Celebrating diverse leaders in Birmingham

The Minority Business Awards recognizes the achievements of business leaders in the Magic City

Minority Business Awards LAUNCH! contest, left to right: Dee Linson, SummitMedia marketing executive; Williams Barnes, president and CEO of the Birmingham Urban League; Shayla Townsend, winner; Bob Dickerson, executive director of the Birmingham Business Resource Center; Rickey Smiley, comedian and 2023 host of the Minority Business Awards.

Getting the nod to lead a team, a department, corporation or nonprofit, or launching one’s own small business or startup is arguably part of the American dream for lots of working adults.

For women and minorities in Alabama and across the United States, however, gaining opportunities to lead can often mean pushing through the headwinds of sexism, racism, lack of financing and other obstacles.

But a radio broadcasting company in Birmingham called SummitMedia LLC celebrates and recognizes women and minorities in various sectors through its annual Minority Business Awards program.

The Minority Business Awards, now in its 18th year, serves as a platform to recognize and celebrate the achievements and contributions of minority business leaders in Birmingham, says Justin Ragland, vice president of events and promotions for SummitMedia. 

SummitMedia is a national company that oversees four top R&B, rhythmic contemporary hits, country and classic rock radio stations in the Birmingham market.

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“By honoring their successes, the awards highlight the entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and economic impact that these individuals have within the local community,” Ragland says.

This year’s 2024 Minority Business Awards event is scheduled for 7:55 p.m. on May 16 at The Club in Birmingham, with the keynote address by J. Michael Kemp Sr. starting the event.

The Minority Business Awards honor leaders in eight categories: Entrepreneur of the Year, Small Business Owner of the Year, Young Professional of the Year, Executive of the Year, Diversity and Inclusion Leader of the Year, Medical Leader of the Year, Nonprofit Leader of the Year and Academic Leader of the Year.

Justin Ragland, vice president of events and promotions for SummitMedia.

“In a diverse and multicultural society, it’s crucial to acknowledge and promote diversity and inclusion in all sectors, including business. The awards showcase the diversity of talent, skills and perspectives within the business community, fostering a culture of inclusivity and equity,” Ragland says.

Also, by highlighting the success stories of minority leaders, the Minority Business Awards inspire aspiring entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities, he says.

“These success stories serve as role models and demonstrate that with determination, hard work and support, anyone can achieve entrepreneurial success regardless of their background,” he says.

For the awards contest, peers and the general public can nominate the finalists. Afterward, a panel consisting of radio personalities, Minority Business Award sponsors and leaders in Birmingham’s business community vote to select the winners.

Ragland says SummitMedia receives several hundred entries every year.

“Summit’s commitment to hosting the Minority Business Awards reflects our dedication to corporate citizenship, diversity and inclusion, economic development and community engagement,” he says.

Besides the awards ceremony, the event features a cocktail reception and dinner, he says.

The 2023 winners were:

Entrepreneur of the Year: Zebbie Carney, founder and owner of Eugene’s Hot Chicken

Medical Professional of the Year: Dr. Mia Cowan, founder and owner of MiBella Wellness Center

Diversity Leader of the Year: Louise Duncan, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion manager at Alabama Power

Academic of the Year: Mark Sullivan, superintendent of Birmingham City Schools

Executive of the Year: Montal Morton, owner and marketing director of the Redmont Distilling Co.

Outstanding Young Professional of the Year: Ashley Gann, chief meteorologist at CBS-42 News

Nonprofit/Faith Leader of the Year: Tomeka Walker, executive director of Khairi and Little Angels Memorial.

Eric Ryles, the owner of Ez Cutz Barbershop in Birmingham, won Small Business Owner of the Year in 2022.

Ryles, who has been in business for nine years, recalls the moment he learned that so many people nominated him for the award.

 “I broke down, actually, because I never thought that people felt that I should be nominated for anything. I’ve been in this business for so long, and I never thought about getting accolades for what I love to do, which is to cut hair. And, I just love people,” he says.

“So many of my clients told others that I won this award for being business owner of the year and really showed love for me to others by letting them know, ‘He runs a good place of business. It’s really laid back and family-friendly,’” Ryles says.

“I’m getting ready to go nine years of being in business for myself. Just being able to get up and come to a place I can call my own is a blessing in itself,” he says.

Ryles says running a business requires dedication and consistency. “Nothing can stop you if you work hard,” he says.

Ragland says SummitMedia continued holding the awards ceremony even during the pandemic.

“Instead of a live awards event, we produced a virtual presentation and published it on the Minority Business Awards, 98.7 Kiss, 95.7 Jamz and 610 WAGG social platforms,” Ragland says.

SummitMedia continues to record the ceremony so the public can watch it on the website, minoritybusinessawards.com, and on various social media platforms.

This year’s hosts for the ceremony will be Kyle Santillian and Lore’l, hosts of the nationally syndicated show “The Morning Hustle” that airs on 95.7 JAMZ in Birmingham.

Over the years, the Minority Business Awards keynote speakers have included celebrities and business leaders like comedian Roy Wood Jr. and syndicated radio personality Tom Joyner.

This year’s guest speaker will be Birmingham native J. Michael Kemp Sr., president and CEO of Kemp Management Solutions and its family of companies in Birmingham. Kemp was a member of Leadership Birmingham’s Class of 2012 and Leadership Alabama’s Class of 2017 and chairman of the Business Council of Alabama in 2022.

In 2023, the Minority Business Awards, along with Birmingham Urban League Inc., debuted Launch!, a pitch competition open to local entrepreneurs. Contestants can win an opportunity to be one of three finalists to pitch their business to a panel of business leaders for a chance to win a $5,000 grant for the development or marketing of their start-up or brand.

Ragland says the panel members are various leaders selected based on their profession and business acumen, such as William Barnes, CEO of the Birmingham Urban League, and Bob Dickerson, executive director of the Birmingham Business Resource Center.

Ragland says the judges look for creativity, whether the product or idea fills a need and how well the product or idea relates to consumers. The winner is announced during the awards ceremony.

The first Launch! winner was Shayla Townsend, the founder and CEO of Townsend Advisory Group LLC, a Birmingham startup offering staffing and other human resource services.

Those interested in competing can visit minoritybusinessawards.com/launch for details.

“Today, the Minority Business Awards remain important as they continue to celebrate minority leaders, promote diversity and inclusion and stimulate economic growth within the minority community,” Ragland says.

“In a rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected world,” he says, “these awards serve as a reminder of the importance of supporting and empowering all minorities to create a more prosperous and equitable society.”

Gail Allyn Short is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the May 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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