Election 2010: Filling in the Gaps

11-November-2010Published in: St. Louis American

The pundits are still salivating over last Tuesday's election. What is evident from the results is that a good majority of Americans are not happy with the state of the economy. They want things to change and are holding our politicians responsible.

The U.S. electorate delivered a crashing rebuke to President Obama, just two years removed from a landslide presidential victory. The propulsion of the Republican Party to a nationwide victory has given everyone a lot to talk and think about. It is not like we didn't know what might happen after the polls closed and the numbers were counted. Pre-election surveys told us the GOP would be celebrating late into the night as more voters expressed their unhappiness with the nation's conditions and what the federal government is or is not doing.

According to the Pew Research Center, the country saw a repeat of 2006 with an overwhelming percentage of voters saying the nation was on the "wrong track." So they voted for the party out of power, giving Republican candidates 75 percent of their votes.

Yes, many cited a more negative view of economic conditions as the country continues to pull itself out of its worst recession since the 1930s. But voters also registered their opposition to a more activist federal government. A full 56 percent said government is doing too much and more should be left to businesses and individuals.

To this, St. Louis, I say, "Okay then." Let's do it. Let's fill in the gaps left by business or those that will be exposed if the newest group of legislators starts making cuts to our city, state and federal services.

No, I'm not asking you to take up arms to protect our borders if slashes are made in the defense budget. Neither am I expecting you to pave your own neighborhood's street. But I am asking you to reach out where no one else dares to stretch their hand; I ask that you take ownership of your neighborhood.

If you're a business owner, it is time to reach out to your community with jobs and services you can extend to put someone back to work or ease their struggle. If you are a community activist, it is time to reach out to those who have shut their doors to giving in the past and asking them once more to help their neighbors in need.

And if you are a mom, dad, sister or brother, it is time to reach out to our next and youngest generation. Reach out with yourself as a role model to show them how great our community can be for everyone, no matter who is in office.

I believe in leading by example, and as such I am committed to Beyond Housing's 24:1 initiative specifically focused on strengthening the 24 cities that are in the immediate vicinity of the Normandy School District. This is my small way of filling the gap. What are you going to do?

2010 Business Salute evokes emotion

17-November-2010Published in: St. Louis American

Michael Kennedy Sr., chairman and CEO of KAI Design & Build, helped to transform part of the former Pruitt Igoe site into an interactive science and math middle school.

For the last decade, KAI's designs have turned rundown neighborhoods in North St. Louis into contemporary affordable housing.

The firm's work on the new William L. Clay Sr. Early Childhood Development/Parenting Education Center at Harris-Stowe State University has won multiple awards.

His work uplifts the community.

Recognition of Kennedy's work, along with the work of many others, embodies the mission of the St. Louis American Foundation. On Nov. 10, the foundation awarded Kennedy the 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year award at the 11th annual Salute to Excellence in Business Awards and Networking Luncheon, which drew some 500 people to the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton.

The United Way of Greater St. Louis received the 2010 Corporate Diversity award.

June Fowler, vice president of corporate and public communications at BJC HealthCare, was named 2010 Corporate Executive of the Year.

And Rod Jones, president and CEO of Grace Hill Settlement House, received the 2010 Non-Profit Executive of the Year award.

Fighting away tears, Kennedy said, "This is yet another example of when we honor God, God honors you. I want you to understand that this is really a momentous moment in my life."

Orvin Kimbrough of the United Way used the occasion to announce that the African-American Leadership Giving Society, the Charmaine Chapman Society, raised $1.8 million for the 2010 United Way campaign, topping last year's amount, with 820-plus members in 2010.

As many did, June Fowler thanked Donald M. Suggs, publisher of The American and the foundation's founder, calling him one of her personal heroes.

"What you do to lift up the African-American community is so important - for us and for our children to see the good," Fowler said. "And Donald, I thank you for doing that each and every Thursday," when the paper is published.

Dr. Henry Givens Jr., president of Harris-Stowe State University,who introduced Kennedy, used the event to announce a new Donald M. Suggs Excellence in Business Scholarship at Harris-Stowe that will provide $40,000 to the recipient for all four years.

Rod Jones said the award reminds him of his vocation at Grace Hill.

"This is a blessing, and I appreciate the recognition," Jones said.

"I come to work every day with the notion that what we do every day allows people to be in a better social class for generations to come."

Silence for Earl

The room of about 500 people held a moment of silence for Earl Wilson Jr., the founder of the Gateway Classic Foundation and the 2005 Salute to Excellence in Business Non-Profit Executive of the Year, who died on Oct. 29 from pancreatic cancer. The event's emcee, Carol Daniel, a radio host with KMOX, told a personal story about Wilson. She said she always volunteers at Gateway Classic events, and one time she asked Wilson for an honorarium.

"Earl told me, 'Now, Carol, you don't need $100. You know what I’m trying to do; I'm trying to raise scholarships. Now come to the event and help me out. You want those kids to go to college, don't you, Carol?'"

Many of the attendees laughed, remembering how Wilson's upfront manner and big heart helped 108 students through college with scholarships.

At the 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business, the St. Louis American Foundation also introduced a new group of younger professional awardees.

The inagural Excellence in Business Performance Awardees were Karen A. Davis of Regions Bank, Roger Macon of Edward Jones, Gail Holmes-Taylor of Energizer and David Walker of Brown Shoe Co.

The St. Louis American Foundation also cited the top 25 African-American businesses in the St. Louis region.

Awardees were joined in support by their staff, family and friends as they went onstage to receive their awards.

Karen A. Davis said she appreciated the fact that she could celebrate amongst "like-minded people," people who have a passion for giving back and uplifting their communities. Davis was accompanied by her mother, who gleamed as her daughter received the award.

After being in St. Louis for three years, Davis said, this recognition "validates this is where I need to be." Davis moved to the St. Louis area to expand and elevate community outreach at Regions Bank.

"I have met some wonderful people, and to be here with all these people is very inspiring," Davis said.

Stories with Akande

After all the recipients received their awards onstage, keynote speaker Benjamin Akande, dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University, reminded the audience of the importance of storytelling in business.

He spoke of one of the greatest tales he had ever heard – a story about risks.

"It's a story about failure and perseverance," Akande said. "I find it very relevant to the challenges our country faces in the most severe economic downturn in our generation."

The story revolves around an anthropomorphic egg who was bent on defying the odds and was met with interest and results, he said.

It is the story of Humpty Dumpty. He asked the audience to join him in reciting the poem:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men Couldn't put Humpty together again.

Akande emphasized that the key word is the last word – "again."

"This confirms that this is not the first time that Humpty had fallen," he said. "Humpty Dumpty was a serial risk taker. Humpty was bold. He was fearless. He was unrelenting. He was an entrepreneur."

Many people in America now find themselves confronting the greatest wall of their lives. Although they are often called slowdowns, recessions shake things up, he said.

"Recessions reward strength and expose weaknesses," Akande said. "Recessions create new opportunities and break down old habits. Recessions destroy old business models. Recessions make talented unemployed. And just like Humpty Dumpty, how do we get up again?"

Even when people do everything right and remain loyal to their employers, sometimes they fall short. But Akande reminded the audience that courage does not occur without fear.

"You cannot be courageous if you are not first afraid," Akande said. "Courage takes place after you are afraid."

Akande also shared snap shots of his life through stories of personal and professional failures and successes.

Rosalynn Smith, an attendee at the luncheon, said Akande's personal stories were motivating to her. Akande, now a business school dean, had said he was once ranked last academically.

"You would never know that now," Smith said.

Awardee Roger Macon said he was "intrigued by Akande's use of humor and metaphors."

In addition to Humpty Dumpty as "a serial risk taker," Macon was struck by Akande's metaphor of climbing a wall or a mountain.

Akande said, "God does not promise mountaintop life experiences, because there is no room for growth on the mountaintop."

The Value of Kindness to Strangers

23-November-2010Published in: St. Louis American

For me, storytelling is a true leadership tool. It can help kick start a new idea, socialize new members into a team, and mend relationships or share wisdom. I want to tell you four short stories.

As a child growing up in Africa, my sisters and I must have heard our dad tell this story a hundred times. The story began on a rainy night, in a faraway place called America.

It's about 11:30 p.m. An older African-American woman was stranded on the side of an Alabama highway in a gusting rainstorm. Her car had broken down, and she desperately needed a ride home. Soaking wet, she tried to flag down the cars as they passed by, but nobody stopped to help.

After what must have seemed like eternity, a young white man stopped. My dad would then pause to remind us that this act of kindness by this young man was rare in those conflict-filled, racially tense 1960s.

The young man was gracious and took her to safety, and even waited to get her a taxicab so she could make it home to attend to an urgent matter. Although she was in a hurry to get home, she asked the good Samaritan for his name and address just before he drove away.

A few days later, the young man received an unexpected surprise in the mail. It was a giant console, black and white TV with a special note attached. My dad, being the dramatist, would take out a piece of paper from his pocket and read the note to my sisters and me. The note read:

"Thank you so much for helping me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes but also my spirits. But, because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husband's bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and serving others unselfishly. Sincerely, Mrs. Nat King Cole."

The wife of one of the greatest musical icons of the 20th century!

One of the most remarkable things about America is the willingness of strangers to reach out and help others. St. Louis knows a thing or two about helping others and lifting up those in need. Today we honor individuals and organizations whose mission and reason for existence is enabling others to reach their goals and by doing so transforming lives and entire neighborhoods.

Edited from his keynote address given at the St. Louis American Foundation's 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business. The speech will be continued in future editions of The American.

Humpty Dumpty as recession lesson

2-December-2010Published in: St. Louis American

A story from a Business Salute keynote speech

My second story - one of the greatest tales ever told - is a story about risk, failure and perseverance. I find this story very relevant to the challenges that our nation faces today in the most severe economic downturn of our generation.

It is a story that revolves around an anthropomorphic egg who was bent on defying the odds and met with interesting results. It is the story of Humpty Dumpty, remembered in rhyme.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.

The key word is the very last word of the rhyme: "again." This confirms that this was not the first time that Humpty had fallen. Humpty was a serial risk taker.

Humpty was bold, fearless, unrelenting and entrepreneurial. And he was very familiar with the reality called failure. But, this egg refused to allow failure to define him.

Failure for Humpty was real-time feedback. Failure was an opportunity to regroup, to reassess and to try again until success was eventually achieved.

The "wall" in this rhyme is a simple metaphor which describes the singular act of overcoming challenges. Climbing a wall is moving beyond where we are. Climbing a wall is overcoming adversity.

It is challenging tradition, pursuing goals that are not easily achievable and refusing to give up in that pursuit. Indeed, we all spend the rest of our lives climbing walls.

There are so many people in America today who now find themselves faced with the greatest challenge of their life. They have lost their jobs, their homes, their life savings and they are losing confidence. They are down because they have fallen.

Although they are often called slowdowns, recessions shake things up rather than slow them down. Recessions reward strengths and expose weaknesses, create new opportunities and kill old habits.

Recession has a way of releasing pent-up energy and destroying old business models. Distressed assets can be bought for a song, talented people are let go... just like Humpty. How do we get up again?

As we all contemplate the severity and hopelessness of the present and seek to overcome the uncertainty of the future, I find solace in the story of one egg's journey of endurance that speaks to the willingness to keep trying; a story about courage and about gratefully accepting help when needed. To persevere when there is no apparent reason to do so.

It's a vivid reminder that even when we do everything right - when we remain loyal to our employer, invest our money in "fool-proof" funds, pursue the American dream - that we may still fall short. Somewhere in our life's journey, we will face adversity. Some we will overcome, and some will overcome us.

Humpty's story is a tale of the power of courage. Eddie Rickenbacker reminds us that courage is doing what we are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless we are afraid. There is a little Humpty Dumpty in all of us. We all have fallen. Yes. We have been broken, certainly.

But somewhere deep inside our heads - behind the doom, beyond the gloom - we refuse to take our eye off that wall and are ready to climb it, cracks and all, as impossible as it may seem.

I have met many real-life Humpty Dumptys, ordinary people who are battling against unimaginable odds: young men and women fighting incurable medical conditions, friends and loved ones facing physical and mental adversity; and there are untold millions facing unbelievable economic challenges. Yet they are unwilling to give up.

I am particularly impressed with Humpty's support group, his family and friends, you know "all the king's horses and all the king's men," who provided the ultimate safety net for Humpty. If it wasn't for our "king's men" and "king's horses," getting back up would be impossible. They are the ones who encourage us to keep on keeping on. They are there helping to put us back together again. Infact, that's what the st. Louis american foundation is doing; serving as a safety net for current and future generations.

This is the second of four stories told by Akande in his keynote speech at the St. Louis American Foundation's 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business. The series continues next week.

When Boeing went to Kenya

8-December-2010Published in: St. Louis American

Through my third story I learned the importance of empowering others through a story shared with me by John T. Quinlivan, an executive at Boeing Corporation. It's a story about a simple act we all take for granted.

You see, a few years back John was the person in charge of delivering Boeing jets to countries around the world. This particular delivery was to the nation of Kenya. The day began with much pomp and ceremony, as Boeing entertained airline executives and top government dignitaries with a demonstration flight in the 767 over the beautiful landscape of Kenya.

Later, the aerospace giant opened the airplane up for a static display, where people are invited to walk through the plane to sit on the seats and get an upclose view of the plane.

More than two thousand Kenya Airways employees and the invited public showed up to get a glimpse of the plane that afternoon. At the completion of the static display, with the plane cleaned and secured for the night, a group of children showed up from a nearby orphanage. Despite protests from his Kenyan hosts, John Quinlivan offered to give them a tour of the plane.

When the children arrived on the tarmac, they stood transfixed at the bottom of the stairway, looking up at massive plane. From the top step, John motioned to them to come up. But no one moved. They just stood there.

It took awhile for John to realize that he had a problem. The problem was a simple one. The children and their handlers had never walked up stairs before. They didn't know how.

So, with the help of the Boeing staff, the children made their way up to the plane. It took a while, but they all finally made it to the top of the stairway, where they stretched out on the large seats in first class, checked out the cockpit, sat in the pilot's seat, and even tried out the restrooms!

At the end of the tour, it was a sight to see the kids attempting to walk down the stairway. A few found it more comforting and ensuring to just sit on the steps and make their way down as carefully as they could.

What stories are being told in your organization that speak to the value that you bring, that conveys the overwhelming reason for your existence?

My friends, walking up the stairs is enabling others to reach their goals. That's what Michael Kennedy Sr. is doing. That's what is taking hold at the Gateway Middle School for Science and Technology. Walking up the stairs is the good work at Grace Hill, where they are enabling St. Louisians from all walks of life to participate in the American Dream.

This is the third of four stories told by Akande in his keynote speech at the St. Louis American Foundation's 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business. The series concludes next week. Akande is dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

Rising from the valleys of life

15-December-2010Published in: St. Louis American

Let me share with you a personal story of redemption and perseverance.

I was born and raised in Nigeria, and one of the lingering traditions is the annual end-of-year recognition award day at the high school. It was the end of the ninth grade, and all the parents were invited to celebrate.

The teacher entered, announced that she was going to recognize the students in numerical order from the top performers on down. The first place position went to a student named Toun.

Toun was a petite, extremely well-mannered, intellectually gifted girl who knew all the answers to all the questions and loved doing homework. She was also the first to complain when we didn't get any homework assignment! Yes, we hated her.

After Toun's name was announced and she walked to the front of the class to receive her first place certificate, she hugged her parents then exited the classroom with her mom and dad.

The countdown progressed quickly, and as the room emptied out, the applause that followed the reading of each name became thinner. By the time the teacher reached #20, the classroom was unbelievably quiet. When the teacher reached #30, the remaining students drew together in the middle of the classroom, supporting each other in our collective shame.

The teacher, however, continued her announcements - 31, 32, 33 - in the same enthusiastic tone as if the classroom were full. And then the moment arrived. She was going to announce the last two positions.

"The 34th position goes to Tunde Adeoye." My friend Tunde was so happy that he let out a loud yell and literally ran out of the classroom overjoyed. Only I remained standing.

Finally the teacher announced to an almost empty class: "The 35th position for this year goes to Benjamin Ola. Akande." I walked briskly to the front of the classroom to receive my certificate, then turned towards the doors to meet my dad.

We began the slow, awkward walk toward the parking lot.

After a long pause, my dad said, "Benjamin, we can only go up from here." He did not say "Benjamin, you can only go up from here." He said "we." This was the moment when everything changed for me.

Some years later, while visiting my parents in Nigeria, I decided to take a walk around the old neighborhood. I had just stepped out of our compound when I heard a familiar voice call out, "Hey, 35, is that you?"

At first I didn't answer. I just kept walking. I finally turned around to see a face from my past, #1, Toun.

I told her I lived in America and was a professor at a business school at Webster University in St. Louis. Toun told me she had risen to a leadership position and ownership at a major bank.

As I turned to walk away, Toun called out "#35 - you can't control where the winds of life will take you, but there is one thing you can control. You can control what you do with your life."

I returned to the states a few weeks later, and soon after received a call from home. My dad said Toun was sick and encouraged me to give her a call. I called her and Toun told me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that it had spread to other organs.

Despite the prognosis, she was upbeat, her voice radiating the strength and composure that made her so successful. I told Toun that I wanted to help by connecting her with my older sister Nickie, who is a cancer scientist.

But then, Toun turned it on me. "Look, 35, I'm going to beat this thing. Don't worry about me. I'm going to be okay."

Less than a week later, Dad called in the wee hours of the night to let me know that Toun had passed away. I sat in bed, crying. Not only had I lost a friend, I had lost a friend who taught me by example that indeed the valley is where real growth happens.

God doesn't promise us a life full of mountaintop experiences. We will all experience valleys in our lives. I'm talking about dark valleys, steep slippery valleys, and valleys of despair. There are no maps to detour the valleys of life. All we have is our faith and our willingness to persevere in those valley days.

You won't find growth on the mountain tops above the timberline. It is in the valley.

Yes, I'm still #35, striving every day to continue the climb. There are hundreds of #35's out there. Perhaps you know one. Perhaps you are one. What will you do about it?

This is the last of four stories told by Akande in his keynote speech at the St. Louis American Foundation's 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business. Akande is dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.