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Executive Conversations with Rodney Bullard

Meet Rodney Bullard, the visionary CEO and Founder behind The Same House, a nonprofit committed to bridging social divides and promoting economic mobility. Join us as we explore Rodney’s inspiring leadership and unwavering dedication to creating a positive influence in the communities they actively support.

Rodney, thank you for your time with us. Tell us about your career journey. 

Rodney Bullard:

It’s awesome to be with you. I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and my father was a Baptist minister, and my mother an educator, and those really shaped my journey and shaped my outlook, particularly professionally. Learning from my father, I learned just to love people, to be a respecter of people and to take care of people. Service was an important part of my upbringing and what I wanted to do in the world. From my mother, I learned the importance of education and the importance of excellence and so I went off to the Air Force Academy after graduating from high school here in Georgia. 

I was a football player, president of the student council in high school, and then went off to the Air Force Academy because it was a leadership institution, and it gave me the opportunity to play football as well. When I got there the first thing they did was yell at me. I realized that this wasn’t leadership, and at least not the leadership that I wanted to experience.

But I also realized that you have to experience followership to understand the type of leader that you want to be. That for me was a great experience.

I blew out my knee while I was at the Air Force Academy and ended up not continuing on the football team, but I went on to the mock trial team. 

The mock trial team was an amazing experience. We started our own team, and even though it was the Air Force Academy, the team consisted of mostly African Americans.  We were still one of the most successful, if not the most successful team at the Air Force Academy. So I was on the All-American mock trial team. I became an attorney, and I was the number one attorney on the West Coast as well. We had a team that I really think represented the Air Force Academy well. Our diversity was a part of that, then I went off to Duke Law School. Duke was a great experience where I got to be the governor of the American Bar Association (University) for all the law schools in the 13 southern states. 

I also got an opportunity to really see and understand that law was a vehicle for many. I saw as I went around, that people were going to law school for different reasons, going to different law schools. Many of them were going because they really wanted to uplift and help their community and be a voice for those who are voiceless, and that was important to me to use the law degree as such. I went on to practice law as a JAG in the Air Force. My first case and hearing was on 9-11 at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.  That also crystallized the whole sense of why I was in the military, the sense of service, the sense of something bigger than me that I could use whatever talents I had. 

My talent wasn’t being in the infantry or flying a plane, but my talent was being in the courtroom and that was a necessary talent. Or my talent was just being a lawyer doing wills or other things that were necessary as a JAG. I applied for a program called the White House Fellowship and other White House fellows, Colin Powell, Sanjay Gupta, were examples to me and people obviously whom I looked up to and everybody looks up to. My application for the White House Fellowship was accepted and I got into the program. A few days after we were impaneled in Washington D.C Hurricane Katrina hit and that was another opportunity and a need for service. 

Because I had previously lived in Biloxi Mississippi at Keesler Air Force Base, and knew the area, the people, and their needs as well, we were able to be a part of that response team. I was working at NASA, and NASA had been hit as well at Michoud station in New Orleans, Stennis and Mississippi they both had been impacted. This was a great opportunity and the first time that I witnessed how corporations and non-governmental entities really could respond and assist, because in many ways, the government, particularly in Louisiana, was paralyzed. New Orleans was underwater, and the state had not seen this type of catastrophe before. It took a joint effort from civil society, the military, Corporate America and education. There was a program that HUD started where HBCUs came and used their engineering programs to actually assist in the rebuilding of New Orleans. That was a unique opportunity for everybody to give back. 

After my time as a White House fellow and at NASA, I went to the Pentagon and worked as a legislative liaison for the Secretary of the Air Force. There I got a chance to see how the sausage was made on Capitol Hill behind the scenes.  At this point, having been away from Atlanta for a long time, I wanted to come back. My wife wanted to come back. 

We came back to Atlanta, and I worked for Sally Yates and Dave Nahmias. Dave Nahmias eventually was on the Supreme Court of Georgia. Sally Yates, as you know, was the United States attorney later on in life, and Sally really had a heart for the community. Sally asked me to start a program where we could give back to those communities that we found were fueling the crime in the city. This was a real eye-opener for me, that there were certain neighborhoods, including the neighborhoods that I grew up in in South DeKalb, that were outliers. They were fueling crime, gun violence, recidivism, and all sorts of things so we thought about how we help those communities.

As Sally would often say, we could not “gel” our way out of the problem, so we started a community Affairs program. The program is still in existence 12 years later, I was succeeded by Judge Leslie Abrams, the younger sister to Stacey Abrams. This program has really helped the community, what I learned after I left there to go to Chick-fil-A to start the Chick-fil-A Foundation and the Chick-fil-A Corporate Social Responsibility and ESG, was that many of the problems of our communities are economic problems. At the end of the day, it’s a lack of economic mobility and that is the only difference between any city that I’ve been to where the neighborhoods of poverty and the neighborhoods of wealth, the difference is resources. 

The lack of resources causes all sorts of issues. We knew that lack of resources causes a greater propensity for crime, a greater propensity for health disparities, and a greater propensity for educational disparities. A lot of it is lack of exposure, lack of awareness, lack of hope and belief that you can do more because you never had more and you never saw more. Our focus at The Same House after being at Chick-fil-A for 12 years and getting to a point where we were helping 30 million people a year, we decided to focus The Same House around economic mobility, and as you know the quote of The Same House is from Congressman Lewis “With One People, One Family, We All Belong to The Same House.”

the quote of The Same House is from Congressman Lewis “With One People, One Family, We All Belong to The Same House.”

If that’s true, then we would not sit in one room of our house and sit comfortably while another part of the house is on fire. I have visited many cities and just like like Atlanta, just like Dallas and other cities, there are challenges so we see it as a national issue.

As you mentioned it being a national issue. Do you feel that enough is being done to uplift these disenfranchised communities? How are we looking at it from the lens of local and then regional and then federal? 

Rodney Bullard:

I don’t know if we yet look at it as an economic issue. I think we’re starting to have that conversation, but I believe we’re right now in the weeds of affordable housing, which is very important. But the first part of affordable housing is affordability, and affordability relies upon your ability to economically sustain. Can you afford a house with a job, by some measure of income? We have not yet fully had that conversation and we haven’t had it enough at scale. 

We particularly haven’t had it on a national scale, and I also think from my own background in the military, it is not just an issue of ethnicity. It’s not just a black or brown problem. It’s just not a community problem. It’s also at the end of the day, a competitive issue. We have to have enough people in our country to compete against other countries, and other forces as well. It is all hands on deck from that standpoint. Everybody needs to have access to resources, to education and the ability to thrive so that our country will rise. And we have not had that conversation. We don’t think about it in those ways.

When looking at The Same House and what you’re trying to do, what are the main focuses and how can people get involved? 

Rodney Bullard:

The Same House really evolved out of one of our programs called the Beloved Benefit, and our main focus there was to bring people together so that we could focus on economic mobility together so that we could share resources.

We had an event in 2019 that featured Bruno Mars and we brought the city together and we think that’s important for us to build bridges and build connectivity because resources are shared that way. The purpose of a bridge is to get resources from one side to the other, from people and ideas from one side to the other. That has been a big part of what we’ve done, but we’ve expanded beyond that. 

At The Same House, we want to support bringing people together and collectively doing good together and supporting organizations, nonprofit organizations and the likes that are supporting our community. We think if we can focus our attention on those organizations, we can buttress their work. We can buttress the awareness of their work, and we have been able to do that. Most recently, we had John Legend and Chris Tucker and Maria Taylor and raised over $8.8M that we were able to give away to organizations that were working in the areas of mental health, education, entrepreneurship, and employment. One of those organizations is the Center for Black Excellence at Spelman College and being able to give to that organization via the WestSide Future Fund, which is another organization that we support, and the Russell Center for Entrepreneurship, RICE, which helps unabashedly Black businesses to grow. Urban League, First Step Staffing and really helping organizations and individuals grow in their ability to stand up on their own two feet and to thrive. 

You mentioned the Beloved Benefit, it seems very close and dear to your heart. What does the future of that event look like?

Rodney Bullard:

We’re still continuing to evolve the Beloved Benefit. Our aspiration is that we will be able to do a national broadcast and that will allow us to continue to be rooted in Atlanta, but to also grow beyond Atlanta. We have this saying in Atlanta that “Atlanta influences everything” I don’t know if that’s true, but we think it is. The opportunity to be in cities like Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Salt Lake City, and do that via broadcast, even physical events, whether they be small or large, in those cities to bring people together.

But even more so to highlight and to uplift those heroes, those leaders who are really putting their shoulders to the work in those cities.

Rodney, who inspires you to keep doing what you do? 

Rodney Bullard:

I’m inspired by a host of people. I’m inspired by those who I’m in the fight with. Dan Cathy is a big supporter of our work, one of the owners of Chick-fil-A, and really has learned and gotten this sense of giving back and particularly giving back to less fortunate communities. So I’m inspired by that because he didn’t have to do it. I’m inspired by those who come before us. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, when I was a kid, about five or six years old, I got a chance to speak to him. My father went to Morehouse College and Dr. Mays was a legendary president of Morehouse College. And he told me, he said, “You know, Rodney, I want you to get as much education and experience as possible, but understand that you have to give that back… That education is not for you, it’s so that you can serve others, and so that you can inspire others to get education and experience, and they can serve others.” And so that is something that sticks with me. 

My father went to Morehouse College and Dr. Mays was a legendary president of Morehouse College. And he told me, he said, “You know, Rodney, I want you to get as much education and experience as possible, but understand that you have to give that back… That education is not for you, it’s so that you can serve others, and so that you can inspire others to get education and experience, and they can serve others.” And so that is something that sticks with me.

As a consequence, we started a program here in Georgia called Youth Lead Georgia. We’re very excited about that. It’s the first youth leadership program across the state. It’s patterned after Leadership Georgia and Leadership Atlanta. We come to those programs as adults, fixed in our own selves, our own experiences, our own thoughts. And this is for 10th and 11th graders, for them to get a chance to learn about each other, to meet each other, to grow up together. 

We had our inaugural program weekend this past weekend at the University of Georgia. Our hope is to get it right here and then spread it across the country to scale it. But I was amazed at these kids. who didn’t know each other, who came together so quickly, started IDEAS, the two kids in Albany, Georgia. They come from different sides of the city, one black, one white. They’ve already endeavored to focus on food insecurity in Albany, Georgia. They both are excellent. They both are extremely gifted and smart, and they didn’t know each other. That’s exactly what we want to create. We want to create this atmosphere, this opportunity for leaders to come together of any age and to do good work together. So, those kids inspire me because they are the future generation and we have to work towards and for them. 

How has your leadership evolved over time? 

Rodney Bullard:

You know, my leadership has evolved over time in a number of ways. One, just a matter of comfort and confidence in my own leadership and understanding that I as a leader don’t have to have all the answers. Knowing that leadership is about bringing people together and that you get to the solution together. But the act of leadership is bringing people together, the convening and the vision and the strategy, but I don’t have to, I might know where I want to go, but I can bring other people together to say, how do we get to where we’re trying to go? When I was a kid, I didn’t understand that. And I also understand that leadership is about taking care of people. If you aren’t taking care of people along the journey, then the destination is not worth it. 

How do you manage family and juggling your busy schedule? And what do you do for fun? 

Rodney Bullard:

Family is very important to me. My wife and I were born in the same hospital three days apart. So we literally have known each other basically all our lives. Same neighborhood, the same hospital. It’s been amazing to grow together. We have a 16-year-old son and it’s important to feed his interest and to help him. He’s very interested in zoology and animals so we are taking him on his first safari this year. One of the things I’ve been mindful of is that I need to always take time to invest in my family. Part of what I have been blessed to do and called to do is to invest in the community and invest in others. But I can’t do that if I’m failing my family. So, take the time to do for my family, what I would do for others. 

I love sports. You and I talked about the combine in Indianapolis. I love football. I played football in high school and a little bit in college. I’m still a big fan. We go to games and are close to the Atlanta Falcons and that organization. But I love sports in general.

I love history, particularly Civil War history, because it was so pivotal for this country and so pivotal for the southern states in particular, but pivotal for African Americans.  That history still pervades history. You still see legacies of that history, and the manner in which we operate you still see obviously the monuments and the discussions around the monuments and the flag. Civil War history to me is really important, but also extremely interesting. There were so many heroes that emerged as a result of it, Lincoln being one of them, and his reluctance to the Emancipation Proclamation, his journey into the Emancipation Proclamation… the generals, whether it be Sherman or even Lee. It’s interesting to see the backstory of the Civil War. 

Editor:

What book has left a lasting impression on you? 

Rodney Bullard:

You know, we were talking about the Civil War. Killer Angels is one of my favorite books.  It talks about the generals, and it gives this back story of them. To me, it is really instructive of leadership, that oftentimes we see the end story of leadership, but we don’t think about it. And for ourselves, as we are leaders, and as we are on our leadership journey, we have to give counsel and grace to the struggle, to the evolution. So oftentimes we see, okay, so that’s President Lincoln and we just have this static point in time and we think that he was always that way. Or we see President Kennedy and we see this static point in time and we think that he was always that way. No, the evolution, the growth, and if we do that, if we look at that from a historical standpoint, we’ll see that in ourselves.

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