TFC Tupelo Trek

Brandon Kieffer | TFC Trek Organizer, MBA ’19

During the first weekend in April, the Turner Family Center for Social Ventures at Vanderbilt University sent seven students to Tupelo, Mississippi on an educational trek. Although the goal of our group of 5 MBA students and 2 Graduate Program of Economic Development (GPED) students was to learn from Tupelo community leaders about how private and public partnerships have led to the city being a prime example of economic development success, the overarching lessons we learned transcend business, economics, and politics. They are lessons that can be applied on both a personal and organizational level. As our hospitable host Scott Reed, Vanderbilt BA ’80, mentioned plenty of times, “there is nothing we are doing here (in Tupelo) that people cannot do elsewhere.” I believe he was specifically referencing the tangible, progressive initiatives of the town; however, the intangible mindset of the Tupelo community is inspiringly rare.

Tupelo, Mississippi was once one of the poorest counties in the poorest state. After a treacherous tornado tore through Tupelo transforming the town to traces of tragedy in the late 1930s, the community was left with a blank slate to rebuild. Luckily community leaders such as George McLean had the wisdom to realize no one was going to come and save Tupelo, but instead it was up to the community leaders to come together and rebuild the town. Combining this with an egalitarian mindset and the Tupelo Spirit of civic sensibility was born.

The Tupelo reaction to tragedy is a noble spirit that transcends the town’s situation. I believe it is a mindset that can carry over into our personal and professional lives. When we encounter an unfavorable situation or suffer a setback, we should not sit idly and rely on others to come and save us. Instead we should be proactive to overcome the obstacles and recruit others to help with our plan for restoration. I was inspired to see Tupelo’s intentional ideology in the face of adversity and even more impressed to see the sustainability of the Tupelo Spirit still very alive today.

The Tupelo Spirit encompasses much more than overcoming adversity. We witnessed how the local government envisions “rising the tide” of the entire region by collaborating with other communities in Lee County to extend their development beyond their town’s borders. This selflessness has helped the communities overcome the “Friday night lights” problem many rural Southern towns face when high school football rivalries can affect relationships between community leaders. Instead the Tupelo Spirit enables the communities in Lee County to be in alliance and dedicated to helping each other succeed. The local governments understand the importance of envisioning the overall bigger picture and not limiting their efforts to benefiting their own community.

Business leaders of Tupelo also understand the importance of “rising the tide” to develop the community, which was intriguing to a business student. The leaders understand the importance of healthy competition and the empowerment commerce can have on a community. One quote thrown out was “as long as customers are poor, you are poor,” which shows that the leaders understand the impact enterprise can have on a community. It could be very easy for a business owner to have a small monopoly in a small town like Tupelo. However, the local business leaders understand that developing a bigger and better community economy through competitive enterprise can create an avenue for sustainability and growth for all parties involved.

This “rising the tide” mindset presented another lesson that transcends the community development efforts of Tupelo. Often, we are very narrowly focused on benefiting ourselves and viewing competition as someone to beat. It is hard to see how collaboration and competition can be intertwined to create a better overall environment. As future leaders, we should be focusing on the bigger picture outside of our own initiatives to create a sustainable future that will enable the greatest impact to be had and not focused on pursuing personal gain. This is especially true for social enterprises who are competing against businesses who may not share this mindset and are only set on stomping out their competition.

I could continue to ramble on about all the valuable lessons I learned from Scott Reed, the members of the Community Development Foundation, and all the other community leaders in Tupelo. For the sake of time and any reader’s sanity, I must conclude this post. Tupelo may be most known for their honey or being the birthplace of Elvis—side note: we visited the site and it is worth seeing! —but in reality it should be known for being a prime example of how a group of community leaders, both private and public, come together to create a shared vision for the future of their town. Their wisdom in collaboration, diversification, and inclusion has made this small town in northeast Mississippi one of the most progressive economic environments in the country. Whether you are a community leader or a student, the Tupelo Spirit does not discriminate against those it can inspire.