Esther L. Bush is the career achievement winner for the 2021 Women of Influence awards.
Esther L. Bush was a young girl growing up in Pittsburgh when she learned a lesson that would inspire a long and successful career helping women and people of color overcome obstacles to advancement.
Her father owned a trucking company and operated a fleet of 18-wheel trucks. Bush dreamed of being a truck driver, but her father told her women didn’t drive trucks.
“I wanted to drive one of those trucks so bad,” she said. “I thought it was awesome the way my father could back a loaded 18-wheeler into a space, and he only had a couple of inches on each side. That’s what I wanted to do.”
While Bush never became a truck driver, people who’ve worked with her will tell you that she could do just about anything she set her mind on, and she’s spent a lifetime teaching people they can do the same.
She will retire later this year after serving more than four decades in a variety of senior positions with the National Urban League in New York City and Hartford, Connecticut, then 27 years as president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.
Since returning to Pittsburgh, she has advanced the Urban League’s mission of providing social services and championing civil rights issues by creating numerous outreach, educational and support programs and by creating collaborative relationships with the region’s business and political leaders. The Business Times is honoring her with a Career Achievement award for these accomplishments.
Alan Trivilino, senior vice president of PNCI Online Experience, PNC Investments LLC, and chairman of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh board, praised her achievements.
“Esther Bush is one of the most inspiring individuals I’ve ever met,” he said. “She’s willing to take on issues and topics of major importance, and she does it with a realistic approach. I hope that she continues to be remembered for so being so reliable and a leader who keeps her eyes on the prize. She has the ear of key decision-makers, and she’s a key influencer herself, but I’ve never seen her use that for personal gain. It’s always been focused on the Urban League’s mission helping African Americans achieve self-reliance.”
An advocate for women in the workplace
Her journey to success began even before joining the Urban League.
She started her career as a high school teacher in Baltimore, and then worked as the assistant director of the Career Planning and Placement Center at Coppin State College (now Coppin State University) in Baltimore.
In 1980, she was recruited to be the assistant director of the Labor Education Advancement Program for the National Urban League. She led LEAP’s women’s division, working to find what were at the time — and in some cases, still are — nontraditional jobs for women such as carpenters, firefighters and police officers.
“I was very interested in that work because at that point in time women were basically secretaries doing clerical work,” she said. “What we found was there were so many single female heads of households that were not earning adequate salaries to raise their families.”
Instead of doing her work from a New York City office, she crisscrossed the country, visiting the 42 cities she covered and walking onto job sites that received federal funds. When she didn’t see any women or people of color on the job site, she’d ask to see the project’s general manager.
“They would tell me they don’t hire based on gender or race,” she said. “And I would explain to them that if they’re receiving government dollars, there are EEOC requirements that require them to hire women and people of color. I asked if I should report that because it is my responsibility. We did follow up to check to see if they’d changed, of course, and those construction sites changed ever so slightly after my visits. Those things felt good.”
After that assignment, Bush moved on to manage the Urban League’s operation on Staten Island, New York, and then in Manhattan, before taking over as president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Hartford.
Harriett Michel, who ran the National Urban League in the mid-1980s and later went on the run the National Minority Supplier Development Council, an international organization that connects minority businesses with large corporations, knew Bush would have a significant impact on the organization.
“She’s incredibly competent and innovative,” she said. “And she’s very smart. Her passion is to do good and to help people. She’s got all the right motivation and passion to be in the job. She’s a woman with ideas, a woman with energy. She’s a woman who wants to get things done.”
‘Her passion comes shining through’
Bush returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh in 1994 and assumed her current role. Since then, she’s steadily increased both the credibility and impact of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh by building collaborative relationships with local business and nonprofit leaders, politicians and others and by instituting a number of programs designed to help people in underserved communities.
That collaborative approach is clear in people serving as Urban League officers and on its board, including representatives from some of the region’s largest companies and nonprofits, including PNC Financial Services Group Inc., UPMC, University of Pittsburgh, Howard Hanna Real Estate Services and PPG Industries Inc.
Leroy Ball, president and CEO of Koppers, served on the Urban League’s board for several years. Last year during the pandemic, Koppers partnered with the Urban League for the “All One Pittsburgh” initiative, a communitywide fund that obtained and distributed essential household products to underserved neighborhoods.
“When I took over as CEO (of Koppers) in 2015, Esther was one of the first people to call me to welcome me to Pittsburgh and to ask if there were ways Koppers and the Urban League could work together,” he said. “It was an easy yes. She’s just so passionate about it. You can’t say enough about the work she’s done in the community. Her passion comes shining through when you talk to her. It’s clear she cares for people.”
In 1998, she led the effort of the creation of the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School.
“We were the very first charter school to open in the City of Pittsburgh,” she said. “Being a former high school teacher and college administrator, and because of the focus my parents put on the importance of education, it really made me feel it was important to start a charter school that was purposely designed for elementary school students.”
She also worked with Pennsylvania’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning to establish three Family Support Centers in Duquesne, Northview Heights and East Hills. Those centers provide a number of services, including educational programs and health and developmental screenings.
The Urban League also provides financial support to people in need, but according to Bush, the focus is on teaching people to be self-sufficient rather than supporting them on an ongoing basis.
“We won’t help you with your mortgage without you first going through our financial literacy program,” she said. “I don’t want to give someone a few thousand dollars to help them and then see them again in a few months when they’re eligible again. We want people to build skills.”
Bush believes that teaching leadership skills is an important function of the Urban League. She also created the Black Male Leadership Development Institute, a year-long effort for boys in grades nine through 12.
‘A force in our community’
While Bush is proud of those programs, she feels her most important legacy has been getting leaders and others in the community to see the Urban League as a leader in providing social services and in addressing civil rights issue.
“My greatest accomplishment across-the-board has been that I was able to grow the credibility of the Urban League with the community, with our constituency, with decision-makers,” she said.
Bush believes her work to provide social services ties in directly with the Urban League’s focus on championing civil rights issues. She also sees the recent social justice movement that grew out of the killing of George Floyd as a wakeup call.
“I think that corporate America, white America, needs to understand what happened in the past,” she said. “I’m not saying you have to dig back and find out if your great uncle Charlie owned slaves. I’m respectfully saying that you should understand the evolution of history in the United States of America, accept the reality and then focus on what you as an individual person can do to make things better.”
Bush had originally set her retirement date as Aug. 31, but is staying on until the board finds a new CEO, and that date has now been pushed back to the end of October. She will stay in her position until a new CEO is in place, and may stay briefly to help, but she does plan to resign from most, but not all, of the many boards on which she serves.
One board seat she plans to retain is with The Advanced Leadership Institute (TALI), which was formed in 2018 with support from Carnegie Mellon University to increase the number of Black executives at Pittsburgh companies.
Evan Frazier, TALI’s CEO and president, is excited about the prospect of Bush staying on his board.
“Esther Bush has been a force in our community,” he said. “She has an important voice that she uses to speak truths about our challenges. We’re very pleased that she is willing to continue to serve on our board. She’s always such a positive force in our meetings. She reinforces important issues and has a wealth of experience and respect in the community.”
1973 Esther Bush became a high school teacher for Baltimore City Public Schools.
1980 Bush hired by the National Urban League to oversee the women’s division of its Labor Education Advancement Program (LEAP), and works to place women in nontraditional jobs.
1982 Bush named borough director of the Urban League in Staten Island and then goes on to lead the league’s largest branch, in Manhattan, from 1986 through 1989.
1989 While serving as president of the Urban League in Hartford, Connecticut, Bush produces a radio show, “The Urban Agenda,” to get the organization’s message out to a broader audience. She continues that broadcasting effort on both television and radio when she moves to Pittsburgh.
1994 Bush returns to her hometown to serve as president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. Over the next several years, she establishes a number of new programs and builds collaborative relationships with the region’s business and political leaders.
1998 Bush leads the effort to found Pittsburgh’s first charter school, an elementary school now called the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, serving as board chair and on its board of trustees.
2001 Bush returns to her roots in education as an adjunct instructor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work.
2021 Bush announces her retirement after 27 years leading the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.
Title: President & CEO, Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh
Education: B.S., education, Morgan State University; certificate, career education, Boston University; M.A., guidance and counseling, Johns Hopkins University; honorary doctor of humanities, Point Park University; honorary doctor of letters, Allegheny College
First job: Teacher
Hobbies: Travel (international and national), sewing, theater, spending time with friends and family
Community service: Serves on local, national and international boards that promote diversity, equity and inclusion