Stories

Full text of the keynote address given at the St. Louis American's Salute to Business 2010

Allow me to recognize a man who personifies humility and selflessness, Ambassador Bert Walker. I also want to recognize my colleagues from Webster University lead by Chancellor Neil George and Vice President Karen Luebbert. I would like to give a shout out to the two Bolas in my life; my wife Bola and my sister Bola.

Long ago I discovered that the thing most people want to know about you, they are too polite to ask. So let me begin by saying, I'm 48 years old. I did not go to high school in St. Louis, but I got here as quick as I could! I was thinking before I came up here how much I enjoy hearing people introduced. When you think about it introductions are really short stories designed to give a peek into the life of the person being introduced. Introductions are unforgettable stories. For me storytelling is a true leadership tool. It can help kickstart a new idea, socialize new members into a team, and mend relationships or share wisdom. Today I want to tell you four short stories.

As a child growing up in Africa my sisters and I must have heard our dad tell this story a hundred times. The story began on a rainy night, in a far away place called America. It's about 11:30 p.m. An older African American woman was stranded on the side of an Alabama highway in a gusting rainstorm. Her car had broken down and she desperately needed a ride home. Soaking wet, she tried to flag down the cars as they passed by but nobody stopped to help.

After what must have seemed like eternity, a young white man stopped. My dad would then pause to remind us that this act of kindness by this young man was rare in those conflict-filled, racially tense 1960s. The young man was gracious and took her to safety, and even waited to get her a taxicab so she could make it home to attend to an urgent matter. Although she was in a hurry to get home, she asked the good Samaritan for his name and address just before he drove away.

A few days later, the young man received an unexpected surprise in the mail. It was a giant console, black and white TV with a special note attached. My dad, being the dramatist, would take out a piece of paper from his pocket and read the note to my sisters and I. The note read:

     "Thank you so much for helping me on the highway the other night.
     The rain drenched not only my clothes but also my spirits.
     But, because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husband's bedside just before he passed away.
     God bless you for helping me and serving others unselfishly. Sincerely, Mrs. Nat King Cole."

The wife of one of the greatest musical icons of the 20th century! One of the most remarkable things about America is the willingness of strangers to reach out and help others. St. Louis knows a thing or two about helping others and lifting up those in need. Today we honor individuals and organizations whose mission and reason for existence is enabling others to reach their goals and by doing so transforming lives and entire neighborhoods.

My second story is about one of the greatest tales ever told is a story about risk, failure and perseverance. I find this story very relevant to the challenges that our nation faces today in the most severe economic downturn of our generation. It is a story that revolves around an anthropomorphic egg who was bent on defying the odds and met with interesting results. It is the story of humpty dumpty, remembered in rhyme. Please join me in reciting this rhyme just one more time.

     Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
     Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. 
     All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.

The key word is the very last word of the rhyme…"again." This confirms that this was not the first time that Humpty had fallen. Humpty was a serial risk taker.

Humpty was bold, fearless, unrelenting and entrepreneurial. And he was very familiar with the reality called failure. But, this egg refused to allow failure to define him. Failure for Humpty was real time feedback. Failure was an opportunity to regroup, to reassess and to try again until success was eventually achieved.

The wall in this rhyme is a simple metaphor which describes the singular act of overcoming challenges. Climbing a wall is moving beyond where we are. Climbing a wall is overcoming adversity. It is challenging tradition, pursuing goals that are not easily achievable and refusing to give up in that pursuit. Indeed, we all spend the rest of our lives climbing walls.

There are so many people in America today, who now find themselves faced with the greatest challenge of their life. They have lost their jobs, their homes, their life savings and they are losing confidence. They are down because they have fallen. Although they are often called slowdowns, recessions shake things up rather than slow them down. Recessions reward strengths and expose weaknesses, create new opportunities and kill old habits. Recession has a way of releasing pent up energy and destroying old business models. Distressed assets can be bought for a song, talented people are let go….just like Humpty. How do we get up again?

As we all contemplate the severity and hopelessness of the present and seek to overcome the uncertainty of the future, I find solace in the story of one egg's journey of endurance that speaks to the willingness to keep trying; a story about courage and about gratefully accepting help when needed. To persevere when there is no apparent reason to do so. It's a vivid reminder that even when we do everything right - when we remain loyal to our employer, invest our money in "fool-proof" funds, pursue the American dream--that we may still fall short. Somewhere in our life's journey, we will face adversity. Some we will overcome and some will overcome us.

Humpty's story is a tale of the power of courage. Eddie Rickenbacker reminds us that courage is doing what we are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless we are afraid. There is a little Humpty Dumpty in all of us. We all have fallen. Yes. We have been broken, certainly.

But somewhere deep inside our heads - behind the doom, beyond the gloom - we refuse to take our eye off that wall and are ready to climb it, cracks and all, as impossible as it may seem.

I have met many real life Humpty Dumptys, ordinary people who are battling against unimaginable odds; young men and women fighting incurable medical conditions, friends and loved ones facing physical and mental adversity; and there are untold millions facing unbelievable economic challenges; yet they are unwilling to give up.

I am particularly impressed with Humpty's support group, his family and friends, you know "all the king's horses and all the king's men", who provided the ultimate safety net for Humpty. If it wasn't for our "king's men" and "king's horses," getting back up would be impossible. They are the ones who encourage us to keep on keeping on. They are there helping to put us back together again. In fact, that's what the St. Louis American foundation is doing; serving as a safety net for current and future generations.

Through my third story I learned the importance of empowering others through a story shared with me by John T. Quinlivan, an executive at Boeing Corporation. It's a story about a simple act we all take for granted. You see a few years back John was the person in charge of delivering Boeing jets to countries around the world. This particular delivery was to the nation of Kenya.

The day began with much pomp and ceremony as Boeing entertained airline executives and top government dignitaries with a demonstration flight in the 767 over the beautiful landscape of Kenya. Later the aerospace giant opened the airplane up for a static display where people are invited to walk through the plane to sit on the seats, and get an upclose view of the plane.

More than two thousand Kenya Airways employees and the invited public showed up to get a glimpse of the plane that afternoon. At the completion of the static display, with the plane cleaned and secured for the night, a group of children showed up from a nearby orphanage. Despite protests from his Kenyan hosts, John Quinlivan offered to give them a tour of the plane. When the children arrived on the tarmac they stood transfixed at the bottom of the stairway looking up at massive plane. From the top step John motioned to them to come up. But no one moved. They just stood there.

It took awhile for John to realize that he had a problem. The problem was a simple one. The children and their handlers had never walked up stairs before. They didn't know how. So, with the help of the Boeing staff, the children made their way up to the plane. It took a while, but they all finally made it to the top of the stairway where they stretched out on the large seats in first class, checked out the cockpit, sat in the pilot's seat, and even tried out the restrooms!

At the end of the tour, it was a sight to see the kids attempting to walk down the stairway. A few found it more comforting and ensuring to just sit on the steps and make their way down as carefully as they could.

What stories are being told in your organization that speak to the value that you bring, that conveys the overwhelming reason for your existence? My friends walking up the stairs is enabling others to reach their goals. That's what Michael Kennedy senior is doing. That's what is taking hold at the Gateway Middle School for Science and Technology. Walking up the stairs is the good work at Grace Hill where they are enabling St. Louisians from all walks of life to participate in the American dream.

In closing, let me share with you a personal story of redemption and perseverance. I was born and raised in Nigeria, and one of the lingering traditions is the annual end-of-year recognition award day at the high school. I recall it was the end of the ninth grade and all the parents were invited to celebrate the final day of the academic year. And what a celebration it was!

The teacher entered, announced that she was going to recognize the students in numerical order from the top performers on down. The first place position went to a student named Toun. This was really no surprise to anybody. Toun had consistently come in first place every year since we were in first grade.

Toun was a petite, extremely well-mannered, intellectually gifted girl who knew all the answers to all the questions and loved doing homework. She was also the first to complain when we didn't get any homework assignment! Yes, we hated her. After Toun's name was announced and she walked to the front of the class to receive her first place certificate, she hugged her parents and, in keeping with the usual practice, exited the classroom with her mom and dad.

The countdown progressed quickly, and as the room emptied out, the applause that followed the reading of each name became thinner. By the time the teacher reached #20, the classroom was unbelievably quiet. When the teacher reached #30, the remaining students drew together in the middle of the classroom, supporting each other in our collective shame.

The teacher, however, continued her announcements—31, 32, 33—in the same enthusiastic tone as if the classroom were full. And then the moment arrived. She was going to announce the last two positions. The 34th position goes to Tunde Adeoye. My friend Tunde was so happy that he let out a loud yell and literally ran out of the classroom overjoyed. Only I remained standing.

Finally the teacher announced to an almost empty class… "the 35th position for this year goes to Benjamin Ola. Akande." I walked briskly to the front of the classroom to receive my certificate, then turned towards the doors to meet my dad.

We began the slow, yet awkward walk toward the parking lot. Dad's car was parked less than 100 yards from the classroom, but the walk felt like an eternity. My dad said nothing. Then, after a long pause, he said, "Benjamin, we can only go up from here." He did not say "Benjamin" you can only go up from here. He said "we". That day was the beginning of the rest of my life. This was the moment when everything changed for me.

A couple of years later, while visiting my parents in Nigeria, I decided to take a walk around the old neighborhood. I had just stepped out of our compound when I heard a familiar voice call out.

"Hey, 35, is that you?" At first I didn't answer; didn't look back. I just kept walking. I figured I've been gone for almost 30 years, there's got to be a hundred 35's in the neighborhood! I kept telling myself this surely can't be me. I finally turned around to see a face from my past, #1, Toun. I asked Toun how she knew it was me. Her response – "well #35, I saw you walking out of your parent's compound. I guess that gave it away."

"#35 what are you doing?" She asked. I told her I live in America and am a professor at a business school at Webster University in St. Louis. Toun told me she had risen to a leadership position and ownership at a major bank.

I told Toun that I owed a great deal of my success so far to her because she had set the bar so high. It was a unique meeting between no. 1 and no. 35. It was a short conversation. As I turned to walk away Toun called out "#35 – you can't control where the winds of life will take you, but there is one thing you can control. You can control what you do with your life."

I returned to the states a few weeks later, and soon after received a call from my dad who called to let me know that Toun was sick and encouraged me to give her a call. I called her and Toun told me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that it had spread to other organs.

Despite the prognosis, she was upbeat, her voice radiating the strength and composure that made her so successful. I told Toun that I wanted to help by connecting her with my older sister Nickie who is a cancer scientist at MD Anderson in Houston Texas. "Toun, you've got to be strong," I said.

But then, Toun turned it on me. "Look 35, I'm going to beat this thing. Don't worry about me. I'm going to be ok." As the conversation wound down, Toun told me she was proud of me and encouraged me not to give up.

Less than a week later, dad called in the wee hours of the night. He was calling to let me know that Toun had passed away earlier that day. I sat in bed crying because not only had I lost a friend, I had lost a friend who taught me by example that indeed the valley is where real growth happens.

My friends, God doesn't promise us a life full of mountaintop experiences. We will all experience valleys in our lives. I'm talking about dark valleys, steep slippery valleys and valleys of dispair. There are no maps to detour the valleys of life. All we have is our faith and our willingness to persevere in those valley days. You won't find growth on the mountain tops above the timberline. It is in the valley. Yes, I'm still #35, striving everyday to continue the climb. There are hundreds of #35's out there. Perhaps you know one. Perhaps you are one. What will you do about it?

As St. Louis grapples with the challenges and opportunities that comes from increased participation by people of color in the private and public sectors and as our nation seeks to rise up to fill the gap between expectations and providence we must remain focused on what is most important: the viability of our community and our children. This is where the real work is and this is where the stories will be told.

I want to thank you for giving #35 a chance to rise above my initial failures. Thank you, Dr. Suggs for reminding us weekly through the St. Louis American about the bountiful assets we have in St. Louis and the possibilities that inclusion brings. I end with a prayer I heard a few years ago delivered by the great civil rights icon – Rev. Andrew Young.

     We ain't where we were.
     We ain't where we wanna be.
     Thank you Lord for who we are.
     Amen.

Thank you and God bless you all.