In the hustle and bustle of Atlanta’s Lenox Mall, I meet Chandra Stephens-Albright— poised and donning a large smile, the Atlanta native is keen to offer me a coup d’oeil into her life.
Chandra grew up in southwest Atlanta. Her mother attended Spelman College, her father went to Morehouse College, and they both were active in the non-profit space.
She grew up in a family that was keenly aware of race relations. “I’m a child of the mid to late sixties, so our family was part of that first wave of black families that moved into that neighborhood in the southwest— I saw ‘white flight’ change the neighborhood.”
“I grew up looking at how my parents experienced race and difference; that influenced how I experienced it and what I chose to internalize and reject.”
Chandra went primarily to private schools. She attended Trinity School and graduated high school from Woodward Academy. Her experience at the latter, then a mostly-white school, was difficult. “I don’t know if enrolling us into Woodward was a conscious decision [on my parents’ part] to help us understand how to navigate the broader world or not, but I think it made me a better person. I’m not mad at them, it was part of my growing up.”
“I was a very good student and graduated at the top of my class at Woodward so I had the choice to go to Harvard, Yale, Brown.”
Unbeknownst to her, Chandra’s mother had anonymously nominated Chandra for the Woodruff Scholarship at Emory.
“I believe it was the first year they were offering it, in 1981. I got a tuition-free ride to Emory, where I was able to express my academic freedom and study chemistry; then I got my MBA (from Washington University in St. Louis),” Chandra says.
As an Emory student, she was surprised to learn that Emory was a second-choice school for many. “That’s part of the reason why I’m so involved with Emory right now, because I think that’s unfair. Emory is an incredible school. It’s so gratifying to see how it has progressed and grown since the time I was there.”
So, what was Emory like when Chandra attended in the 80s?
“1981, the year I came to Emory, had the largest African-American class so far. However, I did not feel welcome, people were looking down at those with financial aid — but I graduated seventh in my class. I was on financial aid because I got a merit scholarship, not because my parents couldn’t afford to get me into college. I had to prove myself all the time. It was also not a welcoming environment for racial differences. It was a segregated place, it was uncomfortable.”
She found solace in the international dorm. “There were people who were Jamaican or French or Korean and nobody was pointing fingers at them, they were who they were. I wished Emory back then was more like Emory now. [The issue is] still there now, but it’s much more different than how it used to be back then.”
Chandra’s academic trajectory began in high school with a chemistry teacher that she loved, Ms. Sanchez, who taught her to enjoy the subject. Chandra was also a musician and played violin and piano, a combo that allowed her to see the correlation between music and science.
“When I got to Emory, I wanted to study chemistry without getting a B.S. in it, so I ended up taking a variety of classes and got a B.A. in chemistry. My passion growing up academically was that I wanted to be the person who understood the science but also the business piece. I wanted to be able to have a conversation with a scientist about what we wanted to accomplish with the consumers who bought our products, but also make that science relevant to the consumer.”
As Director of Market and Business Development and later, of Innovation, at Coca-Cola, Chandra found a position that played to all her skills.
“My favorite project was Coca-Cola Freestyle— we asked: ‘What if you concentrated syrup down to a really small package?’, then you can have all this variety and a very small footprint. That’s science. I spent five years on that project. I dealt with lawyers and engineers and food scientists and people who serviced the equipment and the manufacturers.”
“How does all of this translate to what the consumers see when they’re actually in front of the Coca-Cola machine? All of those things that are usually separated by a wall— I was able to bring them forward into the consumer experience. I learned to connect two different sides of a story. Thank you, Ms. Sanchez!” (laughs).
While she worked for a big corporation, her father was making headway in the world of philanthropy. He taught Chandra that in fundraising, there is no need to narrow your potential donors and funders to only white, rich populations. “My father believed that everyone has a reason to give,” she explains. “If you look at black churches, people give 10% of their income to the church. That’s philanthropy.”
“He did a lot to expand the notion that you can look at philanthropy across groups. I didn’t realize what a rock star he was until he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011.”
The prognosis was dire and he was given weeks to live. “But he wasn’t ready to die— Emory Winship Hospital did a good job and he lived a high-quality life for two more years. During that time, I got exposed to the work he did in the fundraising field.” Chandra realized that her previous interest in fundraising was part of her DNA, passed down from her parents and particularly, from her father.
In 2013, Coca-Cola underwent structural changes. “On a Monday, I found out that my job was eliminated. On Thursday, my father died. That was a really tough time. I had to figure out whether I wanted to stay with the company I was with for 22 years or do something else. But the truth is, I just wanted to mourn. I wanted to take a break to see what made me happy, what made my heart beat faster.”
She decided she wanted to run a non-profit. She worked in youth development— it included community, career and camp components. “The camping component was very physically demanding— after three years I decided to take a rest. I was planning to take a break when my friend called and said, ‘look, the Kenny Leon theater company is looking for a managing director. I know you just left your job. I think you’d be great for this position. You’ve been involved with the Alliance Theater for so long as a board-member and donor. You should look at it’.”
She looked at it and got the job. Chandra has been Managing Director for Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre for three months now.
She might be new to the position, but she’s been a supporter of theater for 24 years. “It’s almost as if I’m being paid to enjoy it. It’s fabulous.”
She connects her new job to the work she did at Coca-Cola — they both involve innovation and marketing. “How do you take this blank stage, this blank piece of paper and bring your idea to life? It’s a very disciplined process. When you’re sitting in the dark in the audience, it’s all seamless and beautiful and engaging, you don’t see the background work. That’s the part I’m fascinated with, I wanted to bring my innovation skills into play at this theater. In a matter of six weeks or so, you have to bring all these words on a paper to life, in a staged performance.”
I ask her if she thinks her own life follows a similar path— hard work backstage that leads to unique, creative, and seemingly effortless results.
“Looking back, my parents making a conscious decision to put us into Woodward and my mom choosing to point me towards Emory — these were all ways to take me out of my comfort zone and to challenge my limits. That’s all that innovation is. Being in a position to not just settle with what’s in front of you, and not just let people’s impression of who you are drive their interaction with you — that also has to do with your question.”
A regular work day for Chandra is a combination of art and business. On the artistic side, she helps support the cast and the creative crew. On the business side, she takes care of the crew’s needs and the funding and resources necessary to run the show.
“It’s wonderful. You have a mix of accountability for what happens: for those people sitting in the audience and for the people involved in making the show. When I got this job, I realized, ‘whatever bump comes your way, Chandra, you got to smooth it out’.”
How does she balance her work life with her personal life?
“I don’t think there needs to be a separation. If you do what you love, that makes your personal life better. If you have a great personal life, you can bring that positive energy back into work.”
One of the latest shows staged at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company was “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” featuring Emory alum and previous interviewee, Garrett Turner. “I met him — I was on the Emory College Alumni Board a few years back and Emory organized an event on the arts. The Schwartz Center was at its beginnings, and Emory wanted to see whether we, as Emory alumni, could advocate for the arts. We had members of an improv group come in and students panels in which they described their experiences in multi-disciplinary, art-related areas. Garrett was one of those students. I saw him at rehearsals, and I thought he looked so familiar. Then I saw the program and realized, ‘wow, that’s the same young man from that panel!'”
Casting the same keen eye on young artists today, Chandra advises students to follow their heart. “There’s nothing more difficult than being told what you should do. When I told my parents that I was going to the business school, they were horrified. Corporate world, argh. But I followed my heart and I am where I am. Everything has fallen into place. Every job I’ve had prepared me for that first non-profit job. And that non-profit job prepared me for this non-profit job. The challenge is, following your heart requires confidence— if you don’t have that, you won’t have a clear path. I’ve been in non-profits because these companies help people build confidence. In general, if it’s making you happy, it will help a lot of other people.”
When it comes to what’s giving her purpose and joy, she mentions connecting people. “I’m absolutely energized and plugged in when I can bring two entities together and it turns out that the two together are bigger than they would’ve been by themselves.”
The Chandra Stephens-Albright + True Colors Theatre Company duo seems to be one of those examples of, in the words of Aristotle, “a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”
By Loli Lucaciu