President and CEO, Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC)
Describe your very first job and what lessons you learned from it.
I loaded trucks for Mountain Top pies on the west side of Columbus, Ohio. I was in the baker’s local union. I was 15 when I started that job. I remember asking my Dad, who was the plant superintendent at the time, what my goal should be. He said I should become the fastest loader on the dock. After a couple of weeks, I asked the supervisor who the fastest guy was. He said a guy named Sparks. I started requesting to load trucks with Sparks, so I could get fast enough to beat him. Sparks would always finish before me. When he was done, he’d sit around, smoke a cigarette and watch me finish loading. I never did beat him. But he was the only one I couldn’t beat. What I learned from that job was how important college would be for my future. Having grown up working class, it was difficult to see what people’s life was like in a plant. It was very limited. I wanted to build a rewarding life, and I wanted to do something that made a difference in other people’s lives.
Describe your first job in your industry and what you learned from it.
I worked for an initiative in Cleveland aimed at rebuilding inner-city neighborhoods. We focused on areas that had 100 percent poverty rates, high crime and gang violence. We created jobs and organized leadership. We worked with gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. We did a lot of work with the Nation of Islam. And a lot of the guys were ex-Black Panthers. I learned a lot from that experience. I realized how much potential people have, even when they live in poverty; that the amazing talent and potential of people can be harnessed if they are given hope. Hope is the most important thing you can instill in someone.
What were your salaries at both of these jobs?
I earned $5 an hour at Mountain Top. I made $24,000 a year working in Cleveland’s inner city. We almost starved, but the work shaped my life. It really gave me a sense of purpose.
Who is your biggest mentor and what role did they play?
My biggest mentor, outside of my mother, was a (state) senator from Cleveland named Charlie Butts. Charlie was a genius who saw all of the real problems in our country before most did and understood the magnitude of their complexity. He was instrumental in helping balance the moral compass, which needs to be balanced against ambition. He was the first person to instill in me that winning was not everything, but how you won really mattered. He taught me that principle was more important than power, that real leaders were essentially selfless.
What advice would you give to a person just entering your industry?
Do it for the love of community and be inspired by the work. You will never be disappointed.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing instead?
Either running a tech company or coaching and teaching kids. I’ve built and launched a lot of new tech companies in Michigan. … If I didn’t do that, I would like to teach. I really enjoy being around young people and mentoring them. It’s important, powerful work.