When we are given the opportunity to lead… I truly believe that we’ll outperform other populations because of the difficulty we’ve experienced over time.”
| Adam roosevelt CEO, SEM North America
how about we start with you telling me about your journey to becoming a CEO when you are just 26 years old? Extraordinary!
Well, i grew up poor in virginia, 17 years trying to survive on the streets, gangs, pretty typical disadvantaged African-American story. then my mother said to me, “What’re you going to do with your life?” i made a commitment right then and there to do something more meaningful. since i thought i might want to be in politics, the best road for me seemed to be the military. so, i joined the army, was assigned to a variety of different units, NATO on cyber security, some infantry work, twice to Afghanistan, and all of that really cemented my need to commit to a larger purpose. When i transitioned, i just decided to start a business, because i knew i wanted to own something, to build and develop it. i was very competitive, and i wanted to be content at work, but I also wanted to put together a financial foundation for my family for the foreseeable future.
your young life clearly formed a strong foundation for who you have become. how does equity – and by that I mean fairness – become a practice you personally support?
the military made me a fair and impartial leader. that’s embedded in our leadership style. i was leading a very diverse team in high-friction environments, so the right esprit de corps could mean the difference between survival or death.
holding someone’s life in your hands, that’s a very different responsibility and accountability.
Yes, the war mentality is very different. it’s not transferable to the civilian sector, but it did teach me that a team that’s not oiled correctly can lead to disaster. Putting a team together in the civilian environment is more complex. i didn’t see the same esprit de corps, the same trust. the team’s needs, the individuals, the organization’s mission, those were different.
your answer allows us to pivot to my next question. how have your military values translated into leading your team now in a purposeful and authentic way on race-related issues, especially given the crises we’re facing now?
I ran for office in Virginia as a Republican, so i found working with a majority of liberal employees and a small contingent of conservatives a very energized environment. i already had been branded, so i had to deploy a multifaceted and unconventional strategy. i showed intellectual diversity of thought at work and the emotional capacity to understand situations as a person of color. But it took time to unlock the trust factor. i had to role model the me behind the brand. And externally, i use social media to handle people who say i’m not African-American enough, to inform people who don’t know me.
Is there anything else you want to share around engagement with your stakeholders, your investors, your customers, to advance the purpose behind equity?
i would say that conversation was very uncomfortable for a lot of stakeholders, investors, and employees, but we’re now moving to discussions. i’d say i fall where the government is: diversity of thought across a variety of different populations fosters innovation. And i know the African-American talent is there. there’s a genius in us because we’ve struggled for 400 years to adapt to impossible situations. When we are given the opportunity to lead, you’ll see high-quality impact to your organization. i truly believe we’ll outperform other populations because of the difficulty we’ve experienced over time.
I think you crystallized a component of who black people are. thank you for everything you have shared today, and congratulations on everything you’ve achieved.