Black Men

Suits for Sons Interview by T. J. Baker

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I get tickled pink, when the weatherman says, “It’s 103 degrees outside today, but it feels like it’s 110 degrees! So, stay indoors if you can.”  Really?  Really?   Man, just tell the truth in the first place – that it’s really 110 degrees outside.  Chuckling!   Despite the triple degree temperatures, ‘Suits for Sons’ still met with me to do this interview in their jazzy and flamboyant suits with name brand neckties and flashy cuff links.

What does a million-dollar man look like?  Well ‘Suits for Sons’ can teach you how, but their missionary interest is special; reason being, ‘Suits for Sons’ caters to young men who don’t know how and especially don’t have the means to look like a million-dollar man.  But do you have to look like a million-dollar man to land an interview?  Of course not!  However, you must look the part – you must look your best!  Looking your best is not only the outside appearance but what’s also within; along with the walk and the talk.  There is so much more than I could even imagine that all rural and inner-city young Black teens must tackle when it comes to their mental, spiritual, physical and financial attributes of becoming a successful Black man.

Not even Scouting and Greek Fraternities teach their scouts or pledges the preparation for an internship or interview.   Scouting and Greek Fraternities teach, “I am my brother’s keeper” and that’s fine and dandy, but it really gets harder and harder as they grow older. When a Black male teen or Black male young adult is not taught professional skills, it becomes very difficult to survive in any public or private sector job.  This leaves a huge gap of missing minorities in various ranges of job careers.

Instead of sitting back and doing absolutely nothing, ‘Suits for Sons’ decided to tackle these issues and they do more than just dress these young men. Their successful program also teaches self-esteem and so much more. They also feed them, which is very important, because how can anyone concentrate on what they’re saying on an empty stomach.

I commended these four outstanding men and women who are the masterminds behind, ‘Suits for Son’s’. They are Jerry Autry: Founder and President; Alicia Demeke: Collegiate Program Director/Board Member; Candace Harden: Board Member and Andre Harden: Community Program Director/Board Member.

The Interview: 

Baker:  Mr. Jerry Autry, can you give us some information about how your organization came about? Where did it start and who’s responsible for its formation?

Jerry Autry:  I spent almost 20 years in human resources as a career. Initially, I wanted to open a suit store, yet do something for the community with those proceeds. However, I felt I couldn’t just selfishly hoard the benefits, so I thought about giving away suits. But then again why give away suits when most of these young men don’t look the part on the inside.  Looking back over my career, I realized I have walked out of so many interviews with young Black male adults, including those losing their jobs, and the conversations I have had with them in the parking lot.  The more I thought about it, I wondered what else could I have shared to improve their self-esteem and their attire. Before I knew it, I had nine training modules in my head.  I had not yet talked to anybody about it until I had built the whole program and got the logo trademarked.  Then, I posted on social media just to see if anybody was interested and got a huge and overwhelming response from people that said, “Hey I want to work with your program”, so we’ve been running ever since.

Baker:  How many cities have a branch for young men to take action with services. I mean, besides just Houston, Texas.

Jerry Autry:  Right now, we’re only in Houston, but we have about six cities that have expressed interest. Honestly, we’re looking forward to branching out in the next 18 months or so. We just want to make sure Houston is solidly branched out before we make a move to other cities. It may look like we’ve been in existence longer than we have, but we’ve only been in existence since 2016. So, we’ve taken three years and had to really build up our marketing presence here in Houston. Ironically, the first year, it was hard for us to penetrate any of the schools because we’re offering this program that’s free for students, free for the schools. But we had to convince them that since we were new, you know, trust us; we know what we’re doing. We’ve only had two solid years of running our program. In the schools that were partnering with us for the first year, we were just working with whoever would work with us. So, this is our third year of our program being solid. And so, we figure at the end of this year, we’ll be ready to branch out.

Baker: The third question came to me when I was looking at your website. It mentioned that some of the services that you provide are through mentoring and training. Can you explain how that works?

Jerry Autry:  In our professional program, we try to make sure that our students get at least three mentors. That’s important because I believe in the concept of acceleration, if I can take 10 minutes with you, and teach you something that took me 10 years to learn, that’s acceleration. I believe that doesn’t just happen overnight, somebody’s got to consciously, purposefully take time with you to accelerate your future. I believe in the power of mentoring, and I also believe that it does take a village. So, I don’t have one mentor that I go to, for everything, because that’s just not real life. We try to make sure that our students get multiple mentors so that it mirrors what the rest of their life is going to look like. You have certain people you go to for one thing, and others for another thing.  We do try to make sure that at least one of their mentors is in their field of interest. We also try as much as possible to make sure they have a female in their mentor group as well because one of my greatest mentors was a woman.

Baker:  What types of training do you provide?

Jerry Autry:  There are nine modules. So, we’d start with leadership, community responsibility, financial planning, making sure that they understand how to manage their checking account, and so forth. We do conflict resolution; we do networking and interview and we do domestic and international business That’s important to know that because it can make or break your career. So, we try to make sure that we cover the gambit of topics for them so that they are well-rounded guys. Once again, the goal is to make sure that what they look like on the outside matches what we put on the inside.

Baker:  Do you look for volunteers to help you? And do you ask for donations?

Jerry Autry:  Always… Money – Money – Money and we’re always looking for volunteers. To help with our programs, we go into the high schools, and we need speakers because a lot of times people can give us a nine-month commitment for the program, but they can’t commit for a day. So, if you can commit for a day, we’d love for you to go into a school with us and just talk to students and inspire them to think beyond high school and to think beyond maybe two or three careers that they’re aware of. There’s a whole world out there that you can go after, right? Then again, we also are looking for people to help with our professional program. We’re always looking for mentors. Of course, money is always great. But here’s the thing, outside of money, most of our budget every year that we’ve been in existence has come from or has been covered by gifts.  For example, someone will sponsor a pair of shoes or sponsor a suit, or sponsor a belt, or sponsor books, or sponsor a venue for us to have one of our meeting spaces.  So, we’re not just saying contribute money. I mean, whatever you can do to help us. If it will progress the lives of young men, we will accept it!

Baker:  Speaking of volunteering, and speaking of modules, you have a scholarship gala coming up in November. Okay, why November?

Jerry Autry:  That’s a good question, “Why in November?”  Well, our gala is on November 16. And November is the gala season in the nonprofit world. I had to learn that because I don’t come from the nonprofit arena. I worked in corporate my whole life. But apparently, that’s the time of year when most businesses and so forth are looking for that last write-off because they’re getting ready to close their books for the year. So, you notice a lot of nonprofits have a lot of fundraising events in November, even the big gift day is always in November because that’s the time of the year where people are looking for that last-minute tax write off.  Once again, our hands are up for donations because ‘Suits for Sons’ is definitely in need of some super sponsorship.

Baker:   What’s the best way for people to contact, ‘Suits for Sons’?

Jerry Autry:  We’re big on technology, so, the best way to reach us is through our email from our website. We don’t have a physical office; because our board is very conscious of how we spend money. We try to make as much of what we take in, go right back to the students. We also try to keep our administrative and overhead costs low. Right now, I’ve got donated suits stored both in my upstairs and downstairs at home. It’s hilarious but also fun and meaningful.  I really do love what I’m doing.  I finally found my purpose in life.

Baker:  Besides the scholarship gala, are there any other events you have coming up, such as a Christmas party?

Jerry Autry:  We have a big golf tournament in the spring, which happens around April – May.  We have a great time and we welcome golfers to come out and spend the day with us and they have a chance to meet our students.  To be clear about all of our fundraising events, our students are there, so you get a chance to interact with them and hear their stories, and hey who knows, you may want to become a mentor.

Baker:  Are there new programs that are planned to be added to your existing ones?

Jerry Autry:  We’ve also bounced around the idea of adding some sort of experiential education ship to our program so that we can take our young men abroad. I know that coming from a very small town in Michigan, one of the things that helped me broaden my horizons was exposure to other cultures when I started traveling internationally. I’ve been traveling internationally every year since I was about 24 – 25. So, to give them that opportunity, after we’ve taught them the principles of domestic and international business to take them abroad and let them talk to experts who are working and living in those countries.  Last, but not least, I think it’s very important for people to know that everybody on our team, and everybody who is on board, including all our speakers, are volunteering their time for free. So, nobody’s making money off this. Our goal is truly to accelerate the lives of young men and to give them a leg up.

Do you know the difference between what is equity and what is quality?  Well, quality talks about it… treating everybody the same – yet understanding everybody’s not the same. That means giving someone a booster seat so that they can stand a little taller so that they can be at the same height as everybody else.  Equity means whatever we must do to make up the difference so that you can play at the same level as everybody else. We’re not just about equality… we’re about equity.  And because we’re so passionate about that, we volunteer our time, our resources, and our money to invest in the lives of other futures.

The extended success behind, ‘Suits for Sons’ with Alicia Demeke 

Baker:  Okay, what can you tell me more about the college prep program.

Alicia Demeke:  The college program is basically the arm that we reach out to college students that are preparing to enter the workforce. We help them transition from a school environment to a working environment. We also help them understand what they’re looking at and what they are seeking may not be what’s out there.   So, when Jerry Autry talks about accelerating them, we’re talking about reaching out to young men who really need help.  Because of this generation, and I’ve hired a lot of them within my role of oil and gas, and their perspective is very different than some of the older ones.  So, we’re going to reach out and help them. However, we’re going to teach them to honor their communities, we’re going to teach them that there are a lot of people out there that love them and are going to be there for them. But for them to be there for them; they must be open and honest. I think when you’re young and in college, you think that you must show people what you want them to see and usually its false pretense.  Unfortunately, it’s also transparent when they do this.

Baker:  How do you find your students?

Alicia Demeke:  By word of mouth or starting in February, we open applications on our website. We’re looking for college seniors and juniors, and there’s no specific major we’re looking for, particularly in the Houston area right now. We have reached out to preview Texas A&M, University of Houston, Houston Baptist University, and Texas Southern University.   We’re looking for the young men that really don’t have it together, the ones that don’t have anyone in their corner and who doesn’t really know what’s out there. We want to take them and accelerate them.   Because it’s sad and obvious that the young men need someone to tell them… tighten your belt, wear pants that fit, shoes should’ve been shinned, wear a starched shirt, manicure your nails, stand up straight, use a firm handshake and so forth.  Ironically, they’re great on paper, which is how they were picked, but when they come to the actual interview, they have no clue. And the second they walk in the room; they’re pretty much disqualifying themselves.   I’m glad that I’m volunteering with ‘Suits for Sons’ because the need is definitely out there and witnessing their progress with these young Black men within the organization of ‘Suits for Sons’ is phenomenal!

KEY contacts for students & Schools

College students interested in our Professional Development Program should contact Alicia Demeke at alicia@suitsforsons.org.

For middle and high school programs, contact Richard Cumby at rcumby@suitsforsons.org

KEY contacts for donors, mentors & community

Sponsor & Donor Inquiries

Brandon Henderson:  bhenderson@suitsforsons.org.

Mentor Inquiries 

Brandon Wilson:  bwilson@suitsforsons.org.​

Community Organization Partnerships

Andre Harden aharden@suitsforsons.org.

Media Inquiries

Richard Cumby: rcumby@suitsforsons.org

Executive Director

Jerry Autry: jerry@suitsforsons.org.

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