It was “Big Mama” who taught Theresa Carson some of life’s most important lessons.
Carson’s 5-foot-2 grandmother, who raised five boys and two girls mostly on her own, ruled the roost and was undeniably the matriarch of the family.
“So that’s where I get my sass and where I get my tenacity and my willingness to step out on faith … and just my work ethic, all that comes from this stock,” says Carson, founder and president of the African American Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
Although Carson was raised in Albuquerque, she was born in Mississippi and maintains “a significant tie to the South.”
Carson had retired as a senior manager at Sandia National Laboratories but decided Albuquerque’s Black community needed a business organization. So in 2018, she started one.
There was none at the time, and Carson’s tenure at Sandia showed her there were plenty of service and procurement contracts to be had for minority businesses.
“We were always having difficulty in finding African-American businesses or minority-owned businesses,” Carson says. “There just has to be a concerted effort to try and find them. It’s not that the lab didn’t do a concerted effort – they did. But (Black-owned businesses) are not easy to find.”
She believes strongly that a chamber is central to helping businesses thrive and connecting them to each other and to the outside world.
The chamber now has 120 members, although it’s hard to know what percentage that represents because there’s no recent reliable count of Black-owned businesses, Carson says.
An initial survey showed there was “overwhelming” desire to have a chamber for Black businesses, Carson says.
“And so, I said, ‘Well, then you shouldn’t be waiting on someone else to do it, you should do it yourself. Go ahead and get it done.'”
Tell me about Big Mama.
“She was just one of those individuals who could sense when there was maybe something going on with you, when she needs to step in and provide some words of encouragement. Or just to give you a call and say … ‘Granny loves you.’ And her house – my husband will tell this story, too, after we got married and he got a chance to actually meet her – said, ‘This family cooks all day long. As soon as you’re done with breakfast, they’re already cooking supper.’ Her house, although it wasn’t that they had a lot, but whatever they had they were willing to share. There were always people there, so she would be cooking for people to come. And they would come, we’d be sitting around the table and it was almost like people were filing in and out all the time. She just had that kind of drawing personality that once you met her, she’s like a person you want to be around all the time.”
What do you do in your free time?
“What is that? … In my free time, I love sitting down with my family and friends. Just hanging out, going for coffee. In the midst of COVID, my husband and I like to get out to the park at least once a week. On Sundays, that’s kind of our thing. We’ll go to a park and have a picnic.”
What’s an example of a difficult time in your life, and how did you overcome it?
“I am now a nine-year survivor of breast cancer. My faith was deepened by it. I know I grew closer to the Lord, but then the other piece of it too, you go through things for a reason. That’s my belief, and so it was really interesting how many other women that I’ve had an opportunity to share my experience with and, with a couple of them to come alongside them through their cancer journey, I don’t believe I would have been able to do that if I hadn’t experienced it myself. It’s also a very humbling experience and a very defining moment, too. It lets you know how fragile life really is.”
What’s something no one knows about you?
“I like to sing (can’t carry a tune in a bucket). I have half-sisters that have beautiful voices, and they have the gift of singing. My husband was aware of this desire of mine and in December 2018 for Christmas, he gifted me with voice lessons from a wonderful voice coach here in town, and I’ve been taking lessons since January 2019 and had my first recital January 2020. (Also), people don’t understand that I am really a shy person. And so it would not be my preference … to be that person out front, but I do it because it’s a necessity for the role that I’m currently in.”
Can you tell me about an experience you’ve had with discrimination as a Black woman?
“I remember a situation working at the lab, and this was very young in my career, I had a manager who would never speak to me in the morning. I was always the one who had to initiate the conversation with this individual or just to say ‘good morning.’ And so instead of becoming negative or upset about the situation, I saw it as a challenge and part of the ‘going high,’ if you will. And so I made a point of joyfully saying, ‘Good morning! How are you?’ Probably a little louder than I should have, but I was trying to make a point and so at some point in time, he finally started to realize that I wasn’t going away. I felt good about what I did and helping him to understand that I’m also a member of his team and I bring value, worth to the team.”
What gives you joy?
“What brings me joy is seeing other people succeed. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this work that I’m doing right now. To help someone along the way, whether it’s providing them a resource or providing something they need in order to reach their goal in business or in life. If I can be a part of that, then I’m happy.”