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VIProfile: Phyllis Nichols



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By Gay Lyons
Photography by Britt Cole

Knoxville Area Urban League CEO Phyllis Nichols is passionate about three things: The Urban League, her husband Jim Nichols and being Queen of the Princess Dynasty. Nichols joined the Urban League in 1997 and became its CEO in 1999.

“I didn’t know that’s where I was headed,” said Phyllis, “but I think everything I learned along the way helped me.” She identified communication skills and facility in developing relationships as two things that helped her.

“Everything is mission driven,” she continued. “Everything is based on who we serve. You have to keep different stakeholders engaged. People want to see the outcomes and have a little ‘skin in the game.’”

“The national Urban League is 110 years old,” she said. “Our local organization just celebrated its 50th anniversary. But the things the Knoxville Area Urban League is doing today are not what we were doing 50 years ago when we were formed in response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“We have always focused on housing issues, but the issues in 1968 were different. Today we work to make sure we have well-educated consumers so they can make good decisions regarding interest rates and mortgages. Financial literacy helps an individual become a good consumer. Every month we help people achieve the American dream of home ownership. It’s still the great American dream.”

“We work as economic and financial coaches,” Phyllis said. “We work on both short and long-term goals. We are fully invested in the economic development of our community.”

“I once heard a motivational speaker ask: ‘If your organization went away, would anybody miss it?’ That really spoke to me. We’re a cornerstone. People can count on us. People trust us; they come to us and ask for advice.

“Right now, because we’re in the middle of a capital campaign, I feel as though my job as CEO is to raise money. I go to bed, and I get up thinking about who I need to see, who I need to follow up with. The community has been supportive, but we are not at the finish line yet.”

The capital project—a renovation of the organization’s offices at 1514 E. Fifth Avenue—isn’t just about a building, said Phyllis. “The Urban League has always kept up on technology, but this will be a high tech center with distance learning options, latest generation computers and highspeed connectivity,” she said. “We’ll have webinars and conference learning to bring more training and employment opportunities to our clients.

“We serve over 10,000 people a year in 26 programs in four different departments. Needs have changed, and how we deliver our services has changed. We plan to be around for another 50 years.” Kingsport native Phyllis married Jim Nichols, her college sweetheart at East Tennessee State University, in 1973. The couple moved to Knoxville in 1978.

“We had decided we were going to live in Knoxville four years,” said Phyllis. “We started our family and bought a house. The next thing you know daughter number two was here. We focused on what young people do. Jim, who had always been an entrepreneur at heart, began his career in real estate. Having worked with entrepreneurs at the Urban League, I am very proud of what he’s done.”

“He still makes my heart flutter when he walks in the room,” said Phyllis. “Our relationship has evolved like most mature relationships do. After we became empty nesters, I looked at him and realized I had my boyfriend back.

“Last week when we were in church, he texted me: ‘I love you more than Harry loves Meghan.’” Daughter Tiffany and her daughters Bella, Remi and Nico (ages eight, six and four) and daughter Allison and her daughter Delia (age four) are the Princess Dynasty; Phyllis is its Queen.

“Those girls and my girls bring me such joy,” said Phyllis. “What I do with them is very different from being CEO of the Urban League. We sing, dance and play, and I love every second of it.”

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