Tucked between Sixth Ave. North and St. Cloud Alley in the shadows of the Nashville Public Library and the Nashville Convention Center sits McKendree United Methodist Church. Last November, the city’s mayor, Megan Barry, ’86, delivered food to the church in an effort to help fulfill a local nonprofit’s commitment to donating 1,150 Thanksgiving meals for those in need. A few months before, though, it had been Barry who was looking for support at the church as she campaigned to become Nashville’s first female mayor.
While campaigning, Barry learned that the world is small when it comes to Baker University connections, and even 600 miles from Baldwin City, she met two fellow Baker alums among her supporters at McKendree United Methodist Church, including an alumna of Alpha Chi Omega, the sorority in which Barry was involved during her time as a Wildcat. Although she’s far from Baldwin City, the lessons she learned on campus are deeply rooted.
“Baker gave me the foundation to be a critical thinker,” Barry said. “Dr. [Lowell] Gish is just one example of the professors I had that instilled in me that as you go out in the world, you end up being much more successful if you’re a thinker.”
And success is something Barry has had in spades. After graduating from Baker, she moved to Nashville and earned her MBA from Vanderbilt University before making a career as a corporate executive. During this time, Barry developed ethics and compliance programs and later consulted independently on issues such as corporate social responsibility.
Responsibility to the people and communities of Nashville is one of Barry’s passions. Her background in cultural and civic organizations is extensive: board member for the Center for Nonprofit Management, the YWCA, and the Belcourt Theatre and Nashville Repertory Theatre; advisory board member for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition; and participation in Leadership Nashville and Leadership Music. Fittingly, Barry’s civic-mindedness informed her run for office and after she was elected mayor, the way she built her staff.
“I think what it means to me and Nashville is you have a government that actually starts to look like the population,” Barry said. “I’ve been deliberate in hiring staff that reflects Nashville’s diversity, which means more women and minorities. There’s more parity.”
Nashville is the nation’s 25th-largest city, with a population rising toward 700,000 composed of more than 50 percent women and 28.4 percent of residents identifying as black or African-American, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Barry will keep that diverse population in mind as her administration addresses education, transportation, housing and economic development.
“We have a growing, thriving public education system in Nashville, which makes us unique as a lot of urban cities have seen a decline [in public education] and ours is increasing because of people moving to Nashville,” Barry said, adding that affordable housing in the city is not strictly intended for low-income residents, but also for housing millennials, new college graduates and other people relocating to the area.
In another initiative, Barry has recently added staff members focused on the issues of sustainability and transportation to bolster Nashville’s infrastructure and on assisting in communication between all metro agencies on pertinent projects. Another focus is ensuring long-term integration of technology such as the city’s new Google Fiber broadband wireless networks into the development of future plans, such as green walkways and other technological “smart city” systems.
The Music City’s robust travel industry remains a bright spot, as well, as Nashville seeks an unprecedented 62nd consecutive month of increasing tourism — a streak that’s likely to continue with an endorsement from The Lonely Planet travel guide that lists Nashville as a top 10 travel destination for 2016, the only North American city to earn the distinction.
“Nashville is amazingly special,” Barry said. “When people get here, they don’t want to leave.”
While Barry is excited for and focused on the future, she recognizes the important role that Baker played in getting her to her current position.
“I went to Baker because it offered a small, unique learning opportunity with a very hands-on staff and professors who were able to give me and my fellow students a great environment,” Barry said. “You should walk through every door. That’s the other thing Baker taught me: You may never know where you’ll ultimately go, but don’t miss the opportunity to walk through a door.”
Of course, she has an idea where that door may lead for alumni.
“Come visit me in Nashville.”