The Making of a Black Entrepreneur

While each individual takes a different path to entrepreneurial success, we must acknowledge that certain archetypes exist. For example, many startup founders come from families with money, get an education, and get a little kick-start in the form of an inheritance or gift. Others may arrive on the scene as products of high profile business schools or after learning the ropes of business in large, prestigious corporations.

What do you think of when you hear the term, “black entrepreneur?” You probably think of somebody from hardscrabble beginnings, from a single-parent home—a storybook rags-to-riches adventure. Let me dispel that notion you may have had just now by telling you my own story, with a view to our coming celebrations of Mother’s Day this weekend and Father’s Day next month.

I was blessed to grow up in a stable, two-parent family. They grew up poor, found each other as high school sweethearts in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and they seized an opportunity to start their life journey together when my father took a football scholarship at the University of Connecticut. From there, they made a home together and began building careers and nurturing a family. In many ways, my family is exemplary of the American dream.

We are very much a product of what our parents instill in us; in some of us, parenting creates action, while in others, perhaps a reaction. Looking back on how I was raised, I can definitely see where the ingredients of my entrepreneurial success originate.

From my mother, I have been given the gift of having a thoughtful side. My mom always pushed me to think. She was constantly asking why, as in “Why do you think you need to do this?” She prodded me to think in ways that went against the popular grain, to avoid a “herd mentality.” Most of all, she has always made me pause to think about risk in a different way than perhaps others do. After speaking with my mom, I would always have to calculate on whatever chance I was taking and how it might impact all of the sacrifice and commitment that my family had made to put me in my current position. That mode of thinking has really served me well as I’ve advanced in my career.

So I think you can say with a high degree of certainty that my mom is my moral compass, the direction in my thinking. My mom constantly prompting me to think about my own striving for excellence in terms of doing right by those who came before me has an obvious resonance with my success as a black entrepreneur.

From my dad, there’s a much more direct route to his influence, in the form of how his life passion—football—impacted me. From a very young age, I was exposed to the toughness and tenacity he and his teams showed on the football field. From his work, I learned that no matter what happens, what the other team is doing, what the weather is like—whatever—you have to win. No excuses. Ever.
He taught me to prove myself in terms of my toughness and determination. He also taught me one concept that would never exist for me, and that’s fairness. My dad always let me know that I should be thankful for any and all opportunities, and to make the best of them, whether I perceived my situation to be fair or not. He always said, “Win with what you have.”

Futhermore, my dad trained me to really focus on what I’m doing right now, rather than constantly picturing a future utopia. In his world, athletics, you have to operate with less fear, since you’re around a lot of aggressive folks. From the athletic fields and locker rooms, I developed a high level of confidence.

While I longed to make my mother proud—taking pride in how I had honored hers and my father’s sacrifices for me with huge effort and a measure of success—I simply wanted my dad’s respect. While sports weren’t necessarily my life’s passion, I made it all the way through college playing football as a means of relating to him and prove that I could accomplish the toughest goals I set before myself, all the while earning his respect.

From both of my parents, I have gained a strong sense of self. My mom always advised, “Let your success speak for you. Don’t let your self-image or esteem be dictated by your detractors.” Thus, I have become obsessed with the results relative to the goals I set for myself, but I stay grounded in the love of my family, independent of any business success I may have.

My dad has always said, in his simple, yet profound way, “Be stronger.” When I think about being a black entrepreneur, I think that for the most part, my duty is to work, because when I work, I succeed. When I think about my success, I think that part of my mission is to be an example for young African-Americans embarking on their business careers.

It’s a lot easier to envision your own success when you see people who look like you making it in this world. As a black entrepreneur, you have to be comfortable being alone. In my career, I’ve signed many deals with many CEOs. Recently, nearly 25 years into my career, I sat across the table from a fellow black CEO, signing off on the transaction. It was a long time coming.

I’m tired of being alone, and I’m willing to do the work, making the road just a little easier—maybe not fair, Dad, but just a little easier, for the next-generation of black business leaders.

To my mom and dad, ever faithful in cheering for my success and giving me the grounding and principles that make it happen, know that I carry you with me everywhere I go.