The Golden Rule encourages you to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For Jim Wilkirson, the Golden Rule is part of his development – and the development of the neighborhood organization he’s charged with leading.
Wilkirson, who turns 50 this December, is the executive director of Fondren Renaissance, a group whose mission is to be a catalyst for growth. He came into the role having had experience at one time as a Fondren business owner, FRF board member and event planner. With his current role cemented by his abilities, Wilkirson says 50 means slowing down in every aspect except for his leadership here.
Born and raised in Jackson, Wilkirson attended St. Andrews Episcopal School before graduating from Jackson Preparatory Academy. He is a 1985 graduate of Vanderbilt University with a degree in art history and studio art. I asked if he still drew or painted and he laughed. “I do, but I don’t have time,” he says. “It’s a goal down the road.” He coyly tells me he’s won a couple of awards for his work.
Wilkirson’s “big break” came in 1987, two years out of college and on the cusp of a master’s program. He instead took a job with Norman Shirtmakers in their manufacturing and quality control division. The company understood his background in art and design, which eventually lead Wilkirson to design all fabrics for Norman’s lady’s division. After eight years and a company split, he says it was time to take his career to a new level.
Newly married to wife Audrey and thinking of kids, Wilkirson’s job necessitated frequent travel to Hong Kong, South America and New York City. “Audrey said, ‘This has to stop,’ so I formed my own company and designed under a private label for a handful of clients,” he explains. At the same time, Wilkirson began taking on interior design work and, he says, “I haven’t stopped since.”
The last three years have put Wilkirson on a different road, placing Fondren at the forefront of his duties. But he was no stranger to the neighborhood when its board of directors came calling for his help. “I co-chaired the first-ever Symphony at Sunset with David Dinkins in 2001 and had a business here (Top It Off Events, co-owned with Pat Cauthren and sold four years ago),” he explains. “Fondren Renaissance came to me in an interim period and said, ‘We need direction’ and asked me to take them under my wing as their consultant and revamp the organization.”
Wilkirson had seen Fondren’s resurgence first-hand in the early 2000’s, but realized a lot had changed. With a design and event planning background, leading Fondren was a perfect mix of his talents and how he likes to spend his time.
But when Fondren Renaissance saw a renewed enthusiasm, energy and a positive cash flow, they asked Wilkirson to become their executive director. He says, “Things were starting to happen again here, so I decided to stay.”
While Wilkirson still takes on design and event projects, Fondren has become more than full time. And that has lead to a modern revitalization of the neighborhood. When I ask how he feels about this accomplishment, he’s quick to brush aside credit. “It’s not one person, it’s a team,” he explains. “One person can be a motivator or a catalyst, but someone else has to capture the vision and move it forward. It’s a huge team.”
For the city of Jackson, Wilkirson says the timing has been just right. “People here were wanting something to be proud of and excited about, something a little different and cutting edge,” he says. “That’s what Fondren is.”
Communication and teamwork has been key in the process. Wilkirson says, “It sounds terrible to keep saying ‘team,’ but that’s what it’s about. It’s Fondren as a board, it’s the shop owner, the school, the neighborhood resident and the city. We feel like we are giving 100% to do our part.”
One of the biggest roles Fondren is playing is that of grand marshal. “Right now, our part is the revitalization of this area and then showing others how to accomplish the same thing,” he says. “Someone has to help.” The bottom line, he tells me, is to lead by example. “It’s not right to say, ‘Go fix it’ if you can’t say ‘I’m going to help you fix it; let’s go do it together.’ It’s the most important thing. That’s what gets people excited and gives them a renewed passion.”
In his job as executive director, Wilkirson has become the unofficial mayor of Fondren, fielding calls for all sorts of issues and playing another part: peacemaker and mediator. He says it’s all about the community. “I grew up here and I’ve seen the good, the bad and the in-between,” he tells me. “We’re all here to try and make a difference. My difference is to give back to the people that got me where I am today.”
It’s a lesson Wilkirson learned from his late mother, Jean Sain. “That’s probably been my biggest inspiration,” he says. “My drive comes in wanting to be that community builder and leader that she was. Truly, there’s not a group who calls on me that I don’t try and help in some way because when they grow, I grow. It’s the only way you learn.”
Slowing down at 50? Maybe. Wilkirson and his wife have three children, Hunter, Fran and Clarke, who will be off to college in two years. “I need to be more family focused and be there more for them,” he reasons.
After the couple chaired the Mississippi Symphony Ball this year (and his regular work with The Junior League through Mistletoe and The Mississippi Children’s Museum), the focus will shift to Fondren.
“I may be busier but it will be in a different direction. With what we have on our books and planned, it’ll be an exciting challenge, but it’s time to take this to another level.”