We sat down with Carolyn Michael-Banks who owns A Tour of Possibilities here in Memphis. See how this Memphian is Bringing Here Soul to the city!
We are Memphis: Let’s start off with your name.
Carolyn Michael-Banks: My name is Carolyn Michael-Banks and I am the owner of a company called A Tour of Possibilities. It is an African-American history towards Memphis.
We are Memphis: What would you say is your passion in life?
Carolyn Michael-Banks: My passion is to share things with people that I don’t think they would get without me. I enjoy giving people a sense of a place that they think they might know, but also giving them an opportunity to dig a little deeper and see things that aren’t right there on the surface.
Telling the story of the city here in Memphis about the role that African-Americans have played in the development and their contributions to the city, and this is not the first city I’ve done this in. I actually started in Washington DC, and then, I did tours in Savannah Georgia and then in Philadelphia Pennsylvania.
We are Memphis: How did you get your initial idea for your business? How did your business start and how did you cultivate your idea and to what it is today?
Carolyn Michael-Banks: Gotcha. I started when I was in college on summer break, and I went to school in Massachusetts but my sister lived in DC, and that’s where I chose to hang out one summer in my sophomore year. I’m sitting in her living room, and I say to her I am absolutely bored. And she said, “It is against the law to be bored in the nation’s capital, get out of my house and go downtown.” So, I did that. I went downtown and hopped on a tour and when I finished about two hours later or so, I’m like how do you get to do this because the guy seemed like he was having so much fun. He said was funny that you asked because the head of HR is right over there and he’s pointing towards the Washington Monument.
So, I looked at his name tag and kind of like pray all the way over that she’s in good standing with HR. And when I get to the lady, I said Jonathan asked me to come over and speak with you about possibly working with the company.” And she said, “Jonathan sent you?” So, of course, you know now, I’ve stopped breathing, and I’m like yes, and she said great let’s go down to the office and fill out an application, and that’s how my life and tours and started.
So I did that for the summer, absolutely loved it, came back the next summer, absolutely loved it, graduated from college thinking that now I’m somebody important. I was in social work. That’s what I thought I was on the planet for and very quickly found out that was not why I should have been on the planet because I was dealing with protective services so I was dealing with babies who were broken and burned and that’s not my spirit.
I moved back to DC and I remember sitting in Burger King talking to my cousin. I mean my sister’s wonderful, but I need work. She said to go back to doing tours, and I’m like I am now a college grad. I can’t go back to doing stuff that I did as an undergrad, and she says you do need to work. I said okay. I went back to the company I did when I was in college and thought I was going to go in there as a supervisor you know managerial because I had all this… No, that didn’t work either so I went back to being a tour guide and then, another company came in town to DC, and that was going to give me an opportunity not only to narrate the tours but to drive as well.
Long story short, I became a general manager of that company. And one of the things I thought I would be able to do because I now had this title and thought I had some authority, was to add African-American history into the script because it was utterly void, and here I am in what was known as chocolate city not talking about anybody who had a brown hue to them. So, I did all the research. I was excited about it trained all of my employees; they were excited about it, and then I got a call from the CEO who did not live in DC. And his thing to me was what’s happening in Washington, and I was like can you be a little more specific.
And he said, “What’s all this black stuff?” And I my first reaction was oh my God was there’s grease on the seat, gimme the person’s name, I’ll send them the email check. He said no, it’s not grease. And so I said oh you might be referring then to the African-American history tour or African-American history. I now included in our script, and he said I’m getting letters, I’m getting calls, people are just too uncomfortable with the information. And I said well ,you know I can understand being uncomfortable because some of the things are uncomfortable.
I said, but the bottom line is that its history and our tagline was “we really live history”, so we’re not doing that completely. He gives me the option to move to another city to start an operation there or leave the company. I’m like I’m ready to roll, so I moved to Savannah Georgia. I did all the research and got everybody trained. We were doing well, and then I get another call, and he’s said, “ I’m going to have somebody come to you so you can train them.” I said great this is what I do, but I have one question. I said am I training my replacement? He said yes. I said okay, send the guy and so I trained him, and then I get another call he goes, “well get ready to open up in Philly.”
I said oh going back to the northeast because I’m a Bronx girl. I forgot to tell you, but anyway, I’m a New Yorker and so I go to Philly, do the same thing, do all the research, write the script. About seven months later, the other manager comes in on a Sunday which was highly unusual. And I said, “Why are you here on a Sunday? She said, “you know they finally made a decision about what they’re going to do with the Philly operation.” She said simply we decided that we’re going to downsize and I’m like oh no, who’s going. She said “you.”
I said oh me, me [laughs]. What appeared to be the worst day of my life because I had traveled around the country, did all this stuff, put my family life on hold and now, I’m out of a job but it was really an answer to a prayer. My prayer was I really want to be able to do this the way I want to do this. I really need to start my own company, and so as often, you get the answer that you want but not the way you want it, so I now had all the time in the world to start this company, and so I started A Tour of Possibilities Philadelphia and that’s kind of how that whole thing started.
We are Memphis: Nice. That’s quite a story. What do you love about owning your own business?
Carolyn Michael-Banks: he freedom to tell this story the way I want to tell it and the way I think it should be told more importantly. What happens with it is the responsibility that if it doesn’t get done, it’s on me. I mean it’s all on me, and that has been a journey, unlike any other journey I’ve been on.
I used to joke with my family because when I was in tourism even working for other people, I felt like I gave it everything. I mean I missed out on a lot of family events because I was that dedicated and involved in it. And I remember my mother telling me you have to give it all and you need to be do it for yourself.
So as much as I appreciate the ability to do the way I want to do it, there’s an immense responsibility that comes with it.
We are Memphis: What drives you to do what you do? What motivates you and how do you stay motivated?
Carolyn Michael-Banks: What motivates me is the reaction of my guests. I start with a hug which surprises many people. I pride myself on being able to give people something that you’re not going to get on the average everyday tour. It’s not just the African-American history, but there’s a thing I think that I can connect with people in a way that normally doesn’t happen. And one of the reasons I believe is the vehicle I chose to use. I use a 10-passenger vehicle so there are times and I will say that you will be uncomfortable, but that’s his history.
The way I connect with people gives them an opportunity to feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Some people will ask me questions that I know they probably would not have asked if they were on a 56-passenger vehicle. I mean there have been times I’ve had conversations with people who will just say, “you know I got to be honest with you, I lived in a bubble most of my life, and there’s so much that I don’t know” and they appreciate the fact that they were able to get some of it.
I mean it’s only two hours, and I can’t do it all. But that’s what keeps me motivated every time because I know that when people leave the tour, they’re leaving with definitely more than they got.
So that’s my motivation, that’s what keeps me going and learning continuing to learn because there’s so much. I’m not from Memphis originally, so I have to continually learn everyday events makes it even more exciting because as many people are aware, history is usually very cyclical, especially when we’re unaware of it.
We are Memphis: What are your biggest strengths? What do you excel at and how does it help you in your daily routine?
Carolyn Michael-Banks: I think one of my biggest strengths is my love of people as corny as that might sound.
I think it connects me to folk and people listen differently when they’re connected. I love the ability to meet people I’ve never met before and have that kind of connection. Here’s the crazy part. I’m really shy. I’m telling you yes, it’s crazy but what it does for me, it takes me out of the shy zone, it pushes me, but there’s something about that this is exciting.
Something happens when I get into the zone when I’m giving a tour, and there are often things that even come that hadn’t also been planned but depending on who I’m talking to or the questions that they ask me, I get to go to places sometimes in the tour that I may not even have thought about. So it’s always new, it’s still fresh, and I remember when I used to train guides and they it’s really easy to get into a rut. I mean when you’re doing the same thing every day, it’s really easy to act like you’ve been there 100 times because you have been.
But you know my thing is for most people who do this, they’ve never done it before, and I have to be on my game just because that’s what they deserve when they get on the vehicle. Just watching their faces and just getting the interaction. And to get to I guess the answer to your question, I think that’s my strength is that I do love connecting to folk and giving them a sense of something they just may not have gotten without that connection and then, some people would stay in contact. It’s so crazy, like on Facebook, they’re telling me about their kids’ birthday. It is so hysterical.
We are Memphis: [Laughs]. That’s awesome.
Carolyn Michael-Banks: Some of the relationships. Yeah, I mean from all over the world. Oh my gosh, it’s just it’s amazing.
We are Memphis: What would you say is your biggest weakness and what can you improve on the most?
Carolyn Michael-Banks: It’s the business side of all that I do. I mean I love doing tours, but that’s not all that I need to do. So when I say the business side, it’s making sure I know my numbers, it’s making sure I have systems in place, it’s making sure I hire enough people now as I’ve started to grow who can do what it is that I do the way I need for them to do it. It’s all of that that has to be handled, and that’s the thing. When I was doing this group, I was working with, and they were talking about the need to have three hats. You have to be the entrepreneur, and you have to keep thinking of ways to develop, and you have to be the managers.
You can handle it all, and then, you have to be the technician, and so it’s really for me the challenge is to work with those three hats and then to do them well, and you can’t not do any of those parts not well because it won’t work. So, it’s it for me is balancing how to handle those three people I have to be in one person and making it happen consistently and that’s so important to me. And in the world of as we know with social media, your off game one day that’s all it takes for you to be off your game one day and that’s why I presently have one employee, one part-time employee and one of the things I love so much about him is that he gets how important each moment is.
You can’t– this can’t be just a hit or miss. You’ve got to be that I know you’re human but you’ve got to be with them, for them, about them those two hours that you’re together so yeah, the hard part to me is to make sure I keep it all in balance and because if I’m not around, this doesn’t work. So yeah, making sure I understand the parts that are not second nature to me and doing budgets and doing marketing and doing all that is not second nature to me, so yeah.
We are Memphis: What does Bring Your Soul mean to you first personally and what do you think this means for the people of Memphis?
Carolyn Michael-Banks: I think it means for me to give whatever I have to those who come in contact with me. It means to be less superficial, it means to be perhaps a little uncomfortable with some stuff, but I get very philosophical sometimes, and it’s like you don’t know how much longer you have on the planet. So, it’s important for me to do all that I can so that you may have heard the expression, ‘What is your dash?’ Have you ever heard that? What is your dash, D-A-S-H?
So, the thing I gave it actually in my sister’s eulogy but anyway, there are important dates in history of course; the day you’re born, the day you die, those are important but what’s important is the dash, what you did in between. So, my thing is I want to make sure my dash was worth the air I breathe on the planet because my mother was like you’re here for a reason, you’re here not to suck air. That was one of her favorite things so to have some purpose, and to me, purpose and soul are interconnected.
For the city of Memphis, I think that it could mean an appreciation of a city that has so much more to offer than Elvis and barbecue. I think that there is a depth of this city that has gone unnoticed and untold. I think there are stories in this city that have not been told and I think that if we can truly, we as Memphians and always a native New Yorker. But that as we who live here grasp the richness of this city, we can start to see it differently because I think one of the missing links is that as much as we have all of these people come in from around the world on a daily basis, that’s great.
But if we can get Memphians to appreciate– and we’ve got some stuff going on I’m not ignoring it, but there’s so much else going on here that we can lift all boats if we all get the richness of the city. Everything else will start to move if people who live here start to go wow it’s a pretty cool place I mean you know and then the stuff that in the way, we can start to get out of the way once we recognize there’s something worth being proud of here.
There’s something we’re connecting to here, there’s something we’re not just going home and going to work or just going to school and come to work that’s something we can all work together to do because since we’re going to be here, we might as well make it the best place and I’m in my 60s now, I may not be going anywhere else. This might be it so I want it to be the best place that it can be since I’m planning on being here.
We are Memphis: That’s awesome.