Celebrating Birmingham’s Diverse Leaders

The launch of awards for minority businesses! competition, left to right: Dee Linson, SummitMedia Marketing Director; 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, department, corporation or nonprofit, or launching your own small business or startup is undoubtedly part of the American dream for many working adults.

For women and minorities in Alabama and across the United States, however, achieving opportunities to lead can often mean overcoming the headwinds of sexism, racism, lack of funding and other obstacles.

But a Birmingham broadcasting company 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 their 18th year, serve as a platform to recognize and celebrate the achievements and contributions of Birmingham’s minority business leaders, says Justin Ragland, vice president of events and promotions for SummitMedia.

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

“By honoring their successes, the awards highlight the entrepreneurship, innovation and economic impact these individuals have in their local community,” says Ragland.

This year’s 2024 Minority Business Awards event is set for 7.55pm on 16 May at The Club in Birminghamwith opening remarks by J. Michael Kemp Sr. kicking off 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 is essential to recognize and promote diversity and inclusion in all sectors, including business. The awards showcase the diversity of talent, skills and perspectives within the business community, promoting a culture of inclusion and equity,” says Ragland.

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 competition, colleagues and the general public can nominate finalists. A panel of radio personalities, Minority Business Award sponsors and leaders in the Birmingham business community then vote to select the winners.

Ragland says SummitMedia receives several hundred entries each year.

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

In addition to the awards ceremony, the event includes 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 Redmont Distilling Co.

Outstanding Young Professional of the Year: Ashley Gann, CBS-42 News Chief Meteorologist

Nonprofit/Religious Leader of the Year: Tomeka Walker, Executive Director of Khairi and Little Angels Memorial.

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

Ryles, who has been working for nine years, remembers the moment he found out that so many people had nominated him for the award.

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

“So many of my clients have told others that I won this award because I’m the owner of the business of the year and I’ve really shown love for myself to others by letting them know, ‘He runs a good business.’ . It’s really laid back and family friendly,’” says Ryles.

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

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

Ragland says SummitMedia has continued to host the awards ceremony even during the pandemic.

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

SummitMedia continues to record the ceremony so the public can watch it on the website, 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, Minority Business Awards keynote speakers have included celebrities and business leaders such as 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 Birmingham family of companies. Kemp was a member of the Leadership Birmingham Class of 2012 and the Leadership Alabama Class of 2017 and the 2022 President of the Alabama Business Council.

In 2023, the Minority Business Awards, along with the 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 to develop or commercialize their start-up or brand.

Ragland says the panelists are diverse leaders selected for 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 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 at the awards ceremony.

First Release! the winner was Shayla Townsend, founder and CEO of Townsend Advisory Group LLC, a Birmingham startup that provides staffing and other HR services.

Those interested in competing can visit for details.

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

“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 freelance writer in Birmingham Alabama Business.

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