Kathy Johnson, executive vice president of NAMIC, hails from Des Moines, Iowa. She's the first to admit that there's not a lot of ethnic variety in her hometown.
"I always get that, people asking, 'Are there any black people in Iowa?'" said Johnson, who noted that her mother's family traces back through at least four generations in the Hawkeye State.
While Des Moines was no racial rainbow, in terms of its residents, Johnson's parents still had a diverse group of friends. "So I was always taught to appreciate people who were different," she said.
That's a lesson that has served her well, and in effect is the rallying cry for NAMIC and its work in the telecommunications industry.
"Our mission is to educate, advocate and empower for the cause of diversity," she said.
Johnson is the energetic firecracker who has overseen NAMIC's transformation from a charitable organization into a viable, action-oriented trade association that's championing diversity. She became NAMIC's first-ever full-time executive director in 1998.
"My mandate going in was to get the infrastructure in order," Johnson said. "And by getting that dedicated focus to the organization, we were able to launch a lot of programs and manage them."
NAMIC, formerly the National Association of Minorities in Communications, started out nationally in 1986 as a group of volunteers organizing urban-market conferences, according to Johnson. By 1990, the Reid Dugger Consulting Group had become NAMIC's managing partner, with its offices acting as the group's national headquarters. But as of Jan. 1, NAMIC moved into its own offices in Costa Mesa, Calif., and hired its own small staff. Johnson's title also changed, to executive vice president.
Early in her tenure, Johnson was in charge as NAMIC transitioned its tax status to officially become a trade group. Each of NAMIC's local chapters was incorporated as well.
"By becoming a trade organization, it gave us more flexibility in terms of lobbying," Johnson said. "We could be more outspoken and take positions rather than being a charity."
Johnson wound up in the cable industry through a circuitous route. She started out at as a print journalism major at Boston University, switching to broadcast and later interning at a local TV and radio station.
"I'm not much of a ham or actor, so it really didn't appeal to me a lot," she said.
After winning a post-graduate fellowship, Johnson earned an MBA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She then went to Manhattan as an assistant buyer for Bloomingdales' flagship store.
"I like retail," Johnson said. "You're on the cutting edge. I like fashion. I like to shop."
The upscale retailer eventually sent Johnson to Tyson's Corner, Va., to be a branch manager. While there, Johnson spotted an ad for a Kaitz Foundation Fellowship one Sunday in The Washington Post.
She applied, and was chosen by Times Mirror Cable to come to its Orange County, Calif., system. As a system sales manager, she oversaw 45 employees in telemarketing and direct sales.
One of first things Johnson did when she got into cable was join NAMIC, which in 1987 was starting a Los Angeles chapter.
"I lived in Mission Viejo, where there was not a lot of diversity," Johnson said. "So this was a way to meet other people of color. So I religiously drove to L.A. and never missed a meeting."
At that NAMIC chapter, Johnson met Paula Winn, who hired her at Disney Channel as a senior affiliate marketing rep. After five years at Disney, Johnson got her next gig, as director of marketing for Black Entertainment Television's Action Pay Per View, through another NAMIC networking connection Joe Lawson, who she replaced at the service.
One NAMIC initiative that Johnson is particularly proud of is the executive leadership development program, which got off the ground in partnership with University of California, Los Angeles in October 2001. The program addresses some of the dilemmas minorities face as they try to rise up the corporate ladder.
"The program has gotten glowing reviews," Johnson said. "It deals with a lot of the issues that people of color whose parents weren't part of corporate America, go through."
That's a challenge that Johnson, whose chef-father owned a catering business, has faced in her own career.
"My parents gave me a strong work ethic," she said. "It's interesting, when I talk to other people of color in business, their parents also told them work hard and be nice. But they don't teach you the politics. That's the one thing you don't learn, particularly if your parents weren't in a corporate setting per se."
In the executive leadership program, Johnson recalled that one of the instructors told a story about attending a party in Napa Valley with his wife for a book he had published.
"They were behind a hedge and listening as this man was pointing out everyone in the party to his young son, telling him who he should talk to. The instructor said, 'This kid's got a significant edge already. He's 10 years old and his father is already pointing out who's who,'" Johnson said.
One thing that Johnson—a first-generation college graduate in her family—has learned is not to be wowed by high-level officials. She said she learned a lesson from her supervisor at Bloomingdales.
When store executives such as chairman Marvin Traub and others would come in, the supervisor "was never intimidated," according to Johnson.
"She said they were just a couple of guys who did good at their job," Johnson said. "I always try to remember that."