New Black Expo leader focusing on finances: Bell will draw on skills as attorney, community volunteer

February 25, 2008

Less than a month after starting a job she didn't know she wanted, Indiana Black Expo CEO Tanya Bell has big plans for the nation's oldest and largest group of its kind.

Bell wants to diversify the statewide organization's revenue stream and expand its already-impressive roster of more than 100 corporate sponsors. Doing that will mean raising awareness of the year-round programs that have been overshadowed by IBE's two signature events: its annual Summer Celebration and Circle City Classic football games.

The 33-year-old plans to draw on her experience as an attorney and a community volunteer to achieve her goals. But leading IBE isn't her lifelong dream.

An IBE board member for six years, Bell wasn't sure how to respond when a colleague approached her about applying for the job after former CEO Joyce Rogers left for Ivy Tech Community College in November.

"It just hadn't even crossed my mind," said Bell, who was assistant general counsel at Community Health Network at the time.

So she bounced the idea off her husband, Tonee, and the Brownsburg couple ultimately decided the position would provide the perfect outlet for both Bell's legal expertise and her commitment to the black community. Bell has volunteered as a writing mentor for disadvantaged law students and served as a board member for other not-for-profit mentoring organizations.

"I worked my job, and then I served on committees. Now I'm doing both at the same time," she said.

The IBE board unanimously selected Bell from a nationwide pool of 52 applicants. Her experience and enthusiasm landed her the position, but her youth also will make her an effective leader for an organization looking to reach out to young blacks, said IBE Board Chairman Arvis Dawson.

Bell, who started work Jan. 28, will follow the paths blazed by two iconic, effective leaders.

Now vice president for development at Ivy Tech's Indianapolis campus, Rogers organized a number of buzz-worthy Indianapolis events during her six years at IBE. In 2005, she helped bring President George W. Bush to Indianapolis for a keynote address at an IBE luncheon. And in 2002, IBE partnered with the Indiana Pacers to bring a nationally televised championship boxing match to the Circle City.

Rogers replaced Rev. Charles Williams, who founded IBE in 1970 and set the framework for an organization devoted to addressing the needs of Indiana blacks. Williams died of prostate cancer in 2004.

Despite the legacy left by her predecessors, Bell is confident in her ability to be an effective leader for the 30-person IBE staff.

"Rev. Williams had a special gift with people, and Joyce Rogers created a lot of awareness of Indiana Black Expo globally," Bell said. "I would like to build upon that ... and at the same time accomplish some other things."

Bell will bring fresh ideas without compromising the group's history, Dawson said.

"She's had the opportunity to watch both of the past presidents," he said, "but her high level of energy makes her different."

Courting sponsors

During her six years on the board, Bell reviewed contracts and provided legal counsel for IBE. She also helped land a $100,000 grant from Delta Air Lines to send IBE delegates to South Africa last year to give Nelson Mandela the organization's Freedom Award.

But Bell's biggest accomplishment, she said, was spearheading a 2007 effort to reclassify each of the 12 regional IBE chapters as separate not-for-profit organizations so they can seek their own funding. The reorganization, which was finalized last month, also decreases liability problems for IBE.

"This gives [the organizations] an opportunity to go out on their own and raise dollars," said Bell, who makes $150,000 a year. "Some of them have already done that, but this really gives [them] more credibility."

In addition to making them more attractive to potential sponsors interested in supporting local events, the move gives the chapters more incentive to increase revenue by seeking new grants and sponsors, said Kris Kindelsperger, a fund-raising consultant at Greenwood-based Johnson Grossnickle & Associates.

"I think anything you would do that would encourage organizations to be entrepreneurial on their own would have the potential to be a positive thing," he said.

Bell expects her professional know-how to help her achieve the financial goals she's set for IBE, which had a revenue of $7.8 million in 2006. She will take a hands-on approach to working with supporters, helping them determine which programs and events are the best fit.

It's a method that has worked well for Indianapolis-based Heartland Truly Moving Pictures, the organization behind the annual Heartland Film Festival.

"It's really important to take good care of the sponsors," said Jeff Sparks, CEO for the independent film organization. "[Sponsors] are in it to get exposure, they're in it for community development, and they're in it to help the organization. Nonprofits [that] succeed are the ones who pay attention to their sponsors."

An increase in sponsors will give the organization long-term security, Kindelsperger said. The organization had 112 sponsors in 2006.

IBE is best-known for its Summer Celebration cultural extravaganza and Circle City Classic. The massive gatherings generate nearly 70 percent of the organization's revenue, but they're only part of what IBE does.

Bell wants to make more people aware of other programs, such as We Can Feed the Hungry, a food drive for Indianapolis families, and yearly back-to-school rallies that aim to help the black community both from an educational and a financial standpoint.

Bringing attention to smaller events can be difficult, Heartland's Sparks said, but Bell has high hopes. She'll use public service announcements on television and advertising campaigns at Circle City Classic and Summer Celebration.

"I think we can do a more effective job in telling [our] story," Bell said.

Young but 'wise'

Leading IBE may not be what Bell expected, but that has been a pattern for her. Bell's time on the high school debate team inspired her to become a lawyer, but she envisioned herself practicing criminal law like Ben Matlock. Instead, after graduating cum laude from the Indiana University School of Law in 2000, she took a job at Ice Miller and began working with litigation and contracts.

"I ended up doing the opposite of what I thought I would," she said. "That seems to be a theme ... I would have never thought I would be president of Indiana Black Expo."

Bell credits much of her passion for IBE to her personal history. When she was 4, her family moved from Seattle to Terre Haute, where she was raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to support Bell and her two brothers.

"From that standpoint, [my mother] has always been there for me," she said. "I attribute my success to her. Without that support, I would never have become the person I am today."

Bell's colleagues, however, attribute her success to her passion and to her maturity, which seems to go beyond her years.

"Sometimes it amazes me that a person this young is so wise," said Dawson, the board chairman. "That's what's impressed us the most. We expect great things from her."
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