As an enthusiastic child growing up with his single mother and brothers in Los Angeles, California, Ken Evans would never have predicted how his life would later affect so many people in the United States and abroad. He is the younger of the set of twins his mother birthed, along with his younger brother. Although she was his biggest role model – through her own persistence of conquering life’s difficulties and circumstances – even his own mother would never have imagined the influence Ken’s leadership and engineering skills would have on the people he would later serve.
After his family moved to Sacramento when he was twelve years old, Evans attended public schools and graduated from Grant Union High School in 1981. His mother and grandmother both stressed the importance of education and excellence to he and his brothers from an early age, ensuring that they developed the discipline needed to compete and succeed in American society. Ken Evans remembers how his mother would make sure they all possessed a positive sense of self by providing them with Afrocentric books, flash cards and calendars. In doing so, she ensured that they had concrete examples of what was possible in America as little Black boys. Because of her efforts, all three of her sons completed college and became accomplished engineers.
As a young teenager, Ken would find himself drawing cities on the back of Monopoly and other game boards. He’d use his imagination and taped cardboard strips that he had cut from shoe boxes to indicate freeways. Colorful Lego pieces became the buildings, and he used dominos for cars and trucks. Evans was fascinated with the fact that as an engineer, he could help take these big ideas and transform them into reality. Little did he know that these crude child-like creations would be the beginning of him becoming a successful nation builder!
Evans recalls a time when his grandmother told him, “If you’re living, you’re learning, and if you’re learning, you’re living.” He took this wisdom and decided to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado after graduating high school.
Ken admits that in the beginning, he had reservations about joining the military. Being educated about the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and other Black people who had been mistreated while serving their country caused him to think twice. It was only after an African-American Second Lieutenant who represented the Minority Affairs Office at the Air Force Academy visited his high school that he made up his mind.
Through this officer’s presentation, Ken discovered that attending the Academy would be the perfect way to be in service to the United States military while simultaneously taking advantage of the equivalent of a full-ride academic scholarship. From his positive perspective, the required five-year service commitment (after obtaining his Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering there) would be valuable job experience for him as a new engineer. The decision to go this route would ultimately result in an accomplished military career of over twenty-five years in both active duty and the Air Force Reserves.
Even after achieving his first four-year degree, Ken Evans chose to continue his education. The strong women in his life had instilled in him a never-ending thirst to learn and seek knowledge as they were raising him, and he was aware that to be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the USAF, a master’s degree was required.
“I don’t mind sharing that it took four attempts for me to finally achieve my Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree,” Evans discloses. “People should know that despite academic and personal challenges, it’s important to keep going and persevere when you really want something. My advice to any young person going into the military is to be sure it’s mutually beneficial to both the branch they’ve decided to serve and themselves. Select a career path and pursue an education that will allow you to develop a marketable skill, trade, or expertise, and choose one that will translate well in the civilian sector.”
Following his own advice, Evans demonstrated both devoted patriotism and commitment to service throughout his life, no matter what the position. Whether it was in active duty or in the Reserves, Ken was a powerful leader in the USAF. He was deployed to a large regional base in Iraq and later multiple sites in eastern Afghanistan – after he was already eligible for retirement – to serve as a Commander of Civil Engineer Squadrons. In this capacity, he led units containing upwards of two hundred personnel responsible for development activity ranging from $35 to $64 million in total value. Just before he retired, Evans received the 2010 Air Force Civil Engineering Officer Manager of the Year Award for the Air Reserve Component and was recognized as a Top Reserve Air Force Engineering Officer. The experience as a military engineer and senior leader would prove extremely useful in his later civilian pursuits.
“Completing construction projects in a combat zone presented unique challenges. You must learn to adapt, as nothing typically goes according to plan. I made life and death decisions concerning where my people traveled to do their work. I still get emotional thinking about making decisions that may have led to an in-theater ramp ceremony or possibly having to visit someone’s relatives to pay my respects upon my return to the United States,” the retired Lieutenant Colonel pauses. After a solemn moment, he continues, “I know I grew personally and professionally during both deployment experiences. After that, I am confident that I can face any circumstance and perform successfully as a leader, regardless of the situation or environment.”
Ken has been the owner of several small businesses since 2001. He started and managed a successful real estate development consulting firm which completed several projects – both residential and commercial – prior to the market’s downturn in 2008. Being positively influenced by local community leaders like Sam Smith, who served the Black community in Las Vegas for seventeen years with his bookstore, Native Son; and, Reverend Jesse D. Scott, political activist and President of the NAACP in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and the Tri-State Conference (Idaho, Nevada, and Utah), Ken knew he wanted to give back and remain involved by actively addressing areas of public concern where he could be most useful.
In September of 2013, after a thorough application and interview process, retired Lt. Col. Kenneth Evans was hired as the President of the Urban Chamber of Commerce. He brought to the position a solid 10-year plan. Having previously been a UCC member and investor himself, Ken personally understood the challenges that minority business owners faced. He had a concrete vision for ensuring a higher probability of success for the diverse population that the UCC served.
“It’s true that I encountered different forms of racism and prejudice while in the military. However, the most insidious and harmful was the racism of low expectation. In general, students at the Academy were expected to maintain a 2.5 GPA or higher, but for the Black students, a 2.0 was okay. Ironically, I was the highest ranked candidate, in terms of academics and leadership, coming out of Sacramento. I was consistently encouraged by my civil engineering advisor, Captain Brian L. Miller, to stay motivated and focused, because many people didn’t expect me to graduate,” Evans reveals. “When I became the President at the Urban Chamber of Commerce, I looked at it as a ministry. My goal was to change the narrative plus improve the capacity of Black business owners to compete so they could counter the negative perceptions and low expectations that others may have of Black-owned businesses.”
To that end, Ken advocates owners using sound practical marketing research. He expects them to provide a useful product or service that meets a need, provides value, and produces a sound return on investment for their clients. By giving UCC members the information and opportunity to compete and succeed in the ever-changing global economy, Evans works to fulfill his obligation to close the racial wealth gap and help foster intergenerational wealth for minorities in America.
With entrepreneurship acting as the vehicle, Ken uses his solutions-oriented engineering mindset to teach others to collaborate and create an innovative space while contributing to economic development. By doing this, successful businesses can then employ people, supply resources to their communities, and participate in political engagement that produces real change.
After serving as President for almost a decade, Ken Evans now finds himself in a place of transition. He has made the difficult decision to retire from the Urban Chamber of Commerce and pass the baton to the next generation of leaders, staff, and business owners. The retirement will go effective in August of 2022. Ken proudly states that his time with the UCC has been a blessing both personally and professionally, and that, as a team, they have accomplished many things, both included in and in addition to, their original economic agenda. He has been excited to witness the growth of certain hard-working UCC team staff members, such as Summer Rabb and Dalisa Steward. Asserting that people like them were integral to the success of the Chamber during his tenure as President, Evans is confident that his successor will be capable of taking the UCC Enterprise (UCC, UC Business Success Center, Hannah Brown CDC, and the UC Political Action Committee) to the next level to engage and serve the community.
When asked what comes next, Ken shares that he plans to continue hosting the Commerce First! radio show on KCEP FM 88.1 every third Monday at 9AM until the new UCC President decides what they would like to do long term. He has greatly appreciated the consistent opportunity to reach the public that the platform has given him. In addition, Evans was appointed by the Clark County Commission to the nine member Las Vegas Stadium Authority Board, which is responsible for the ownership and oversight of the Allegiant NFL stadium, home to the Las Vegas Raiders and UNLV Rebels Football. His goal in this position is to help build and operate a first-class, world-renowned venue while being purposeful in ensuring there is diversity, equity and inclusion in all areas including employment, procurement, and community engagement.
Far from being finished using his special skillset, Ken is interested in creating and developing options for commerce with various countries throughout the African continent. In doing so, he desires to work as a ‘social engineer’ of sorts, putting back together what was torn asunder over four hundred years ago during the slave trade. He also wants to share his proven strategy and technique on leadership by penning a book and going on a national speaking tour that highlights the importance of valuing and leveraging diversity for the benefit of achieving organizational success.
By placing most of his concentration and effort into serving his country and his community, Evans confides that he has made many personal sacrifices. Although his life’s work has been extremely rewarding, he plans to use this time to enjoy himself. In hindsight, he encourages other leaders to maintain a healthy balance between their home and professional lives.
“I’ve had a couple of health concerns lately, so staying active by walking, doing intermittent fasting, and keeping up with my medical exams is important.” Ken acknowledges that lowering stress is an essential part of that healthier lifestyle. In closing, he laughs, “I love live music! I want to go to some live concerts. I like to tell jokes and enjoy intimate get togethers where we play cards and dominoes while fellowshipping. Most people would be surprised to discover that I’m not actually as serious as I’ve carried myself in the past. I plan on going on a few much-deserved vacations after my retirement from the Chamber. I’m definitely going on a cruise!”