Mays Fellowship Continues a Legacy of Excellence and Relentless Drive
Story by Susan M. Brackney, Layout by Jonathan A. Karty
With few examples to look to, Bill Mays forged his own path as an entrepreneur—and subsequently gave other minorities a helping a hand along the way
William “Bill” Mays quickly found just the right formula. The Indiana University alumnus and Hoosier entrepreneur earned his chemistry B.A. in 1970 and an MBA from the Kelley School of Business in 1973. Then, he built a chemical empire in what seems like no time flat. Mays Chemical started as a one-man operation in 1980. Eventually, the multi-million-dollar business would grow to employ hundreds of people in multiple locations.
“Our base is food and pharmaceutical,” says Kristin Mays-Corbitt, Mays Chemical president and daughter of the late Bill Mays. “His rationale was, ‘People get sick and they have to eat’—and you have to do that through good times and bad.”
Eli Lilly and Co., Abbott Laboratories, Pfizer Inc., and other pharma giants have relied on Mays Chemical for essential ingredients. The business also serves the food, beverage, and nutrition; pet care; personal care; and industrial sectors.
“[My father] had an interest in the chemical field and chemistry just based on what he saw his father do,” Mays-Corbitt says.
Originally from Malvern, Arkansas, Bill Mays’s father, Theodore C. Mays, migrated to Evansville, Indiana for a better life. “There was quite a bit of violence and racial strife going on around [Arkansas] when he was coming of age,” says Dr. Rose Mays, a professor emerita at the IU School of Nursing at IUPUI and Bill Mays’s widow.
The senior Mays held master’s degrees in education and teaching. He earned a master’s in chemistry from IU in 1941 and taught chemistry and engineering at Evansville’s Harrison High School. Occasionally, Bill Mays assisted his father in the lab. Excelling in math and science, he took high school chemistry early as a sophomore.
The young Mays had another strong interest—entrepreneurship. He sold ice. He sold comic books. He had a paper route. “He was very interested in the business aspect of life in general,” Mays-Corbitt says.
Making New Bonds
After graduating from Evansville’s (newly) integrated Central High School in 1964, Mays headed to IU. His high school academic record netted him multiple invitations to join fraternities as a freshman. However, as he recounted during a 2007 interview with Dr. Philip Scarpino of IUPUI’s Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence, “If you were a member of another race you couldn’t go into fraternities or sororities. . . . I remember going to IU, and I don’t even remember the name of the fraternity now that rushed me, and when I. . . drove up, they were horrified. It was like, ‘Uh-uh. You can’t.’ . . . So, they called Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, which happened to be not too far away, and said, ‘We got one of yours that needs to be, you know’—I mean, it was like this was the bubonic plague that showed up at their door.”
Dr. Edwin C. Marshall, IU professor emeritus of optometry and public health, had a similar experience. “That was part of the of atmosphere at the time,” he says. “Bloomington as a city probably was not as welcoming then either.”
But both Mays and Marshall found a home in Kappa Alpha Psi. “The upperclassmen would help the underclassmen in terms of course guidance and which faculty were best in certain subject areas,” Marshall remembers. “That collegial interaction within the fraternity really kept us on track. But, outside of that, a lot of the programs that are available today at IU for students—and particularly for students of color—did not exist at the time.”
Before finishing at IU, Mays served Kappa Alpha Psi as treasurer, vice president, and, ultimately, president. He remained active in the national organization, eventually receiving its highest honor.
“Having Bill as a close friend was probably one of the greatest benefits I had by coming to IU,” Marshall admits. Not only would Marshall serve as best man at Mays’s wedding, but he even loaned Mays money for an engagement ring. (“The first personal loan I ever took out in my life was a short-term loan I think through IU to get him the balance of the money he needed to buy Rose’s engagement ring,” Marshall says. “When he asked me to do it, I didn’t think twice.”)
‘What Took You So Long?’
Although Mays and his future wife, Rose, knew one another as children, it took several years—and some unfortunate circumstances—before they dated. (The pair eventually married and had two daughters, Heather and Kristin.) “We really didn’t connect until his dad passed when [Bill] was in college,” Rose Mays says. “He was in his second year at IU and he came home to help his mom after his dad’s death. . . . During that time, he went to the University of Evansville where I was a student.”
By 1965, Mays returned to IU. At the time, there were no Black faculty members and only two other Black students in the chemistry department. As for Black entrepreneurial role models in the field of chemistry? Mays came up empty.
Nevertheless, he’d complete his business training at IU and land positions with multiple Fortune 500 companies. “It’s kind of this whole one degree of separation from IU,” Mays-Corbitt notes. “IU allowed him to get the practical and technical training through the School of Chemistry, the business training through the Kelley School of Business, an internship with Procter & Gamble, and then the subsequent role with Cummins through the career center.”
Mays worked briefly as a test chemist before moving to sales with Procter & Gamble. “That’s really when he figured out what his best skills were and what he was happy at,” Rose Mays says. “Bill was really a people person. He was able to talk to people of all levels.”
In 1973, Mays was named assistant to the president of Cummins Engine Company. Just four years later, he became president of Specialty Chemicals. During his tenure there, sales jumped from $300,000 to over $5 million. But Mays had reservations about the company. “To be called a ‘minority-owned’ or ‘minority-controlled’ company, a minority needed to have some type of control [on the board,] Mays-Corbitt says. “And neither he nor any other minority was given access to make decisions at a board level. He was just very frustrated by that aspect.”
She continues, “Integrity is one of the wonderful traits that I always saw in my dad growing up. . . . Although no one was watching how this company was made up and how decisions were being made, I don’t think [the board issue] sat well with him. . . . He came home and told [my mom] he was going to resign and start his own company, and she looked at him for about 30 seconds and said, ‘Well, OK. What took you so long?’”
It was the beginning of Mays Chemical. Within its first decade, the company would reach $50 million in sales. By 1995, that number would double. By 2008, it would more than double again. Clearly, he’d found a workable formula for entrepreneurial success. As Mays told his granddaughter, Ashley Scurlock, during a 2012 StoryCorps interview, “Education, experience, access to. . . capital, and the ability to attract and retain good employees. If you [have] those things, then you have an excellent chance of getting and running a successful business.”
During his career, Mays pursued several side ventures which, at first glance, may have seemed somewhat disparate. For instance, in 1990, he purchased The Indianapolis Recorder newspaper. And, a few years later, he acquired television and radio stations which he eventually sold to Radio One for $40 million. As Mays told Scarpino, “People say, ‘You run a chemical company. What do you know about media?’ I don’t know a lot about media, but I do know the people who have been successful understand that you’ve got to control that just like you’ve got to have some impact on politics.”
Mays’s media acquisitions partly were prompted by an exchange he’d had with fellow Kappa Alpha Psi member Percy Sutton. The famed Civil Rights advocate, politician, and business leader co-founded the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation. Mays recounted, “I said [to Sutton], ‘Why? Why would you want to [run Inner City Broadcasting]? Politically you’re so successful and you’ve got wealth outside of that.’ He says, ‘Well, because one of the things that Black folks have to be able to do is control the media, because—or certainly influence the media,’ he says. ‘Because the media is what generates the images—the negatives—and if you can’t get your story out, you have no way of counteracting major publications.’”
Still, Mays took pains not to be overly controlling with his media holdings. “He was very clear that he did not want to dictate what went into the [Indianapolis Recorder],” Rose Mays says. “But, every once in a while, he did write an editorial or two on an issue.”
Mays’s other investments—including golf courses, construction companies, and more—had at least one thing in common. As Marshall explains, “Bill would say, ‘It’s all about access. You don’t have to necessarily take advantage of everything that comes your way, but at least be in a position to make that decision yourself.’ So, most of the things that he did entrepreneurially were about creating channels of access for people to excel.”
Mays also used his sizable fortune to create those “channels of access.” For example, in 2006, the Mays family established the Theodore C. Mays Graduate Fellowship in Chemistry in honor of Bill Mays’s father. “The Mays Fellowship has created new opportunities for students who are from historically underrepresented groups in the sciences,” IU Department of Chemistry Chair Dr. Steven L. Tait says. “It’s awarded to incoming grad students to give them extra funding in their first few years.”
Tait adds, “[The fellowship] has been extremely valuable to the department from the point of view that we have a strong drive to improve the diversity in our department, but also, more broadly, diversity in science. . . . It’s benefited a lot of students in a significant way.”
Students like Eric McKenzie, a Mays fellow—and recent graduate. “I successfully defended my PhD thesis in August and now I’m a visiting lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at Indiana,” McKenzie notes. In the spring, he’ll begin a new role as teaching assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“When I heard that I had received the Mays Fellowship when I first applied to graduate school, it was a significant reason in helping to make my decision to come to Indiana,” he recalls. “Because I saw the department’s—and Bill Mays’s, specifically—and the College’s commitment to diversity.”
The financial assistance afforded McKenzie extra peace of mind—especially concerning the myriad fees that graduate students must pay. “I didn’t have to worry,” he says. “I could focus my time and attention on things that were actually very important for me to focus on.”
The Mays have endowed countless other diversity-promoting awards. In honor of Bill Mays’s mother, they created the Joy J. Mays Endowment Scholarship within IU’s School of Education. (Like her husband Theodore, Joy Mays was also a professional educator.)
As a nod to Rose Mays’s extensive career, the Mayses also endowed the Rose M. Mays Excellence in Teaching Diversity Fund at the IU School of Nursing at IUPUI. “Giving back is a big part of our philosophy in terms of making sure that others have the same opportunities—or even better opportunities—than we had,” she says.
With a vast philanthropic footprint and the hundreds of minority- and women-owned companies Bill Mays assisted over the years, he certainly left a legacy—but he left a hole, too. “Even with his busy life, he would always take time for those he was fond of,” Marshall recalls. “Sometimes he would call and leave a voicemail just to say hello.”
Marshall still has those old messages.
“To think that someone you meet in your teens stays your close friend throughout life,” he says. “That doesn’t happen too often—Bill was genuine throughout.”
Theodore C. Mays Graduate Fellowship Awardees
Paul Carey (2008)
Kasha Casey (2009)
Irma Hamilton (2010)
Latisha Jeffries (2011)
Brittany P. Witherspoon (2012-2014)
Keevan C. Marion (2013-2014)
LaToya D. Skaggs (2015-2017)
Sandra L. Atehortua Bueno (2017)
Eric McKenzie (2018-2022)
Mylashia G. Cross (2022)
Polycarp Ofoegbu (2022-2023)
Cayla Rose (2022-2023)
Other Stories about the Mays Family
Indiana University Honors and Awards, William G. Mays
IUPUI Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Rose Mays Biography
The History Makers website, William G. Mays Biography, July 10, 2000.
StoryCorps interview of Bill Mays conducted on June 7, 2012 by Ashley Scurlock (his granddaughter)
The authors thank Dr. Rose Mays, Mrs. Kristin Mays-Corbitt, Dr. Edwin C. Marshall, Dr. Steven Tait, and Dr. Eric McKenzie for agreeing to be interviewed for this article. The Chemistry Department acknowledges the efforts of Raymond Fleischmann, Director of Advancement at the College of Arts and Sciences for facilitating this article’s creation.