The Empowerment Network celebrated its 15th anniversary Friday in Omaha with an on-brand stylish assist from Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a former NBA superstar who has achieved even greater success in business.
Johnson, known for investing in urban communities and minority-owned businesses, gave a keynote speech at the Rebuilding the Village Conference, a daylong event at the CHI Health Center convention center.
He regaled an audience of 800 people with stories and advice from his career as an entrepreneur and investor, from launching Starbucks in urban Black neighborhoods to becoming part owner of the L.A. Dodgers to investing in a multibillion-dollar rebuild of New York City’s La Guardia Airport. He made them laugh with anecdotes about growing up eating surplus government cheese and wearing “highwaters,” hand-me-down pants from his older brothers who were shorter than him.
Johnson reenacted his trademark no-look pass at the request of a fan in the crowd. He spontaneously promised to pay for college for a new Benson High School graduate in the crowd, Darnell Jackson Jr. — and to give the young man an internship in Los Angeles if he gets good grades. Johnson brought himself to tears by reminiscing about going to the grocery store with his mother every Friday as a child. And he offered words of encouragement.
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“Make sure you come together,” said Johnson, founder and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises. “My people in here, we can get it done here in Omaha in your own community. And you don’t have to be doing it by yourself.”
That note seemed in tune with what the Empowerment Network has been trying to do since it was created in 2007. The organization partners with private business, government, nonprofits and others on community betterment in North Omaha and communitywide.
Johnson was initially scheduled to speak at one of the group’s conferences in 2020, but the pandemic scuttled those plans.
“To have him here as we celebrate 15 years and focus even more on community and economic development, entrepreneurship and wealth building, who better to have than Magic?” said Willie Barney, CEO and founder of the Empowerment Network.
Barney said the group and Omaha 360’s collaboration with the community and police had contributed to major reductions in gun violence in Omaha, and that local African American high school graduation rates had climbed and unemployment rates dropped before the pandemic. He said 70 people from outside Omaha, from such cities as Tulsa, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Houston, came Friday to learn more about the collaboration.
“It wasn’t just one agency or organization, but it was collective, aligning their efforts, and then working to secure more investments,” Barney said. “So those are the things that I think people can celebrate. The pandemic has obviously interrupted some of those trends. But I’m encouraged to see that we’re now starting to return back to those positive trends.”
The event included workshops and talks from national and local experts on a wide variety of topics, including wealth-building and homeownership, entrepreneurship and small-business strategies and social issues.
A convention center hallway buzzed with happy conversation Friday as people visited the booths of dozens of Black-owned businesses and other entities participated in the Revive! Black Business Expo as part of the event. The businesses included Majestik Palace, a indigenous artisan collaborative that sells arts and crafts and other handmade products. Owner Alexandria Ewing, who first showed her wares at such an expo several years ago, said she has seen a lot of growth in the number of Black-owned businesses in Omaha.
Timothy Christian, founder and CEO of Night Fox Entertainment and president of the Empowerment Network’s board of directors, made the connection with Johnson. Christian said Johnson exemplifies what it means to be a champion — leading teams to championships in high school, college and of course, the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“After basketball … he’s been even more of a champion,” Christian said.
“He shows what it means to really invest in our community. I’m talking about urban communities, underserved communities, and really places that have been historically left out. But he came in and said, you know what, there is room to make an investment here. And this investment will return a hundredfold. And he’s shown that time and time again.”
There may have been no bigger fan of Johnson at the event than Howard Dial, a UPS driver from Omaha. Dial wore a vintage Johnson Lakers jersey over his shirt and tie and under his blazer. Johnson called Dial up from the crowd and signed his jersey. Johnson obliged when Dial asked him to do a no-look pass move.
When Dial said he was still mad about the Lakers 1991 loss to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, Johnson gave a vivid recounting of Jordan’s jaw-dropping switch-handed, game-winning layup.
Dial and his wife, Marcella, went to see Johnson on Friday. But they took away more than the jersey autograph. Noting that their sons had mentors from 100 Black Men, and worked in the Empowerment Network’s Step Up program, Marcella Dial said there’s progress being made in Omaha. She sees more people of color in leadership positions and having business success.
“Things are happening here,” she said.
State Sens. Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney also attended Friday’s event. Wayne, who introduced legislation that will provide $335 million for economic recovery in North and South Omaha and other underserved parts of Nebraska, said the timing is right for national as well as local partners to invest in Omaha. He said the Empowerment Network has helped lay groundwork for economic development.
“We can show everybody that America and capitalism works for everyone, if done right, where we focus on small businesses and entrepreneurship in Black and Brown communities, and we invest in those Black and Brown communities,” Wayne said. “Those communities can build wealth, and not just for themselves but for generations.”
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