Breaking barriers

By Ret Boney

Reatha Clark King has traveled a long road, from working in the Georgia cotton fields as a teenager, to becoming a thermochemist, president of a university and head of a major corporate foundation.

Now King, retired president and executive director of the General Mills Foundation in Minneapolis, is being honored for her efforts by the National Center for Black Philanthropy, in Washington, D.C., which presented her with its Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy award.

“I’m outright happy about it,” says King of the honor.

As head of the foundation from 1988 to 2002, King oversaw growth of the organization’s assets from just under $7 million to more than $50 million, and the distribution of some $50 million in grants, both from the foundation and the corporation, for which she also served as vice president.

King came to philanthropy through a series of what she calls “pivotal decisions,” each of which took her life in a slightly different direction, and prepared her for the next experience.

“Growing up in South Georgia in the early 50’s, my options seemed quite limited in terms of career choices, because of race and because of my gender,” says King.

Living in Moultrie, her father an illiterate sharecropper and her mother a maid, King and her two sisters picked cotton and gathered tobacco in local fields during the summer to help make ends meet.

“I could pick 200 pounds a day and earn $6 a day, which was double what my mother could earn as a maid,” says King.

In part to escape the blazing sun, she says, she went to Clark College in Atlanta, planning to major in home economics so she could return to teach high school in her hometown and help provide for her family.

Reatha Clark King

Job: Retired president and executive director, General Mills Foundation, Minneapolis; retired vice president, General Mills Inc.

Education: B.S., chemistry and math, Clark College, Atlanta; master’s and Ph.D., chemistry, University of Chicago; MBA, Columbia University

Born: 1938, Pavo, Ga.

Family: Husband, N. Judge King, Ph.D. chemist; two sons; three grandchildren

Hobbies: Reading; word puzzles

Currently reading: “The World is Flat,” by Thomas L. Friedman

Book to recommend: “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” by Mitch Albom

Favorite book: The Bible

Inspiration: “The older I get, the more I would say it is my family, particularly my mother and father.”

But during her first year, she took a chemistry class to fulfill a requirement and found she like working in the lab more, so she graduated with a degree in chemistry, then earned a Ph.D., specializing in thermochemistry.

After her graduation, King and her husband moved to Washington, D.C., where she spent almost six years working as a research chemist in the heat division of the National Bureau of Standards, studying the heats of chemical reactions.

The couple moved to New York with their two young sons when King’s husband became the chair of the chemistry department at Nassau Community College, and King joined the chemistry department at York College of the City University of New York, where she taught during the tumultuous early 1970’s.

“I became quite a vocal voice in trying to bring the warring groups together,” she says, an effort she believes contributed to her quick rise to associate dean for academic affairs at the college.

To learn more about financial and personnel management, she embarked on a sabbatical to earn a master’s in business administration from Columbia University in New York, with a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Newly armed, she was recruited for the presidency of Metropolitan State University in the Twin Cities, a fairly new school, and this time, her husband gave up his job to follow her.

King had been at the school 11 years, putting the young institution on the map, when she received a call from the CEO of General Mills asking her to take over the corporation’s foundation and head up its corporate grantmaking.

“It was a tough decision to go for the interview knowing that I might leave a job I loved so much,” she says.  “But I loved the setting and the values of the people and the company.”

Grantmaking had become routine at the foundation, King says, and she was charged with breathing new vitality into the organization, a task she pursued by “adding more innovation and helping the foundation get the courage to tackle the truly tough situations, the inner city problems.”

The hallmark of that effort, she says, was the foundation’s work to improve community safety by reducing crime and improving the livability of low-income, inner-city neighborhoods.

In the Hawthorne neighborhood, King convened a group of about 25 partners from across the community, including police, social services workers, educators, clergy, elected officials and residents, to form what came to be called the Hawthorne Huddle.

The group, which is still meeting, met monthly and undertook a series of projects, including closing crack houses, cleaning parks, going after abusive landlords and building a kindergarten through eighth grade school, all of which ultimately resulted in a 30 percent reduction in crime, the foundation says.

The program was so successful, King says, that Harvard Business School wrote it up as a case study on business involvement in the community.

King also noticed a pattern of disparity in the size of grants the foundation made to minority groups compared to white groups, a situation she rectified quickly.

“We sat down and doubled every grant we were making to strong minority organizations,” she says.  “It’s making up for inequities you see with your own eyes.”

King left the foundation three years ago, then served a year as chair of its board, but she still sits on five nonprofit boards, three corporate boards, including Wells Fargo, and keeps a busy writing and public speaking schedule.

“Globalization and getting to know the international community is my keenest interest in furthering my education,” she says.

Looking back over her life and career, King sees a lot of hard work and a bit of luck.

“When you’re asked how you get from place to place,” she says, “every event becomes a pivotal change.”

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