When did you know you wanted to become an entrepreneur?
In the mid-60s I worked as a janitor for the Ford Motor Company factory during part of my college days. After going to work for Shell Oil company in their Chicago regional headquarters, I asked to be moved to ‘the field’ to a territory of Shell Oil dealers. After management resistance on my not being tough enough, I was placed in one of the roughest zones of Chicago. Chicago’s near the south side. A territory of all black Shell dealers who I became very close with and learned from their entrepreneurial nature.
By working for hand in glove with them, this group rose from worst to first in the Chicago district.
The treatment of us Shell employees at that time wasn’t what I envisioned for the rest of my life. They didn’t share much information about the company and how my contribution fits in. It was clear that so many of the more senior employees were trapped, having been there for 20-30 years and had a pension plan, medical insurance, company car, etc. yet the more senior they got, the more demeaning behavior they had to endure. They were cornered. I came to realize I didn’t ever want to work for anyone again. I became set on starting my own company yet had no idea how hard it would be. I determined I would take the best from what I saw at Shell and leave the ugliness behind.
What has your entrepreneurial experience been like?
An awakening in starting my entrepreneurial journey was seeing how most people want to get into sexy industries like advertising or public relations or technology. However, my Dad – who sold mausoleums – demonstrated that success is not about what’s sexy and flashy, but rather where there is a universal need. Good business is about what’s real, not what’s sexy.
Tires and automotive repair were often a dirty, unprofessional, and dishonest industry. Perfect. The Universe needed this to get better. I knew I could improve the industry significantly and differentiate from my tire and automotive repair competitors. Our teammates in our showrooms wore dress shirts and ties, we had nice TVs, toys for kids, and you could eat off the floor.
How did your work in the automotive industry bring you to producing SPARK: A Short Documentary Exploring Racism’s Roots and Remedies?
SPARK is dedicated to the 14 black Shell Oil service station owners in my Chicago Southside territory who treated me like family and protected me from harm during the late 60’s civil rights uprisings.
The murder of George Floyd in our hometown of Minneapolis in the summer of 2020 sparked international outrage, and it also struck a chord from working with some ex-felons in Minneapolis and harkened me back to my formative experience with the Black Shell Oil dealers in my Chicago south side territory. I could not just ignore this murder of George Floyd or send thoughts and prayers to his family. We had to do something. Hence: Spark the Systemic Racism Story.
What advice would you give to someone like you who’s just starting out?
Narrow down to the one or two different specific areas that: you love, you’re good at, can meet your income goals, and are trending up in need.
Once you’ve figured that out, get experience working in that industry for someone else. Don’t jump into entrepreneurship without first learning what to attract and what to avoid. After doing that for a few years, if you see the ability to move to your own business, go for it! You might also discover the potential in being an “intrepreneur”, an entrepreneur within an existing company. Some select companies foster that type of environment, though many don’t.
So, learn as much as you can, search for the right opportunity, and go for it if that is in your heart and soul.