March 23, 2017


“If you want it, we’ve got it.” That’s the Memphis mindset. In a city where the local chamber of commerce has an entire section dedicated to "Bragging Rights," it is easy to find reasons for optimism about business success, community, and culture.

Underlying Memphis’ vibrant music scene, delicious food, and warm southern hospitality is a strong drive to be the best. The Greater Memphis Chamber reports business growth for Shelby County and Memphis in 2014 included the location of a Target distribution center, Ikea and the expansion of the Cummins Diesel manufacturing facility. These new facilities represented an investment of $177 million and the creation of 1,500 jobs in the Greater Memphis area.

"Having a business-focused nonprofit with a community-wide commitment to health and healthcare improvement was a strong foundation to build on when the call to action occurred,” said Cristie Upshaw Travis, CEO of Memphis Business Group on Health.

However, like any city, Memphis has challenges, some of which are amplified by the very traditions that make it such a wonderful place. In the late 1990s and early 2000s as the obesity and chronic health epidemic began to grow nationwide, Memphis started to make the “worst” lists. Even as recently as 2012, Memphis was cited as the country’s “Most Obese City.” The business community had paid attention to health since 1985 when the Memphis Business Group on Health was formed, but being on the “bad lists” served as a wake up call. “Having a business-focused nonprofit with a community-wide commitment to health and healthcare improvement was a strong foundation to build on when the call to action occurred,” said Cristie Upshaw Travis, CEO of Memphis Business Group on Health. “We didn't like the image that these lists portrayed to the rest of the country and realized that not only was our community reputation at risk, but so was our own self-image and economic vitality.”

One of the key insights from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s national Health Means Business initiative is that barriers to building a culture of health are often subtle, but that collective action that includes both business and health leadership is the key to making positive change.

In Memphis, there’s the food culture to contend with as a barrier to health. In 2012 CNN reported that although Memphis was the country’s most obese city, it was making big strides to move from “fat to fit.” “In a city and region where deep-frying is an art form and barbecuing pork is almost a religious experience, we have made some notable steps in promoting healthy living and lifestyles," says Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr.

To bring about behavior change, community health collaborators have to uncover the unstated reasons why individuals and businesses might resist actions that will build a healthy community. Sometimes it is personal. A CEO might be reluctant to take a wellness pledge because he or she has struggled to adopt good health habits. Other times, the barrier might be a cost benefit tradeoff that misses an important causal connection, such as when town planners calculate the hard costs of putting in sidewalks and do not factor in potential healthcare cost savings related to increasing opportunities for physical activity. The most difficult hidden barriers to overcome can be cultural. Andrew Trippel, planner with the Memphis-based architectural firm, LRK, Inc. says, “In the South, we believe that health is an individual’s responsibility. It can be a challenge to get the community to understand that community-based actions, like putting in sidewalks, will enhance people’s ability to take ownership of their own health.”

Clearly, Memphis and Shelby County have taken a hard look at health. They know that building a culture of health takes time and collaboration, with many people working together to build bridges.  As Cynthia Magallon-Puljic, Vice President of the YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South says, “No one group owns the problem or the solution. We have to take action together to continue improving our health.” Ms. Magallon-Puljic continues, “Also, even when you improve individual health, you have to look at the context. Living in a blighted area affects mental health, too, which makes it harder for people to get and stay healthy.” Memphis is known for its collective impact approach, with groups like the Healthy Memphis Common Table Alliance bringing together physicians, employers, hospitals, insurers and others with the goal of optimizing community health.

All the hard work is starting to pay off. University of Wisconsin’s County Health Rankings report that for the time period 2010-2015, Shelby County improved its length of life measure by 14%.

The business community is increasingly involved in building community health. Recently, the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce hosted a Health Means Business Forum, bringing together diverse stakeholders from nonprofits and government to academic institutions and business owners. Health Means Business Champion, chamber member and CEO of Duncan Williams, Inc, Duncan Williams spoke about the connection in his remarks, “In Memphis, we want to recruit and grow the best workforce, as well as create a thriving business sector. Helping to support initiatives that focus on the wellbeing of the entire Memphis community are cornerstones of our strategy in Memphis. Corporate social responsibility is not just for the Fortune 500. Businesses of all sizes can make a dramatic impact on the wellbeing of their communities.”

Memphis is a diverse, vibrant city with a committed group of leaders who are working together to build a culture of health in Memphis and Shelby County. These leaders know that investing in building a community where the healthy choice is the easy choice is good for business and the community.