was because I was from the outside and came in with a different perspective and saw things through a different lens. Sometimes when you are really close to something, you don’t appreciate it as much as an outsider who is experiencing it for a first time does.

MBJ: What does Emerge look like in four years when the organization is 10 years old?

Fluker: In the 10th anniversary, Emerge is certainly more diverse and is linked to other young professional organizations throughout the region. And Emerge is viewed as a premier sort of benchmark for how young professional organizations should be structured and what type of programming they should actually have.

MBJ: Why is Emerge an important organization?

Fluker: Emerge is important to the future of Montgomery because when you look at an aging population, this is going to be a support source for the identification of talent; the professional development of talent; and most importantly, the retention of talent. I’m not just talking about retention in the jobs, companies and organizations that we’re in, or retention in the region to make sure that we a have talent base. When you look at one of the No. 1 driving factors of a company deciding to set up shop here in Montgomery – one of the things they look at is what’s the available talent pool? There is value in being able to have that source of talent.

MBJ: Please talk about the role Emerge has played in helping Montgomery become a more attractive city to young professionals?

Fluker: I will boldly say this and that is we often talk about Montgomery being ‘capital cool.’ The mayor uses that term. I don’t think many people would argue with me and say that the cool piece is Emerge. When you look at what is going on in The Alley, you run into groups often at different restaurants and bars. You have a lot of Emerge members who are supporting that so that’s a key relevant piece in terms of supporting that nightlife and that social activity. The other thing is there is a brain trust. I think there is a set of creative thinkers that you see that business leaders like Jerry Kyser leverage and hire into their organizations. There are very few restaurants – in fact, I can’t think of any restaurants that have opened in Montgomery in the time that I’ve been here – where we were not invited as the first set of individuals to give a perspective. It’s beyond that when Mercedes-Benz launched its new under $30,000 (model), we were the first group contacted by Jack Ingram to host an event at Jack Ingram in order to have that population exposed to that new vehicle given that we represent that demographic. I think we are the cool in capital cool.  


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