Take a Lesson

Take a Lesson

Caroline V. Clarke

Today’s black achievers offers insights into how they succeeded in life–and business

THE SIXTH AND LATEST BOOK IN THE BLACK ENTERPRISE BOOKS series is a collection of first-person interviews conducted by series’ Editorial Director Caroline V. Clarke with 27 modern-day African American achievers.

Many of the subjects–Spike Lee, Johnnie Cochran, Maxine Waters, Bryant Gumbel–are stars not just in black circles but also in the culture at large. Others, such as Joyce Boche, the newly minted CEO of the nonprofit organization Girls Inc., Ruth Simmons, who in September will be installed as the first African American to preside over Brown University (or any Ivy League university), and Joseph Moniz, the only black person to ever make, partner at Connecticut’s largest law firm, have names that may be less widely known, but the stories and lessons they share in this book are every bit as riveting, inspiring, and instructive as those of their more famous counterparts.

In candid, intimate interviews, they talked with Clarke about the specific experiences that have shaped who they are and what they believe about life and success. Some shared the lessons and landscapes of their childhoods. A few focused on the people who most influenced their approach to the world. Others revealed the moments that changed their lives and outlooks forever.

Excerpted here are portions of four of the interviews featured in the book.

ROBIN ROBERTS SPORTSCASTER ESPN AND ABC WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS CONTRIBUTOR ABC NEWS

If a teenaged Roberts’ ultimate goal–to host major sporting events like Wimbledon, the NBA Finals, and the Olympics–seemed unreasonable for a woman at the time, no one bothered to burst her bubble, and a determined Roberts quickly achieved what she set out to do.

Now 40, this cum laude graduate of Southern Louisiana University has crossed over from being viewed as “good, for a girl” to being widely regarded as one of sports’ best and most versatile commentators, period. Having won the guys over, Roberts, who is single, is honing new and broader skills as a contributor to news magazine shows, including 20/20 and Primetime Live. She is also a substitute host on ABC’s Good Morning America.

In this interview, conducted in a makeup room at ABC’s New York studios, Roberts discusses some of her early difficulties in landing a sports-casting job in a major market.

In this industry, so much depends on the person who’s watching your tape and how they happen to be feeling that day. That’s the scary part. It is so subjective, and you have so little control.

It’s like figure skaters or divers, whose success or failure is judged by a panel just sitting there, watching them. If I’m playing basketball, and I score more points, I win. I don’t have some judge going, “Well, that jump shot wasn’t quite a flawless 10.” Are you crazy? I could never compete in a sport where somebody rise is telling me if I’m good or not. And yet that’s largely the reality of my career. Even when I do my best, the results are often out of my hands, and that is still hard for me to deal with.

A talent scout from a major network suggested that I send tapes out and just ask for advice. I was living at home, so I made sure to send tapes to markets where I knew my parents would be traveling. That way, I had a ride and a place to stay. (Obviously, I was not making big bucks in those days.)

My folks were planning to go to Nashville for a convention, so I sent tapes up there to news directors and said, “I’m going to be in the area and would just love to come by and say hello.” I didn’t ask for a job. They didn’t have to pay for me to get there. I was just going to be in town. Only one station agreed to meet with me. It was the NBC affiliate.

I met with the news director. He liked me and said, “Let’s keep in touch.” I called him every couple of months until, finally, he said, “How about if I create a position–lifestyle reporter–but you’ll also work in the sports department?” Great! But the catch was he could only pay me $17,500.

At the time, in Biloxi, I was making almost $30,000, but I didn’t hesitate because it was a larger market with more prestige. I would be able to send my tapes out from a station in Nashville, as opposed to Mississippi. So, again, I was focusing on the big picture.

That was really my first lesson in the power of “let go and let God,” not that I got it at the time. I mean, honestly, sometimes the harder I try and the more I want things, the more difficult they get. When I release, it’s amazing. I’ve had to come to the realization that some doors are shut for a reason. That’s very hard to admit, because we all feel that we know what’s best for us, and the unseen is so difficult, especially for people who are driven by tangible results. But you can’t say, “Okay, if I make five calls, or if I exhaust everything, then that means it’s not to be.”

I have had to accept in the last few years that God’s delays are not his denials. Everything is just not going to happen in my time frame.

RICHARD D. PARSON PRESIDENT TIME WARNER INC.

Like his company, which consists of an array of gold-standard assets (CNN, HBO, New Line Cinema, the Atlanta Braves, Atlantic Records, and several of the world’s most profitable magazines), Parsons’ resume is stacked with gold-standard positions. He was CEO of Dime Bancorp Inc.; managing partner of Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, one of the nation’s largest law firms; and senior White House aide under President Gerald Ford before taking on his current position in 1994.

But Parsons, 52, has traveled in the circles of the mighty long enough to know better than to define himself by his titles. He is that rarest of breeds, a serious businessman who doesn’t take himself–or the trappings of life at the top–too seriously. This interview was conducted in his office near Rockefeller Plaza in New York.

In many families there’s one child who’s always in trouble for doing stuff that he or she shouldn’t be doing. That was my role in our family.

I was a quick student but a lazy student. So I was always able to meet the expectations of performance in school without having to do brilliantly, because I wasn’t really expected to do brilliantly. I was just expected to do well, and doing well didn’t require all that much effort. So that left plenty of time to get into trouble.

I ended up going to the University of Hawaii and, in many ways, I grew up there, which, I suspect, is the way a lot of people think about their college years. I had to work and figure out school, and put together a whole texture and context of life.

It was a big state school, and there were very few blacks–less than 1% of the population. But it didn’t matter because, in Hawaii, people of color–black, or Japanese, or Samoan, or Polynesian, or Filipino–are the majority, and the whites are the minority. What was interesting to me was that you were sort of adopted by all the other people of color as being aligned with them in a kind of global warfare with whites, and you were adopted by all the whites because you were aligned with them for being from the mainland. So, it was sort of an interesting juxtaposition of the traditional relationship.

The reality of the way I have experienced my life is that race has not often been an issue, period. Full stop. Having said that–as I used to tell minority taw students when they’d come into the workplace–racism does exist. It’s never particularly bitten me in the ass, but I know it’s out there. Blacks in the workplace are cut less slack, there’s less tolerance for failure, particularly up-front. If a white person muffs his first big assignment at a law firm–and I’ve seen this happen–the natural tendency of the partnership is to say, “All right, well, he wiffed the first time, but he’s a good man or she’s a good woman, he or she went to the right law school, so give him or her another chance.” When a black person wiffs, they don’t say it, but you can see it in their eyes. It’s like, “I knew they couldn’t carry the load anyway.” Subtle, but real.

So, it’s a reality. But it’s kind of like being short or tall or heavy or thin. It’s just one of those things that you manage. And the management of that issue for me has never been particularly challenging.

I do think there’s something to the notion of self-fulfilling prophecy. People who are quick to assume that anything negative that happens, or any different form of treatment, is racially motivated are probably creating more barriers for themselves than they need to. Maybe some [motives] are [racist], but to assume that all of them are creates a sense of your own reality that will take you down a bad path.

I’ve had people say things to me that are totally inappropriate, but if you just laugh and figure it’s their problem, not yours, and move on, it does not become an incident or an impediment.

I don’t get my feelings hurt or take that burden on. Let them feel or believe what they want. It’s not my issue. My issue is this: Can I come out of this having achieved what I went into it hoping to achieve? Period. Full stop.

FREDERICK O. TERRELL MANAGING PARTNER AND CEO PROVENDER CAPITAL GROUP L.L.C.

First featured in BLACK ENTERPRISE in October 1992 as one of the “25 Hottest Blacks on Wall Street,” Terrell was then a rising star at CS First Boston Corp., where he headed the Mortgage Finance Group and became a senior member of its Principal Transactions Group.

But even making partner at the venerable old-line firm did nothing to diminish Terrell’s identification with disadvantaged black kids in struggling neighborhoods like the one he grew up in in La Puente, California. It was, in part, his commitment to black empowerment that led him to exchange the prestige and security of First Boston for the risk and responsibility of running his own venture capital firm.

Terrell, 46, says, “I tell my sons all the time, `You can’t be attached to being partner at such and such.’ Who cares? It’s got to be about who you are. Make yourself something to be proud of, and get attached to that.”

First Boston was, at the end of the day–with all the achievement, with all the accolades, with making partner–just my job. At First Boston, I was helping make people rich, and one of the reasons I got out of the firm is because I got tired of doing it for others. I wanted to do it for my own. I now know that that power can change the world. The other stuff we fight about, as important as it is, is a little bit of a distraction. The real guts of it is how do we put dollars in the hands of businesses and entrepreneurs who want to grow and shape a culture that we want to be a part of? That’s what every other successful group of people has done–shape it for themselves–and their power comes from their ability to finance it.

Look, I’m walking into a corporate suite at a sporting event out in Los Angeles and I have a sports coat on. Some woman was trying to show me her ticket before she went into her suite. Why? Because she assumed I worked there. There’s just a presumption in the world about our role. There’s a presumption about our class, and where we fit in. So, if I’m dressed in a tux, they’re going to think I’m a waiter. And we all laugh about this, and we joke. But when we’re not laughing, we’re thinking it’s amazing, isn’t it? And it will continue to happen until we have enough access to capital to change the culture and, thus, change the perception.

There’s nothing more powerful, and there’s nothing that will end racism faster, than walking into a room full of white people who have the idea that they want to build their company, and you and your black colleagues are the people who can do it.

We now have this experience frequently: walking into companies where they’ve read our stuff, they’re anxious to meet us, and the red carpet is rolled out because we’re the money. Then, all of a sudden, they find themselves sitting there having to explain about their company that’s doing well, but could do better, to black people and asking if black people would care to own it. Racism? It all breaks clown right there, not because they’re going to get over racism. I’ve given up on that one. I don’t ever think that certain people are going to ever like black people and maybe, in their own world, they have good reason. But who cares if you like me? Just respect me, and then we’ll do business all day long, and if we become friends in the process, all the better.

That’s the great thing that I’ve learned in the last 10 years. You have to get grounded about who you are. To make even a dent in all those age-old presumptions, you have to start by being real with yourself and comfortable in your own skin.

JOAN PARROT-FONSECA PRESIDENT JPF & ASSOCIATES

Parrot-Fonseca holds degrees in public administration, law, human resource management, music history, and education. Perhaps even more impressive, she’s put them all to good use.

She rose to the fore as director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) under late secretary, Ronald H. Brown. While there, she spear-headed a minority match making program in partnership with the International Trade Administration that resulted in $480 million in business for U.S.-based minority businesses.

Now 50, this spirited networker extraordinaire has reinvented herself. A consultant to emerging businesses, Parrot-Fonseca was interviewed last spring in the garden of her home in Washington, D.C. Although she has crisscrossed the globe for her career, her peaceful backyard sanctuary is, she says, “One of my favorite spots on the planet.”

I had graduated Harvard and was back in Washington, D.C. I had just gotten back from a business trip. I had bought my first house and I loved it, but I don’t think I had spent more than three nights in it because I was always on the road for work. Then, I had a car accident. I was OK, except that I fractured a number of small bones in my foot. So, after racing around my entire life, I was literally stuck in place, forced off my feet for months.

At first I thought I would lose my mind. But then I had an epiphany. I had taken a job in investment banking to prove that I could make money, and I was sitting here with my leg up, thinking, `I hate investment banking.’ I was making more money than I ever had, but I felt no real sense of purpose and I had no time to enjoy anyone or anything. My life was total chaos and I was always on the move. I hadn’t even been able to unpack my new house. It was only when I actually stopped and thought about it that I realized I wasn’t the least bit happy. That’s when I decided to go into business for myself.

When I made that decision, I felt my [late] mother’s approval, like a window opening, letting the light back in. My mother believed I could conquer anything. She was proud of everything I did. She always knew that whatever roadblocks I hit, they would be temporary for me. She said the difference between her and me was that I was not afraid to move.

She was right. I never thought about going anyplace and staying long. This friend of mine once said to me, “You go after things like a dog. You sniff. You want the information, you figure it out, and then you say, “Is that all there is?” and you go on to the next thing. One day, you’re going to come to something and say, `Ah, this is where I’m supposed to be,’ and all those things that you gathered, all those skills, are going to come into play.” I’ve been waiting for that my entire life.

After college, I got a master’s [degree] because I got a full scholarship. I went to law school because I was curious about it. I wanted to see what the big deal was, and it was another credential. Harvard was the other nut I wanted to crack. Each time, I was able to get some new skills, to open myself up to another community of folk, to add another layer of credibility. When I was 40, I thought that by 50 I would stop this kind of thinking because it’s ridiculous. But I’m now 50 and I’m still trying to discover my true purpose in life. The difference between then and now is that I know I’m closer now than I’ve ever been, and I’m not trying to rush it or force it anymore.

If my maternal grandmother’s life is any indication, I figure I’ve got time. She was a teacher for 43 years, but at that time, only a two-year teaching certificate was required and she’d always wanted a four-year degree. So, at age 70, after she retired, she went back to college–even lived in the dorms–and earned her bachelor’s, teaching me that it’s never too late to do anything. Thank God I’ve learned that: It is never too late to find your true purpose in life.

From Take a Lesson by Caroline V. Clarke. Copyright [C] 2001. Published by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons Publishers. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group