Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Fighting Chance

While in college I participated in a charity event called Hands Across America.  Almost 7 million people held hands from New York to California to raise over 35 million dollars to fight hunger and homelessness.  Many celebrities joined hands, and I was fortunate in being able to meet Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time.  He shared stories about converting what you love to do into opportunities to make a difference for others.  That’s the theme of this week’s story.

George was the fifth of seven children growing up in a very poor household in Texas.  His stepfather was a railroad worker who frequently drank away his paycheck, leaving the family to depend on his mother’s small wages.  George often wondered what it would be like to have his own bed. 

His family lived in a rough area of Houston called the Fifth Ward, known as the “Bloody Fifth” because of the frequent violence there.  As a kid, George was often a part of this violence, getting into street brawls and gang fights almost daily.  His size and aggression earned him the respect of several local gangs, but even after dropping out of high school, George knew he had to do something to improve his life.

Watching television one day, George saw an ad for the Job Corps, an organization and training program dedicated to helping young people learn skills to find and keep a good job.  With no other ideas for his future, he decided to join.  If nothing else, the Job Corps got him out of his immediate surroundings, as he was sent to Oregon to begin his educational training. What the relocation didn’t change was George’s infamous ability to get into fights. One day, a program supervisor stepped in to end a fight, but not before noticing George’s power and quickness.  The supervisor was a boxing enthusiast, and realized he could help George channel his aggressiveness into a healthier outlet. 

With help from the supervisor, George worked on his technique and adapted his thuggish, street-brawling style for the ring.  With the addition of focus and control, he was such a natural that, within two years, he had qualified for the US Olympic boxing team.  At the age of 19, George won a gold medal in the Olympics for heavyweight boxing.  Afterward he returned to Texas and turned professional.

George won his first 37 professional fights before earning a shot at the heavyweight championship.  Despite this succession of wins, George endured grumbling that he was beating has-beens and lesser fighters en route to his first title shot.  However, he silenced all criticism by defeating one of the most feared champions in all of boxing history within two rounds.

As the new heavyweight champion, George successfully defended his title twice.  Soon after, though, he suffered the first and only defeat by knockout of his professional career, in a much publicized bout in Africa against arguably the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali.  The loss drove him to re-examine his life.  George did not officially retire, but he stopped fighting and became an ordained minister, devoting his time to his family and parishioners.

Ten years later, after building a gym next to his church to give local children an alternative to hanging around on the streets, George announced his return to boxing.  At age forty-five, George amazed sports analysts and fans when he knocked out the reigning heavyweight champ in the tenth round.  It was an unimaginable achievement, and George broke two records that night:  One for becoming the oldest heavyweight champion in history, and the other for the longest interval between one championship and the next.

At the end of his boxing career, he began to forge a successful venture as a businessman, selling everything from grills to mufflers on television.  George Foreman is perhaps best known to today’s generation for his famous ‘Lean Mean Grilling Machine,' and for good reason.  He was so successful as the spokesman that his contract was bought out for $137 million. 

When asked about his good fortune he replied, “I never did anything for personal gain.  When I was a boxer, I wanted to be champion of the world, not the richest man in the world.  If you can maintain that integrity in whatever you do, you can't go wrong.  I’ve turned my fame and fortune into a charity machine.  The millions I’m focused on are the kids who need my help fighting cancer.  They need a fighting chance!” 

What are you fighting for?

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Other Side of Fear

Born in the small town of Wausau, Wisconsin, Marissa was raised in a family that believed in giving their children every experience possible.  Marissa’s father, an environmental engineer for a water-treatment plant, built an ice rink in their backyard for Marissa’s hockey-loving brother.  Her mother, an art teacher, nurtured every one of Marissa’s interests over the years, including ice skating, ballet, piano, cake decorating, swimming, skiing, and golf.  Her mother felt that the best approach was supporting her children trying everything, and letting them decide for themselves what they liked best.

In high school, Marissa continued to explore a variety of things.  She was on the school dance team, debate club, math club, Spanish club, and participated in Junior Achievement.  In her senior year, her debate team won the state championship, a testament to Marissa’s ability to identify problems and solutions quickly.  She also got a job as a grocery checker, and quickly learned to make herself faster and more efficient by memorizing the price codes of the most commonly purchased items.

Marissa didn’t grow up immersed in technology, but decided to attend Stanford University, a school known for its computer science program.  She had a natural interest in the workings of the human brain, and initially wanted to be a pediatric neurosurgeon.  However, despite never even learning to use a mouse until starting college, a computer science class hooked her instantly, and she decided to pursue a major in symbolic systems.

At Stanford, Marissa volunteered at children’s hospitals, and began teaching undergraduates in her junior year.  She went on to earn her Master’s degree there as well, focusing on her interest in artificial intelligence.  She was known to pull all-nighters regularly, often showing up for tests in the same clothes she’d worn the day before.

With her graduate studies nearing their end, Marissa found herself with 14 job offers, including an opportunity with data giant Oracle, and an invitation to teach at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University.  So, when a recruiting email from a tiny search engine company arrived on a Friday night, Marissa didn’t immediately put down her bowl of pasta to respond.  In fact, she nearly deleted the email without even reading it.

After considering what she’d heard about the company’s promise from one of her professors, though, she took into account how the areas they were exploring were similar in focus to her own graduate studies.  Marissa decided to interview with them.  At the time, the small company had only seven employees.  All of their software engineers were male, and realizing that a more balanced gender ratio would strengthen the company, they were very eager to add Marissa to their team.  But she didn’t accept right away. 

Marissa talked to friends and family, and analyzed the most successful choices she’d made in her life.  The common factors she found were, first, that she’d always chosen to work with the smartest people she could find.  And second, she always did something she was a little bit unprepared for or overwhelmed by, because it challenged her to learn.  She went to sleep with those thoughts in her mind, and the next morning, she woke up and had her answer.

Marissa accepted the offer to become one of the earliest employees at Google, leading their user interface and Web server team.  She was their first female engineer. Her understanding of functionality and efficiency, along with her preference for simple designs, had a major impact on the company.  Marissa worked on the most recognizable and successful products, including Google Maps, Google Earth, Street View, Google News, and Gmail, and is acknowledged as the architect of the unique look and feel that characterize the Google experience.

In 2012, the technology world was stunned when Marissa left Google to take on the role of President and CEO of Yahoo, in an effort to turn the company around following years of being completely eclipsed…by Google.  The new role made Marissa Mayer, age 37, the youngest CEO ever of a Fortune 500 company.

Marissa is living her dreams by embracing the Everything is Possible mindset.  Here’s her advice on how you can too. “There are always moments when you’re not sure you can do something. That’s when most people give up. Try and push through. Eventually you will experience breakthroughs that lead to new levels of success. Just remember that on the other side of fear is everything you dream about.”

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Serenity Now

I’m on vacation with my family in South Africa.  This is our first visit and we are soaking up the country.  There are penguins on the beach and lions, elephants, and rhinos to be seen on safari. Tomorrow I’ll put on a wet-suit and get lowered into the ocean in a cage so I can experience a Great White Shark during feeding time.  If this is my last weekly story, you will know why.

Next week I visit Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. On Father’s Day, I will be enjoying the tradition of afternoon tea in Cape Town. Today, I’m just grateful to share this story about an enterprising South African…

Gary was born on a remote farm in South Africa.  He took up skateboarding at an early age, and was good enough by the time he was fourteen to be ranked as a professional.  Feeling satisfied with his efforts in that area, he took up the bass guitar.  Gary was a focused and determined learner, and, by the time he was ready to attend college, studying music was the most appealing choice.

Leaving South Africa for Boston, Gary attended the Berklee College of Music, where his brother later joined him.  After graduating, they both moved to New York with plans to be professional musicians.  They quickly learned that no matter how talented you are, the music world is hard to break into at any successful level.  To pay their bills, they found jobs bussing tables. 

Gary spent three years toiling in restaurants and playing gigs whenever he could.  He was desperate to end his career as a bus boy as soon as possible.  Every week, he would spend money paying noteworthy musicians to meet with him and play a set at the restaurant where he worked.  His reasoning was that he wanted to surround himself with successful and strong people, no matter how he got them there, and that it could only have positive results.

Eventually, Gary and his brother had the idea to start a music production company to write melodies for television.  Gary wanted to utilize email as an inexpensive way to promote the company, but also wanted to really grab people’s attention when they received his emails.  Despite having an arts background, and therefore no technical experience whatsoever, he managed to pull together an eye-catching email to market his musical offerings.  That email found its way to the Oprah Winfrey Show, and helped open the door for a great opportunity.  Gary was hired to create original music for the show for the next six years.

Even so, there was something about that initial email that kept coming back to Gary.  He began to think about an even better opportunity, both to help other musicians and to build a business.  He searched the Internet for an email marketing company that reflected his ideas, and all he could find were expensive services without much personality.  Without hesitation, Gary decided to build one from the ground up.

Putting aside music, Gary got to work.  He bought stacks of books to help him learn everything he could about the business.  He scoured the web for the right partner with a background in writing code.  Gary actually went one by one through eighty-six of the most authoritative developers, researching them and sending each a personal email with info on his project.  Forty or so responded, but only one was the right fit. 

With the help of programmer Dave Hoover, who would eventually lead the engineering team at Groupon, Gary Levitt started Mad Mimi, his “simple and beautiful email marketing company.”   The company attracted initial clients by word of mouth.  Five years later, their customers include Air Canada and eBay, but they mainly serve small business owners.  Mad Mimi sends and tracks more than forty million emails a day, and has achieved revenues in the millions of dollars without the aid of outside investors.

In a recent interview, Gary was asked the one thing he would get rid of in the world. His response:  “I would eliminate TV.  Seriously, if more people found some quiet time every day, they would be amazed at how creative and productive they would become.  That’s what I miss the most about South Africa… the peace and serenity that empowers one to think.”

I’m living two weeks without TV while in South Africa and appreciate Gary’s advice. This week’s message is a simple one:  Serenity now, significance later!

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Say Cheese!

I was in New York recently, and picking up a newspaper, I found an old acquaintance making headlines.  His business was a huge success and they were going public. I texted my wife back home in Atlanta to see if she had his phone number.  Over twenty years ago, my wife was his son’s kindergarten teacher, and we had been family friends.  Ten years had passed since we’d last spoken, so I was surprised when my wife quickly sent back his number.  Should I call him?  Would he even remember me?  I decided to send a text message, asking if there was any chance he could meet with me.

Moments later my phone rang.  It was not what I expected.  The loud, gruff voice on the line said, “I don’t respond to emails, I don’t like taking phone calls, and I certainly don’t like meetings!”  Then the voice softened and he continued, “But you can come and meet me at my private office and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”  I was relieved.  Two days later we met.  Here’s his story…

Steve grew up in a small town in Missouri and, as he recalls, everyone either played football or loved to watch it.  Unfortunately, he enjoyed neither.  His dad was in the water business, and his mom did a lot of charity work, and they both encouraged Steve to pursue what he loved.  He just hadn’t discovered what that was yet.

In college, Steve tried out for a play and enjoyed the positive attention he received from the audience. When he wasn’t acting, he was listening to rock music and dreaming of becoming a star.  Upon graduation, he moved to New York City and landed a job on a soap opera, and also found work in local theaters.  The money wasn’t great, but worse, Steve wasn’t enjoying it, and felt trapped.  Going back home would signify failure.

Manhattan was expensive, so Steve needed a paycheck while he sorted out his dilemma.  Thanks to a friend, he was able to get a job at a local cheese shop.  He was twenty-four years old with a college degree, and he wore an apron to work… not exactly what he had in mind.  Even so, he decided to commit fully.  Steve was fascinated with maps and soon, he came to enjoy researching the regions the cheeses were from.  That’s when he realized that most of the cheeses sold in America were imitations of the real thing.

Steve saved his money and took a trip to France.  He visited local provinces and farms to discover cheese that was unknown in America.  He marveled at how passionate the cheese artisans were at their craft.  They derived such joy from working their land, and they all had stories to share as to why their products were the very best.  With every taste, Steve knew he had to find a way to bring their products to the USA.

For five years, Steve continued to work at various cheese shops in New York, saving his money and returning to Europe to make new culinary discoveries.  His break came when he joined with a supermarket called Fairway.  There, he convinced the owner to allow him to import the wonderful cheeses he discovered throughout the years.  He also created signs to explain where and how the cheeses were made. 

Steve Jenkins became a partner in Fairway, and continued to travel the world looking for the very best olive oil, spices, coffee, and other delicacies.  Thanks to him, we have authentic Brie, Mozzarella, and Fontina cheese in the US, among many others.  Since he joined the company, Fairway has grown into the most respected gourmet market in New York, with over a billion dollars a year in sales.  Steve found his passion, proudly puts on his apron, and shares it with his customers every day.  He even wrote a best-selling book that’s regarded as the definitive guide to cheese by chefs across the country.

I asked Steve for advice on living your dreams, and he said, “Sometimes you can become a rock star because of pear cider, sourdough bread, or even cheese.  It doesn’t matter what you choose in life, as long as you find something you love, have pride in your work, and try to do it better than anyone else.”

My friend Steve is certainly a cheese expert.  I call him the Cheeze Whiz.  But there’s nothing artificial about him or his advice.  Pursue what you love, and become the artisan of your own ultimate life!

Until next week...

Live Your Dreams