Willie Brook, Jr.

Willie F. Brooks, Jr.

County Commissioner, Shelby County, TN

Willie F. Brooks, Jr. has served as a District Commissioner on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners since 2014. In his role as Commissioner, Mr. Brooks serves as the Chair for the Audit Committee and the Vice Chair for the County’s Workforce Development Committee. Mr. Brooks was previously elected to the Memphis Charter Commission and to the Memphis City School Board of Commissioners and was a Broad Fellow honoree from the Broad Institute for School Boards. Mr. Brooks has also served on the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Multicultural African American Advisory Committee, and as the National Chairman for the St. Jude Partnership Initiatives, which resulted in more than $2.7M raised through the Sunday of Hope Program. Mr. Brooks is a graduate of the University of Memphis.

An Entrepreneurial Roadmap in Shelby County, Tennessee

Shelby County Commissioner Willie Brooks, Jr. fights racial disparities by uplifting Black-owned business 

Shelby County, Tennessee played a powerful role in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the home of Memphis, a site of organizing and activism throughout the movement. It’s known for being the city where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and where he was tragically assassinated the next day. This legacy is strong, but racial inequities persist in Shelby County. The median household income of white county residents, for instance, is more than double that of Black or Latinx workers. County Commissioner Willie Brooks, Jr. believes his community is ready to change. 

“I’ve been here all my life,” he says. “Growing up in Memphis, I’ve been able to see the opportunity that exists.”

Brooks felt that entrepreneurship could harness that opportunity. He knew that small businesses were part of the county’s social fabric, serving as gathering places and cultural hubs. They were also economic engines. 

“We need to be able to create jobs. And we create jobs by supporting the businesses in our community,” he explains.

In particular, Brooks hoped to support Black-owned businesses and businesses owned by people of color. More than half of Shelby County residents are Black, but Black-owned businesses account for less than 1% of gross receipts. 

As an E Pluribus Unum Fellow, Brooks created an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Road Map, built to increase the share of Black-led businesses in Shelby County. 

Brooks began by having conversations with local leaders to learn what they’d need to support and promote Black entrepreneurship. He formed an advisory group, with representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, employers, elected officials, and other leaders. With E Pluribus Unum’s and the county’s support, Brooks hired a strategy and design firm and a small business intermediary to facilitate the process. He also worked with E Pluribus Unum to offer stipends to community members and organizations, like the Black Business Association, who engaged in focus groups. 

The finished Road Map identified clear opportunities and potential risks to success. It sets out concrete strategies to align policy, practice, and investment in local Black-owned businesses. The Road Map shares proactive steps, like launching mentorship programs or inspiring youth entrepreneurs. It also identifies specific barriers that keep minority-owned small businesses from being competitive in government contracts, and puts forth strategies to address those barriers. 

Brooks feels this will reduce racial disparity in Shelby County. He feels a sense of both urgency and possibility about putting the Road Map into place. He knows it will make Shelby County not just a more equitable place, but improve the everyday life of his community. 

“There’s a need and opportunity for us to improve the quality of life,” he says.


2020 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet

US Census Bureau QuickFacts, Shelby County