Kevin Hooks isn’t one for modest goals when it comes to his position as president and CEO of the Las Vegas Urban League.
“I literally want to eradicate poverty from the state of Nevada,” he says. “I want to show that you can make a huge dent in poverty just by people caring and giving back … that an organization at the tip of the spear can solve problems.”
Hooks, who graduated from Missouri Southern in ’92, has led the organization for the last three years, growing it into a $30 million operation that serves nearly 300,000 people across the Nevada basin. The Urban League works with veterans, low-income residents, people who are transitioning out of the prison system and others in order to “bring about opportunity and enable citizens to secure economic self-reliance.”
Services offered include GED support, helping clients attend community college to learn a trade and teaching application and interview skills. Clients also receive support through literacy, child development and financial empowerment programs, among many others.
“We teach them the responsibility of ‘an honest day’s work equals an honest day’s pay,’” says Hooks. “We let employers know that you can be as good an employee and as helpful to their bottom line as anyone, regardless of the mistakes you made in the past. As long as we both hold up our end of the bargain, we have productive members of society coming out of these doors.”
Helping others make that transition is personal to him – their economic situation is one with which he can relate.
“I didn’t chose to grow up in poverty … it was my reality,” says Hooks. “I lived in the projects in Tulsa. Sometimes we didn’t have running water, but I knew how to turn it back on by the time I was 8 years old. Same thing with gas and electricity.”
By his freshman year of high school, Hooks decided to pick up a sport in order to qualify for a college scholarship.
“Football didn’t fare so well,” he says. “But the soccer coach said, ‘You’re fast and strong. If you work really hard, I’ll give you a shot.’”
By the time he was a junior, Hooks was rated the No. 1 outside defender in the state. He attended Missouri Southern on a soccer scholarship and played for four years.
“After about a year, I had transitioned from a poor kid from the hood into a college student,” he says. “I stayed and worked in the summers in Joplin because it was more comfortable to me at that point. I knew I didn’t want to be poor anymore.”
After graduating from Missouri Southern with a degree in communication, he worked for State Farm for six years before moving to Los Angeles and becoming involved with entertainment marketing.
“I worked in the entertainment business doing product placement … we were one of the early pioneers as it transitioned into branded entertainment,” says Hooks. “I got to work on a lot of very cool shows. They’d pay us a small retainer and we’d throw a bunch of products in film and television productions and hope something stuck. It went from that to high-negotiation deals, with millions changing hands as it became all about incorporating the messaging of the brand into a storyline.”
A member of the Urban League’s board at the national level since 1997, Hooks says he jumped at the chance to bring his business acumen to the table when the position opened with the Las Vegas organization.
“If you look at the numbers and operations of any business, you’re going to find opportunities,” he says. “I brought a lot of Hollywood and corporate relationships to this conversation, but also a history of success.”
More than one acquaintance thought it was “silly” for him to leave Hollywood for the position.
But as he shares some of the success stories of the individuals who have found jobs or gotten back on their feet through the assistance of the Las Vegas Urban League, it’s clear he’s extremely passionate about his role.
“I’m here doing this because it’s important.”