D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) recently hosted a forum that featured four of the leading Black women in the city.
Former Democratic National Committee interim chairman Donna Brazile, former D.C. first lady Cora Masters Barry, Ben’s Chili Bowl co-founder Virginia Ali and entrepreneur Jan Adams participated in Tuesday’s forum, “Washington’s Women: A Panel Discussion on the Dynamic Careers of Women in Power,” at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill.
Norton said she wanted the forum to be interactive and informative.
“We want to have a conversation today,” she said. “We have some remarkable women with us today. Whatever they got, they took it. No one gave them a head start.”
Norton, who hosted the panel in recognition of Women’s History Month, told the audience of girls and young women, “you don’t have to get on a plane to meet remarkable women — they are right here in the District.”
Barry talked about being married to the late Marion S. Barry, the four-term D.C. mayor who also served on the D.C. Board of Education and the D.C. Council.
Barry said being a political spouse “was tough because you tend to lose your identity” but she still paid attention to the causes close to her heart, helping young people, while her husband led the District from 1995-1999. Barry serves as the chief executive officer of the Recreation Wish List Committee that built the landmark Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Ward 8.
Barry, a former political science professor at the University of the District of Columbia, said she faced difficulties when trying to convince people to support a recreation center that focuses on tennis and academic learning.
“There were some people who thought I should have used my energies to build a rehabilitation center,” she said. “I faced a lot of obstacles but ultimately it came through. I wanted to use the tennis center to empower young people, particularly girls.”
When the center opened in 2001, tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams attended the event along with Dr. Dorothy Height, the late civil and women’s rights icon and a force in the National Council of Negro Women. The center has been renovated and expanded and has gained strong corporate and philanthropic support in the D.C. area.
Adams founded JMA Solutions in 2005 and she remains as one of the few African-American women in the federal aviation business space. Adams, a retired chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, said she decided to take on this field “because I am a risk-taker.”
“I went into the armed service at 27 years old and with two kids,” she said. “I faced a lot of hurdles, but I was determined to get to the top of my field. I learned that as a woman in business, you have to work harder, work smarter and do a lot more than the men.”
A Federal Aviation Administration contractor, Adams got her first contract in 2008 for $6.5 million to hire air traffic controllers. By 2016, JMA Solutions had grown its revenue to $35 million and 170 employees and remains a rarity as far as Black women business owners contracting with the FAA.
Ali has been recognized for decades as one of the leading businesswomen in the District. She talked about starting Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 when segregation by law and custom ruled in the city.
“Black people didn’t go downtown to eat or to go to the theater, we went to U Street,” Ali said. “While Blacks didn’t own some of those businesses, they were managed by Blacks during the day.”
Ali said she and her husband, Ben, didn’t take a vacation for 10 years, constantly tending to the business. When the 1968 riots broke out after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Ben’s remained open and was the only business in the U Street area that did so during the unrest.
Ben’s now has additional locations in D.C. at H Street NE, Nationals Park and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and in Arlington, Va.
Ali credits a supportive community and city and a strong family for the restaurant’s success.
Brazile teaches at Georgetown and Howard universities and served as the first chief of staff to Norton. She is also the first Black woman to manage a presidential campaign (2000 for Al Gore) and lead the Democratic Party.
Brazile, a political commentator and pundit, said she got involved in politics at the age of 9 when her neighborhood needed a playground in Louisiana. She attended Louisiana State University and came to the District at the age of 21 to help lead the effort to make Dr. King’s birthday at national holiday.
Brazile said she has been a part of seven presidential campaigns, 56 U.S. House and Senate races and 49 statewide campaigns. She said she has succeeded out of persistence and encouraged the audience to be persistent too.
“Follow your dreams and know your passion,” she said. “Develop confidence, be a team player and be a leader. In addition, read everything you can get your hands on because it is important to know your history.”
The leaders said, in their own way, climbing the ladder of success requires being a good listener and being patient.
“Learn how to be a good listener,” Brazile said. “Patience is also advised. Have a two-year plan, a five-year plan and love yourself. When times are hard, faith will sustain you.”