Whenever Tulsa, Okla. is mentioned among circles of Black folk, there's often a raised eyebrow, a puzzled look, or a memory of the depiction of the murder and devastation of the horrific 1921 massacre on Black Wall Street a la Lovecraft Country. For Akia Walker, born and raised in Tulsa, the history and impact of the Black community, culture, entrepreneurship, and excellence is engrained in her heart and work.
The old common saying made famous by several Black queens before us, including the great Auntie Maya (Angelou, that is), rings true here: You can't really know where you're going until you know where you've come from. In the early 1900s, Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood was a thriving center of Black commerce, community, ownership, and pride, with beautiful homes accenting the streets lined with Black-owned hotels, barbershops, grocery stores, billiards, theaters, churches, and doctor’s offices.
Within 24 hours, on May 31, 1921, Tulsa's Black Wall Street businesses and its neighboring community all went up in flames and destruction. Hundreds of residents were brutally attacked and killed by a mob of white terrorists. The financial toll was an estimated $1.8 million in property loss claims of the time, according to reports, (accounting for $27 million as of 2021).
In the same vein, Angelou also famously said, "But I'm a person of the moment. I'm here, and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I'm at, then I go forward to the next place." As the founder of Kia Cole Events—a premier event planning company that boasts working with organizations including the multimillion-dollar nonprofit, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and leading events for heavyweights like For(bes) the Culture, the Black Owned Media Equity and Sustainability Institute (BOMESI)—Walker is more than aware of Tulsa's tragic history of a town disseminated, and she wants to thrive in a way that shifts the narrative and adds to the legacy today.
She's seen her fair share of career transitions in the process, led by what she calls a "pursuit of purpose and passion." As a teen, she took the traditional route, trying her hand at higher education, but found that, even after thriving her first semester as a freshman, she wanted to take a different direction. She then ventured into banking, where she'd seen an aunt find success, and moved from working as a teller to handling mortgages, before having an epiphany. "I started volunteering at my church, and that triggered something in me—that maybe there's a little more to life than just 'making it,' because for me, when I left school, I thought there’s only two ways this can go: I can be a stereotypical failure or I can exceed and excel and be more than what I think or what the world tells you you can be without degrees."
She'd eventually move on to take a job as an executive assistant for a substantial and successful ministry, where one of her duties was to lead in organizing large-scale events.
"I initially said I’d do events when I’m retired, for fun. I didn’t want to put the pressure on events to provide for my life—like a job—because I wanted to have fun with it. Then, my friend was like, 'Why do it then when you can do it now?'"
"So, I said let me set aside the things that can sustain me and make me money and do things I’m passionate about. I’m good at administration and organization but it was like this drag, like, 'Gosh I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to send this email.' It wasn’t a passion. And that’s what encouraged me to go ahead and launch this events company."
Check out three key lessons that have helped forge early success for Walker that you can also be inspired by as a businesswoman (or aspiring one):
1. Determine what really motivates you and stick to that as a foundation for why and how you do business.
Walker says she's hugely influenced by the bond she has with her large family. "I have a really big, close family here in Tulsa, and the motivation to do it for them, and the motivation that they give me. My mom had me when she was 18 years old, and we’ve always done so many things together. [I've always] wanted to give something to do them to be proud of. We have a ton of kids in our family, and I wanted to give me and exemplify for them, [something] different, more, better. So that keeps me pushing."
She also enjoys the simple act of helping people and being of service. "I knew from a very early age that I cared about people deeply. [I enjoy] being able to create environments for people to be seen to be heard. My most favorite thing is when people say, ‘I feel so special,' or ‘I feel so important,’ and that lets me know that you’ve done your job well when you’ve created this atmosphere and environment for a single person to feel like it was just for them. That’s exactly why I do what I do."
2. Seek out the richness of your culture and history, and allow those, along with your unique experiences and talent, to be a driver and inspiration.
Though she's a native of Tulsa, Walker says that the history of the massacre, as well as that of those affected by it at the time, were not known to her until she became an adult. "It’s not something that was taught in schools. It’s not something that was talked about. Specifically, the Black community has done an amazing job with highlighting it [in recent years]."
She acknowledges the trauma and tragedy of the time but wants to highlight the greatness, vitality, and drive of a grand people who existed well before the massacre and tap into that aspect of the story in order to remain inspired today. "I think a lot of times, we get stuck on the grief of it, and it’s about everything that we lost. I like to use a story to motivate me and to say, like, 'Okay, but where did I come from?' Black Wall Street—Greenwood Ave.—was an affluent community. It wasn’t just Black people owning things. They were successful. And they did things well. They did things excellent. And I want to emulate that in my business."
"For Kia Cole Events, we have values: excellence, elegance, and opulence. I feel like that speaks to who we, as Black people, were [in Tulsa] and who we are. So, when I’m curating events and I get to get a whole bunch of Black people in one space, my favorite thing to say is, ‘I love seeing Black people like this.’"
"It feels like this is where we were always supposed to be. This is where we were always meant to be. And somewhere along the line, that got ripped from us, not just in Tulsa but in other cities across the U.S.—our affluence, our opulence, our elegance, and how regal we are as a people. That got taken from us. And I want to use Kia Cole Events as a way to restore that to us."
3. Nurture a bold confidence that informs how you approach opportunity, and go for yours no matter what.
Oftentimes, there's a popularly profound narrative that centers on themes of struggle and disadvantage for Black entrepreneurs, especially for those who are women and millennials. While challenges do exist, there's another side of the coin where confidence in the abundance, vitality, and amazing factors of simply being young, Black and enterprising woman with a purpose and plan wins. "As a Black woman and as a millennial business owner, I was fighting to be like ‘I’m educated,’ and ‘I’m competent’ and ‘I can do this,’ and I was being extremely adamant about it," Walker says.
"But then I took a step back and said, ‘Hey actually this isn’t necessary. I’m going to execute my work in a way that lets people know exactly who I am and exactly what I’m capable of.’ And that’s what I’m doing with Kia Cole Events, just speaking to what we were prior to the massacre. And it was so unfortunate and so heartbreaking, but I’m grateful to be part of restoring who we are here in Tulsa and hopefully across the world."
Featured image by Rhon Starling