When writing their biographies, most leaders choose to emphasize their achievements and accolades. They list awards they have won, degrees they have earned, and records they have broken. However, in the interest of my life’s purpose, which is to help others, I’d like to take a different approach. Over the years, I’ve learned that failures and mistakes can be powerful teachers, pain and misfortune can yield valuable lessons, and conflicts can turn into precious opportunities. Therefore, I’d like to share the things I’ve experienced during my seven decades on Earth—both the good and the bad—so that others may learn from them. I have been fortunate to have many mentors in my life, and I hope that sharing my history will help inspire others in the way that my teachers inspired me.
My Early Life
I was born in 1950 and grew up in Darlington, South Carolina, a rural area in the southeastern United States. I had a fairly good childhood until I was 12, when my parents divorced—a very uncommon event at the time. Our home burned down shortly thereafter, and we lost everything we owned in the fire. My mother and I were thrown into poverty. We moved into a small trailer, and my bedroom became a tiny 4’X4’ square. (We were still better off than some of our neighbors, though…they didn’t have indoor plumbing and had to use outhouses instead of indoor toilets!) Experiencing two major losses so closely together had a major impact on my childhood, and I carried a lot of emotional pain with me for years.
Because my parents both worked, my grandparents played a major role in raising me, as did my babysitter, who instilled in me many of my current values. Every day after school, I went flying with my grandfather (who owned a small local airport) in a Piper J-4 Cub airplane, and I still enjoy traveling on airplanes. My grandmother was an excellent cook and she taught me how to make fried chicken, which I love to this day! I value the special times I had with my grandparents and the lessons I learned from them, and I use our relationship as a model for how I interact with my own grandchildren.
Growing up in the 1950s and 60s in a small, rural Southern town, I witnessed racism and prejudice firsthand. For much of my childhood, water fountains, movie theaters, and restaurants were segregated by race, and many of the white adults around me openly held bigoted views. My high school was all white until it was integrated in my senior year and two brave African-American students joined our graduating class of 125. I knew in my heart that racism was wrong—and I loved my babysitter, who was African-American, like a second mother—but it still took me years to erase the imprint of ingrained racism on my thoughts and feelings. These experiences forged in me to a determination to teach my own children to judge a person by their heart, rather than their race, religion, ethnicity, or culture.
From a young age, I knew that hard work was critical to success. At 13 years old, I began working on a farm and at my grandfather’s airport to help with household expenses. At 14, I was employed as a cook at a restaurant, becoming the highest-paid worker there at $1 per hour! (Of course, the cost of living was much lower then, with gas just 16 cents per gallon.) I also worked as a meat cutter for several grocery chains throughout my high school and college years. Although these were not prestigious jobs, I would learn a great deal about marketing through them that I would later use when promoting my future businesses.
Although I worked throughout my teenage years, I still had plenty of fun. In fact, I was voted “Most Wittiest” as a senior superlative because I had a ball in high school! I had friends from the rural area where I first grew up, as well as those from the city where we moved after our house fire. Building bonds with people from many different backgrounds and ways of life helped expand my horizons, including fostering a desire within me to be the first person in my family to attend college.
When I told my high school counselor about my college plans, however, she told me with a snarl to forget it, saying that I would never amount to anything! Thankfully, I proved her wrong, attending Pembroke University (now part of the UNC system) and graduating in three years. I majored in psychology because I wanted to better understand myself and other people. I met my wife, Debra, my freshman year at college, and she motivated me to study hard and graduate early. I also joined a fraternity, Lambda Phi Epsilon, acquiring a “band of brothers” with whom I still meet annually to relive wild memories from those days!
Obtaining a college degree opened employment doors for me that would eventually lead to a better life. During college, I also gained a strong sense of gratitude to the people around me who inspired me and helped build my character.
Entering the Workforce
It was a great day in 1971 when I was the first person in my family to graduate from college! Like many others, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. At various times, I wanted to be an FBI agent, a commercial airline pilot, and a supervisor with the now-defunct A&P grocery store chain. Looking back, I’m glad that none of those career objectives were fulfilled!
My first post-graduation job was with a nearby county’s Department of Public Welfare at an annual salary of $6,000. I was excited when my supervisor told me they were painting my new office, but that quickly passed when saw the dark, depressing jail cell with a desk and chair where I would interview applicants for food stamps. It was a humbling experience, but my wife and I (we had married in 1971, when Debra was still attending Winthrop University) needed to pay the bills. At the time, neither of us had any money to our name, so we had to make every penny count. We learned the value of sticking to a budget during these newlywed days, and we took pride in making it on our own.
My next job was at the South Carolina Department of Youth Services. As a juvenile parole officer, I saw firsthand how many talented young people turn to crime because of influences like poverty, abusive parents, substance abuse, peer pressure, and problems in school. I quit when my supervisor blindsided me with a letter outlining 20 things I was doing wrong, rather than coaching me on how to improve (an incident I used as an example of what not to do when I became a leader). That job led to another position working with juveniles as a social worker and administrator in an institution. The state decided to close that school, so I transferred to Columbia, SC to work as a counselor at another institution for young male criminals. Again, I saw how societal factors can push impressionable young people into criminal activities—I had a group of 11-year-olds who planned to murder me!—and how often the existing system failed to help them. I realized that families could become trapped in dark cycles of intergenerational poverty, abuse, neglect, and alcohol and other drug abuse, with nowhere to go but down.
I later became employed with the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS), where I became a grants administrator. This job would eventually catapult me into the grants business, inspiring to me to begin two successful companies. During this time, I was allowed a flexible schedule to eventually obtain my Master of Social Work (MSW) degree in counseling and community organization from the University of South Carolina. I served as an intern in the child abuse division, where I witnessed even more young people suffering abuse and neglect at the hands of parents and relatives. I also learned about the struggles faced by disabled individuals when I later worked as a community program administrator for the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (then known as the “Department of Mental Retardation”). Finally, in 1981, I resigned to become an entrepreneur.
The Highs and Lows of Entrepreneurism
My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all entrepreneurs, and although I had never taken a business course in my life, I always had the urge to become one as well. So, in 1981, a friend and I formed a real estate business to capitalize on the tax credits that then-President Reagan was offering for purchasing property. After Texas Instruments introduced its home computer, we also formed a computer business, which became very successful. That Christmas, we had people lined up outside our homes to buy calculators and computers! We eventually opened two mall retail locations and a wholesale business selling computers and software.
Then, Apple appeared on the scene. Many competing brands—including Texas Instruments home computers—were wiped out. We had to close our computer business, and in doing so, I learned all of the hard lessons about what I should have done with the venture! Burdened with debt, I went from driving a Mercedes to a used Volkswagen and contemplated declaring bankruptcy. Convinced that I would lose everything, I slowly sank into a dark pit of depression. Although I had taken every psychology course the university offered, I could never have imagined the misery and anxiety I felt during that time! With no money and limited mental health resources, I trudged on without counseling or medication, suffering the torture of environmental depression for two years.
Twelve years into our marriage—and during the darkest period of my life—my oldest son, Blake, came into the world. His birth gave me something to live for, and I pulled together enough energy to get a job as an administrator for then-South Carolina Governor Dick Riley. Slowly, thanks to a steady-paying job with insurance and my faith in God, I paid off all the debt I had incurred from my failed business, and I gradually emerged from my period of depression.
As an administrator, I gained knowledge about developing and managing state and federal government grants. I was stationed in the criminal justice division at the governor’s office and often visited the adult prison. Sadly, many of the children I had worked with in juvenile corrections and on parole were now imprisoned adults. I frequently wondered how those young people could have been saved.
While at the governor’s office, I was hired to run five political campaigns for Democratic candidates (ironically, I considered myself a right-wing Republican at the time). Working with graduate students, I ran polls, developed campaign strategies, and guided the candidates to victory. My political beliefs shifted toward the center, where they are today, as I recognized good points and people within both parties.
During this time, I was also learning how to parent. Debra and I had read many books on child development in our college and graduate studies, but that all went out the window when we became parents ourselves! Raising Blake and our second son, Joel, who was born in 1989, taught us that every child is different. Debra and I settled on a philosophy of “firm, consistent love” for our boys, and it worked…most of the time!
Getting into Grants
After working for the governor’s office, I was back to my normal self and enthused about the future. I forged an informal partnership with my former supervisor, Ritchie Tidwell, to write grants for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. We helped secure millions of dollars in grant funding for the agency, and during our work with them, I gained a window into the lives of the psychiatrically disabled. I saw talented and intelligent individuals who were unable to lead normal lives due to their mental illnesses, and many parents struggling to help their psychiatrically disabled children. My work with them taught me that those suffering from mental illness need help and compassion, not scorn and shame. Sadly, many mentally ill individuals (some of whom were veterans) were being released from institutions to save money, only for them to become homeless. While we were writing and researching grants on homelessness, I was shocked to recognize one of my former colleagues. He had become homeless after his wife left him, turning to alcohol to cope, and eventually being fired from his job as a supervisor. Seeing him on the streets made me realize that anyone can become homeless, and we all deserve kindness and a second chance.
Growing Successful Businesses
Building on my experiences in the grants field, I formed Research Associates in 1987, followed by The Evaluation Group in 1990. Although there were some stumbles and failures along the way, I cultivated a team of hardworking, talented, and intelligent professionals and great leaders driven to help the less fortunate and pursue the companies’ purpose of “Creating Opportunities to Improve Lives.” Since their creation, Research Associates and the Evaluation Group have secured more than 600 million dollars in grants for school districts, government agencies, universities, and nonprofits. Through the training division of Research Associates, my staff and I would go on to train 25,000 individuals nationwide on how to find and write government grants over the next 30 years. I also formed the South Carolina Law Enforcement Training Center, where we trained hundreds of criminal justice personnel. Research Associates later branched into the academic arena and partnered with the College of Charleston and the Citadel to offer ten graduate courses to thousands of school teachers
To support my companies’ needs for a facility at which to hold our trainings, we built the Columbia Conference Center building in 2002. I applied the knowledge gained from training thousands of people in hundreds of hotels and meeting venues to design the 40,000-square-foot facility, which I envisioned as one of the best in the southeast. The building would house staff from my existing companies, as well as those from Columbia Conference Center, my new business that would host weddings, receptions, and corporate, nonprofit, and government meetings in the space. In keeping with our focus on giving back to the community, we decorated the building with art from local high school students, who received small college stipends in return for their work, and frequently offered local nonprofits meeting space at free or reduced rates. We also raised a lot of money for charities like Water Missions International and Pawmetto Lifeline.
Through experience (including both failures and successes), as well as by reading over 100 bestselling business books, I learned several priceless lessons on how to successfully run a business over those 30 years. Chief amongst them were: what works today might not work tomorrow (don’t put all of your eggs in one basket!); that every organization needs a vision for the future, purpose, mission, and strategic plan guided by the adage “Hope for the best and plan for the worst;” that you must hire outstanding people to implement the plans; and that if you take good care of your people, they will take care of you, your customers, and your company. Although it took several years, I eventually wrote a book called The Art of Building a Great Business, which incorporates these lessons and more.
Entering a New Era—Retirement
In late 2018, I sold Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, and Columbia Conference Center, as well as the Columbia Conference Center building. At 70 years old, I was ready to retire and for others to take the reins of the businesses I had started. Although I prepared for retirement for years, it has been a major adjustment. My life is just as active as before, however…but with fewer headaches and less stress! I’ve been able to dedicate more time to family (especially Debra, my wife and best friend for nearly 50 years) and my passion for helping others. The main way that I realize this passion is by researching and writing columns for several publications on topics related to cultivating a better personal life, building and running successful businesses, and traveling the world. With the help of Surb Guram, MD, I also write articles on a wide range of health-related issues.
In my opinion, realizing how little you know is the beginning of wisdom. I still have much to learn, but I’d say that the biggest lessons life, God, and experience have taught me are to appreciate what you have, forgive others when they wrong you, and try to live without resentment. I’m so grateful to the people who have helped me grow on my wonderful journey through the years, especially my wife and children. I’m still a work in progress, but it has been a great ride so far, and I wouldn’t change a thing! Praise God!