In a time of constant transition in Alabama’s workforce, Helena Duncan is a champion for the business community as senior vice president of Operations and Investor Relations for the Business Council of Alabama.
“Our goal every day is to take care of the businesses in the state of Alabama to make sure this is a great place to work and to provide jobs,” Duncan said. “And that never stops. When we’re not in session, we still have full plates.
“We’re constantly trying to get out there and meet our businesses and meet their needs and we’re looking ahead to what could be coming down the pike during the legislative session.”
Duncan went to BCA to work with Katie Britt in 2020, after 30-plus years in banking wrapping up as a bank president. While this job is a bit of a restart, Duncan has found her finance background applies directly to much of her work at BCA, although she is sitting on the other side of the desk.
As a banker, Duncan was on the receiving end of businesses whose needs she might not have been able to meet. They may have lacked something such as access to capital, know-how to set up a business or the correct paperwork. Often, she was forced to turn down solid ideas when things were not properly in place.
“I take that knowledge and think about it often as we are working here,” she said. “Our goal is to make these businesses healthy and thriving, so I do feel like I have another side of the story that helps us be better on this side of things. Since I have touched so many of these businesses throughout my career in banking, it’s easier for me to pick up the phone and say, ‘How is this impacting you and what would you want our position to be in a business like this?’
“I think having been on the outside of BCA for so long as a business person, but also having to deal with businesses, has given me more insight into what we need to be doing to assist these businesses and to help them thrive.”
According to U.S. Senate nominee Katie Britt, who formerly served as CEO of BCA, Duncan is the “perfect example” of a leader that strives to help others reach their full potential.
“You won’t find a better friend or colleague than Helena Duncan,” said Britt. “She’s the perfect example of someone who goes out of her way to reach back and help others climb up the professional ladder. Helena is both a fierce advocate for Alabama jobs and a gracious, selfless role model who earns the respect of her peers and team members in word and deed. The people of our state benefit from her intellect, steady leadership and quiet service every day.”
Duncan stepped into her new role in 2020, just weeks before the pandemic hit. As she jokingly put it, she had finally “figured out where her office and the bathroom were located” before everyone was sent home.
There was no time for her to dwell on what was happening or if she was truly “ready” to begin her new career; she simply put her head down and went to work helping Alabama businesses navigate the challenging times and offering as much support as possible.
During the pandemic, the No. 1 issue for BCA was, without a doubt, broadband. The conversation has now turned toward workforce development and how businesses can get people back to work.
“That is a topic we try to address and we’re always looking for ways to provide more information,” Duncan said. “What we do well is put CEOs and business leaders together to talk about this. We also work very closely with the governor’s office and other departments of the state where we can identify if there are resources available.
“We try to keep people knowledgeable about what is available and what the state is working on and once we do that, we try to bring businesses together to talk about it.”
As an African-American woman who has always worked in male-dominated fields, Duncan said she is “truly the minority in any room in most cases.” She was “first at everything” in working her way from branch manager to a top four executive of a $22 billion asset bank.
And that is something she has always been aware of throughout her career.
“There came a point in my career when I realized that I had become the mentor and not the mentee,” she said. “I had so many young women who depended on me to do a lot right. Eventually, I recognized what a big deal that is. The decisions that I made became not all about me; they became about what the right decisions were to advance women, minority women. If I messed up, it could ruin their chances, as well. I have always carried that load back and forth to work with me every day.
“It was an honor for me to do that. It still is.”
Duncan is the only woman on the Dixie Electric Cooperative Board of Trustees and, quite possibly, the only woman to ever serve. She previously sat on the Synovus Board of Directors as one of only two women. While her children attended Saint James School, she served on the board, which she described as “monumental in that space.”
While Duncan – who lives in Montgomery with her husband – pours herself into her work, she has always put her family first. Her two sons are adults now, but she never missed a teacher conference or a play or a football game while they were growing up.
Even now, with her youngest son playing football at Mississippi State University, she travels to each and every one of his games on the weekends, just as she did when her older son played at Vanderbilt University.
When asked how she has managed a high-powered, full-time career without ever missing anything at home, Duncan said it was a combination of working for people who put family first – a courtesy she extends to her own staff – and learning that to “be where your feet are.”
Rather, don’t get behind or in front of the task at hand, but stay in the present.
“You can’t get too far ahead of yourself. Don’t get in front of your skis. I remind my kids all the time to just be present; wherever you are, just be there,” she said. “If I could lend any advice, particularly to women and all they have to do, it would be that if you want to be really good at what you do, just be present in that space and be prepared.
“Go into every day planning to be great, but you have to be present to do that.”
Yellowhammer News is proud to name Helena Duncan a 2022 Woman of Impact.