Mel Washington has discovered that you can go home again, even after more than 35 years. Not only that, but you can bring in new ideas and start making your town better than you left it.
Washington recently left behind a long and productive career in finance and with nonprofits to move back to Mobile, and has wasted no time in making connections. He joined the boards of directors at Mobile Baykeeper, Prichard Preparatory School and the History Museum of Mobile, and serves on the advisory board of the Melton Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of South Alabama.
“I’d like to see Mobile become a center for entrepreneurship,” he said.
He’s about to come full circle with Springhill Medical Center’s Grandman Triathlon, coming up on June 1 in Fairhope. The fundraiser, which benefits Mobile Baykeeper, the Baldwin County Trailblazers, the Gulf Coast Area Triathletes and Camp Rap-A-Hope, was one of the first local events he volunteered with, helping set up the course.
“His business skills and acumen are a tremendous asset for Mobile Baykeeper,” said Casi Callaway, executive director.
One of five children of Florence and Melvin Washington, he grew up “Down the Bay” in the 1960s and 70s; graduated from Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic School (which was a high school at the time); and headed out into the world. “My goal was to become an aerospace engineer,” he remembered.
Washington earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Howard University and then a master’s in business administration from New York University. His first job was as a systems engineer with Grumman Aerospace in New York.
He worked for many years at various corporations in financial sectors, including Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase and Citibank, before trying his hand in the nonprofit arena. He became chief operating officer at Human Rights First, then took a job as chief financial officer at EastWest Institute. In 2009, he became executive director of Project Enterprise, which provides microloans to small businesses.
In addition, he took on a great deal of charity work, serving on the boards of directors at Hale House, The Children’s Village, the Council of Family and Child Care Agencies and the American Red Cross of Greater New York.
Then, in 2011, he felt “a strong tug to move back to Mobile,” and is diving back into his favorite causes here, from mentoring youth to encouraging business development.
“My goal was always helping others and finding ways to help kids develop and grow, and the development and growth of small businesses and entrepreneurs,” he said. “That’s what I want to do in Mobile.”
He’s at the helm of M. Washington and Associates, an independent consulting firm, and recently served as a judge in the Alabama Launchpad Startup Competition, which is run by the Economic Development Partnership Association. The contest allows “pre-seed” companies to compete in an entrepreneurial-infused environment for start-up funding.
Washington is also on the board of directors of Accion, a nonprofit that provides microloans from $500 to $100,000 to aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners; and he’s also taking part in the creation of The Brothers Fund, a micro-lending program to help military veterans who want to start their own businesses.
Environmental issues are one of his passions, particularly in Mobile Bay and on Dog River, where he spent a lot of time boating and shrimping while he was growing up. He remembers when the west side of the Bay was in pristine condition. Now, “there is no grass,” he said. “My brother used to pick up crabs along the Bay, and now you just see nothing but logs and debris there. Cleaning up the Bay is something that’s really critical to me. To not address it is just criminal.”
An avid cyclist and runner, Washington is hopeful that the city will add more bike lanes, and make downtown more pedestrian-friendly.
He has noticed that Mobile’s demographics have changed since he’s been away. “We’ve become a lot more open and accepting,” he said.
By May 22, 2013 at 11:12 PMon May 22, 2013 at 10:27 PM, updated