When you look back on Inez Kaiser’s life, it’s a giant list of firsts. She didn’t set out to be a trailblazer for African-American women, but that quality is her legacy.
Kaiser, 94, made her name as president of Inez Y. Kaiser & Associates Inc., which was the first public relations firm in the country led by an African-American woman. She didn’t do it to be the first: It was simply what she wanted to do.
The journey wasn’t easy, the Overland Park woman said in an interview as she looked back on her groundbreaking achievements.
When she started out, after leaving her job teaching home economics in Kansas City, she couldn’t get anyone to rent her office space downtown.
She finally found office space at City National Bank, where R. Crosby Kemper Sr., gave her a spot on the 11th floor. A friend lent her the $95 to pay her first rent bill.
To describe her pioneering spirit, Kaiser paraphrases a famous quote from author Napoleon Hill: “Whatever the mind believes and conceives, it can achieve,” she said.
Having the support of her husband, Richard Kaiser, helped tremendously. They were married for 58 years before his death in 2003.
After a fancy open house, where she showed off her new office, she got her first client, Ted Jenkins, who ran Jenkins Music Co. After helping Jenkins attract an African-American customer base, the company had been struggling to find, Kaiser soon landed an account with the major ad agency J. Walter Thompson.
Kaiser built up her public relations resume with contracts from big name companies, such as 7-Up, Lever Brothers, Stirling Drug and others.
It was through these accounts that she made one her lasting contributions in the civil rights movement, by encouraging various companies to hire more African-American workers.
Just her presence called her colleagues’ attention to some of the issues of inequality. At a meeting in Dallas, a hotel where the group planned to eat refused to let Kaiser in, so the entire group left in protest.
Kaiser was the first African-American member of the Public Relations Society of America.
“She blazed the trail for so many more of us to take on leadership roles and also be taken seriously as candidates in the workplace,” said Natalie Tindall, former national diversity chair of the group. “Her role is important, but not many people know about it.”
In Kansas City, she worked with many different groups, such as the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, but the one closest to her heart was the Del Sprites.
This organization, which Kaiser helped found, assisted disadvantaged African-American girls who were high school juniors and seniors in building their self-esteem and cultural capital. Kaiser secured college scholarships for many of the girls. To this day, she said, she runs into Del Sprites who tell her how the group changed their lives.
Another proud moment for Kaiser was organizing the Jackson County Missouri Chapter of The Links community service organization.
Kaiser is known for her work beyond the Kansas City area, too. In her long career, she was president of the National Association of Minority Women in Business as well as a special assistant to the secretaries of the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development and Commerce.
Kaiser said that when she first tried to join American Women in Radio and Television, some people in the local chapter didn’t want her as a member. Later, as part of the organization, she was selected to meet Princess Margaret of the United Kingdom at a conference.
Now a proud mother and grandmother, Kaiser remembered the words of her mother, who died when Kaiser was 11: “I want you to be somebody.” She also carries her father’s words of encouragement to further her education.
“My dad used to tell me, ‘Whatever you have in your head, no one can take that away,’ ” Kaiser said. “I have opened the doors for a number of African-Americans to enter. As I see younger people doing a lot of things, I know my efforts were not in vain.”