Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Robert Johnson Says Work Harder For Yourself...

This commentary is excerpted from a commencement address Johnson gave to Strayer University graduates on Saturday. Johnson, former owner of Black Entertainment Television and a member of the Strayer board, is chairman of RLJ Cos., a diverse portfolio of interests in the financial services, real estate, hospitality, sports, entertainment and gambling industries.

I say to Strayer graduates: You are as good as any graduating class walking off a campus in America.

You have done what the old saying says about Ginger Rogers. She did everything Fred Astaire did but she did it backwards wearing high heels. You've done everything every student has done, but you did it while working, while taking care of your kids, while going to church programs, while being a part of the community, serving in the military, being a single parent, having to deal with elderly parents, having to take care of extended family.

Everything the Ivy League guys did, you did backwards in high heels.

When I joined the cable industry [as a lobbyist], I knew nothing about it. But I believed I could master an industry I had never been introduced to.

So I set out on that.

I met a gentleman by the name of John Malone. John Malone happened to be the third-largest cable operator in the country. And he said to me one day, "If you ever have an idea about a business, come see me."

So I got this idea about a company called Black Entertainment Television. And I'll tell you how I got the idea. One day I'm going up to Capitol Hill with a TV guy who wanted to start a cable channel for the elderly. I'm riding in a taxi with him to sort of show him around. He had this business plan with him, and I said, "Can I see your business plan?"

He had on his plan:

"The elderly population has specific buying powers."

"The elderly population buys specific products."

"The elderly population lives in a certain kind of conditions."

"Elderly people are poorly depicted on television."

I looked at that and I said "Do you mind if I use this?" Every place he wrote "elderly" I crossed out and wrote "black."

"Black people have certain kinds of buying habits."

"Black people spend certain amounts of money."

"Black people are poorly depicted on television."

So now I go to John Malone with my stolen business plan. And he says "How much do you need to start this business?" I said: "John, I need $500,000."

He said: "Bob, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'm going to buy 20 percent of your company for $180,000 and I'm going to lend you $320,000. And you will be 80 percent owner, and I'll be 20 percent owner. Is that a deal?"

"I said, 'John, that's a deal.' "

What John Malone didn't know is that if he reversed the deal, I would have said, "John, that's a deal."

Throughout the course of BET, John Malone put money in the company and never took any more equity. One day I asked him: "John, you kept putting money into BET when it was losing. Why didn't you take more equity for yourself?"

And he said to me: "Because I always knew, that you would work harder for yourself than you would for me."

My message to you is that you have to work harder for yourself. Unfortunately, and this sometimes affects us as African Americans, we say: "The deck is stacked against us. There's racism. There's Jim Crowism. There's sexism. There are glass ceilings. There are all of these things that cause us to say we can't achieve because the deck is stacked against us, and we can't break through." That to me is a basic surrender to some other force controlling your destiny.

A friend of mine, Preston Pearson, played for the Baltimore Colts. He told me about the first time he was on a kickoff return. The other team kicked the ball to the other side of the field. As he's sitting there watching the play go the other way, some 250-pound lineman ran up and just rammed him straight in the ground. Then the lineman reached over and picked Preston up and said, "Welcome to the NFL."

I'm telling you: Welcome to life. Welcome to the business world. Welcome to where you are not going to get breaks.

You are in competition with the whole world. There are people in India, China competing for your job. They don't even know you, but, like the lineman, they will hit you. You have to be prepared to compete. When you get up in the morning, never say, "The reason I'm in this situation is because of racism."

In my opinion, racism is like rain. It'll always be out there. You know what you do? You put on your raincoat, grab an umbrella and go out there.

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