Nashville is mourning the loss of one of its greatest community leaders, Marilyn Robinson.
Robinson passed away unexpectedly on Friday, February 25, after a brief illness. Robinson, originally a Memphis native, called Nashville home for almost 40 years.
Robinson was born September 10, 1955, in Memphis Tennessee, the only child to the late Ms. Mae Ola Robinson and the late Joseph Johnson. She is a graduate of Carver High School and Lemoyne Owen College of Memphis, where she received a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Finance.
After working briefly at the IRS, she relocated to Nashville in 1984 to serve as the project director of the Nashville Minority Business Development Center, a role she held until 1997. Since 1998, Marilyn served as the executive director of the Nashville Minority Business Center.
It is in these roles that she supported countless business owners in their journeys to scale their companies, create jobs and generate wealth. She operated the One Fund, which provided small and minority business owners with access to capital. She provided technical assistance to business owners who needed to understand better the accounting and public contracting aspects of the business.
“She was one of the first women that ever spoke life into my dream,” said Angela Mitchell-Hill of Nashville Nails and Salon Services by Na’Sah’s. “I was a student at TSU and had a crazy dream of having a nail salon. I was a girl from Detroit. She took time to speak to me and tell me I could do it.”
Mitchell-Hill’s businesses received their first business loan through the One Fund.
Robinson showed her how to ‘be in business,’ not just showing her the importance of business documentation but also providing an example of how to be a “strong and focused Black woman.”
“Marilyn and the Minority Business Center provided us our loan when we were starting our business,” said Stephanie Trail of Salon Nfuse. “We were trying to figure out how to open and we were looking for a small loan and somebody recommended them. So that’s how we ended up meeting her.”
Marilyn and the Minority Business Center have been instrumental in Salon Nfuse’s success. “They connected us with a lot when we were starting, and if they didn’t know something they were always able to connect us with someone who did,” said Trail.
Additionally, for more than 35 years, Robinson coordinated the Minority Enterprise Development Week Conference, known as MED Week, as part of the national celebration to recognize minority business contributions to the national economy.
Robinson’s passion for economic inclusivity and justice was evident, not just in her career but in how she lived her life. In addition to her role at the Minority Business Center, Marilyn was active in the Nashville community and has been a champion of and advocate for many of the economic prosperity measures undertaken by the city.
Robinson’s persistence led to the completion of two disparity studies to document the inequities in government contracting in 1998 and in 2018. From there, she was instrumental in the Metro Council unanimously passing the historic Equal Business Opportunity legislation to remove the barriers for minority businesses to compete in government contracting.
At the time of her passing, Robinson was working with Sen. Brenda Gilmore to push legislation to create a pilot program designed to encourage more state agency procurements from small and minority businesses.
When not advocating for minority businesses, she served her community in other ways. Marilyn served in leadership as a president, board of directors, committee member for many organizations, including Nashville Electric Service; Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County Convention Center Commission; Leadership Nashville Class of 1999; AAA Residential Resources, Inc.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Nashville Chapter; and 100 Black Women Metropolitan Nashville Chapter, Inc. An avid and enthusiastic political connoisseur, she even served as a delegate for Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential Election.
At her passing, Marilyn was a member of Nashville Foundation for Women of Color, Inc.; and Music City (TN) Chapter of The Links, Inc.
She bestowed many awards on many individuals in her lifetime and received many awards for her outstanding work, including receiving the Power of WE; Inaugural Trailblazers Award for outstanding contributions; the Saint Mark Baptist Church Martin Luther King, Jr.; Community Service Award; and most recently, on February 24, 2022, she received the Sam Howard Business Advocate Lifetime Achievement Award by the Urban League of Middle Tennessee.
“I have been reflecting on my 30-year friendship with Marilyn,” said Lethia Mann, her co-worker, and close friend. “I met Marilyn in 1991 and became vice president of The One Fund in 2002. I admired Marilyn’s persistence. For decades she continued to push for race-conscious equity in government contracting despite opposition by the status quo. She believed in fairness. She believed Black-owned businesses deserved their fair share of government contracts.”
Marilyn Robinson is missed by the Nashville community, her beloved Akita dogs, Buffy and Jody, her family, and a host of friends and associates.
Visitation will be held Friday, March 11, at Lewis and Wright Funeral Home located at 2500 Clarksville Pike, from 3-5 pm. On Saturday, March 12, visitation will be held at Mt. Zion at 1112 Jefferson Street followed by the funeral at 12 pm.