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7 Leadership lessons from my favorite African-American entrepreneurs

September 13, 2017

In the year of 1981, I was a New York City-based itinerant salesman, tirelessly cajoling all the cable television operators in New Jersey and Pennsylvania into adding The Movie Channel, Nickelodeon, and MTV: Music Television to their burgeoning channel lineups.

I loved my job and my clients, but my favorites were Barry Washington and Calvin Reed; the part owners, general partners, and managers of Connection Cable TV in Newark, New Jersey.

Connection had recently been awarded the exclusive franchise for the entire city of Newark, and Barry and Calvin were busily “building out” the system, signing up customers, and watching the money roll in. African-American and barely in their thirties, they were only a few years older than me, and I admired their hip sophistication—qualities that were exceedingly rare among my other clients who were mostly former “pole climbers” in their 50s and 60s.

At first our relationship was strictly professional, but then one day I inadvertently left my camel hair overcoat at their office. When I returned to retrieve it, Calvin burst out of his office carrying my coat on a hanger gilded with aluminum foil. He and Barry were laughing so hard that I feared that I might have to add the tariff of an ambulance to my expense account.

Truth be told, my stint with MTV had been preceded by lean times, and my overcoat confirmed it. It was shy a button or two, boasted a few cigarette burns, and the seam in one armpit was perpetually smiling a grim smile. Fully aware of its limitations, I had hoped to unobtrusively retrieve it, but Calvin turned my coat into a monologue.

“I can clearly see why you came back for this,” he said choking with laughter, “once I realized you’d left us such a treasure I ransacked the city until I found this silver tiffany hangar worthy of your coat.”

On he went until we were all in tears and I was laughing hardest of all. Ironically, this incident turned into my big break. Barry, Calvin and I became great friends, and I eagerly looked forward to calling on them—admittedly while wearing a new coat. But one question kept nagging at me. How had these young guys managed to win the exclusive cable TV franchise for such a large city? How had they managed to out compete all the deep pocketed corporations that were gobbling up franchises all over the country?

One day, over a couple of MTV underwritten beers. I asked Calvin about it. It turned out that he and Barry had had no money or connections, and while they were both college educated professionals, they had no cable television background or telecommunication skills. Their only edge was the fact that they were Newark natives and ergo native sons. They knew that winning the franchise would take years and mountains of work, so the first thing they did was invite a dozen or so friends and colleagues to an organizational meeting at Calvin’s apartment.

The rules were very simple: The team would meet once a week. At each meeting Reed and Washington would distribute tasks that needed to be done to move the project forward. Each of these tasks was accompanied by a completion date, and anyone who did not turn in high quality work by his due date was dropped from the group.

Over time, 40% of the team turned over, but some four years later they had mastered the politics, overcome the engineering hurdles, raised the money, navigated the legalities, and assembled the team that was awarded the cable television franchise for Newark, New Jersey.


Barry Washington and Calvin Reed remain my heroes, and in 1993 when along with three partners we started our own company on a “wing and a prayer” I often turned to the leadership lessons I learned from these African-American entrepreneurs.

  1. Believe In Yourself. I never detected a hint of arrogance in either Barry or Calvin. But they were brimming with self-confidence. All doors are open to those who believe.
  2. Be Audacious. The mantra of every successful salesman is “all they can say is no.” Sure the odds were long, but Barry and Calvin knew that the worst that could happen was defeat. In the end we usually regret not trying far more than any defeat.
  3. Skills Are Overrated. Neither Barry nor Calvin brought any industry specific skills or knowledge to their quest. This does not mean that knowledge is not important. It just means that character traits like integrity, a ferocious work ethic, a goal orientation, a competitive spirit, and the ability to defer gratification are even more important.
  4. Urgency! Urgency! Urgency! The rules that Calvin and Barry imposed on themselves and their colleagues were designed to build urgency. Sure, to some they may come across as ruthless, but I firmly believe, as did they, that without this sense of ruthless urgency they never would’ve won the franchise.
  5. Accountability. Great leaders consistently hold themselves and others accountable. And they do it in a public way. Ambiguity about who is accountable for what leads to ambivalence which in turn leads to mediocrity.
  6. The Courage To Show Vulnerability. Okay, this one is more about me than Reed and Washington, but that incident with my coat not only closed the sale but taught me an important lesson. Instead of losing their respect as I feared, my coat instead humanized me. Throughout my ensuing career I saw again and again the leadership benefits of personal transparency.
  7. The Tortoise Wins The Race. It is human nature to want to win in a hurry. But every time I’ve peeked behind the curtain looking of “overnight success” I’ve found guys like Barry and Calvin; people willing to work for years while defining success in inches. Leaders not only must be persistent, but they must also be able to inspire persistence in others as well.

By the time I entered my senior year in college I had already finished all the course requirements I needed to graduate. I was looking at a year of electives—which for most students would mean taking the easiest courses they could find. But instead I took the hardest. I had failed miserably at math in high school so I signed up for a heavy load of math, symbolic logic, and linguistics courses.

I did this not because of a newfound love for math; nor did I do it strictly for the analytical skills these kinds of courses would foster. I took these classes primarily as a character building exercise. I wanted to prove to myself that if I was willing to focus and work hard even the toughest subjects would yield to my efforts.

My senior year turned out to be terrifically difficult. More than once I found myself so far over my head that I almost despaired, yet with work and persistence I was ultimately successful—and I still have the A average to prove it.

Barry Washington and Calvin Reed were successful because they had “the right stuff.” In today’s parlance they had the “grit.” Grit and the right stuff are not gifts from God. Character like any muscle can be developed. Again, skills and knowledge are important and the time and energy you spend acquiring them is not wasted. But if you really want to emulate guys like Reed and Washington then you need to create specific challenges that, like my senior year in college,  are designed to do nothing more than build character and develop grit.

This article was written by August Turak from Forbes and is licensed by Bloomberg.