Earvin Johnson shares his business magic

Urges more investment in Urban America

Second of a three-part story

Earvin Johnson Charles Hallman/MSR News

Earvin Johnson “worked” the Minneapolis Convention Center’s large hall April 11 as the keynote speaker for the Power the Future conference’s opening general session. The three-day event honoring the 30th anniversary of the Forum on Workplace Inclusion focused on what’s needed to advance efforts toward true diversity, equity and inclusion in today’s workplace. He mostly delivered his remarks away from the on-stage podium designed for speakers, instead walking from front to rear of the convention center’s large room.

Johnson has been a champion in high school, college and the NBA, as well as a winner of Olympic gold. After his retirement as an athlete, he successfully parlayed his point guard skills into the business world.

“When I first started in business, they said, ‘He’s just a basketball player. I went to 10 banks… They turned me down five times in a row,” Johnson recalled.

Between his joking and taking impromptu selfies with several of the 1,600 attendees during his nearly one-hour address on diversity and inclusion in business, Johnson unabashedly stressed the importance of investing in Urban America. He said he has worked with major corporations and partners to bring jobs, high-quality products and services through such investing.

“I’m so happy doing what I am doing now,” Johnson admitted. “I’ve invested in Urban America. I’ve given Blacks and Latinos job opportunities in their community. That’s why I built the [125] Starbucks [he owns] and the movie theatres [he formerly owned from 1994 to 2006].”

Athletics taught him the importance of diversity and working well with others, Johnson said. “Team sports allowed me to understand how to really come together with someone who doesn’t look like me. We would…go out with one common goal, and that was to win the game.”

It also taught him the difference between success and failure as well, he said. Asked how he dealt with failure, Johnson responded, “I want to know why I failed, what happened, go back over the reasons we lost as a company and move forward. I think failure can teach you so many things and can make you better at the same time, in business and in sports, too.

“Diversity has to be in the DNA of the CEO and president [of the company] and trickle down to everybody else. If it’s not, you won’t get diversity,” he continued. “What minorities really want is just an opportunity and a seat at the table.”

Blacks and other people of color, whether as owners, employees or executives, want to be themselves in the workplace, he pointed out. But he added that business is about results as well:  “Minorities, make sure that you are ready [to bid on contracts]. If you are not ready, then you got to pass sometimes.”

Johnson nonetheless stressed, “We have to over-deliver. That’s what I live by each and every day.”

As much as business is competitive, oftentimes pitting Black-owned businesses against each other in contract bidding, it’s not necessary to tear each other down in order to succeed, Johnson said. “I hate that, and it happens too many times.

“I never say anything bad about that company. If we win, we win. If [the other company] wins, he wins. I always try to uplift other minority firms.”

But Johnson said it is also important for business owners to take care of their own businesses. “What are you doing in your office? Are you making the team that works with you better?” he asked. “The key to being a leader is whether you are making everybody that works with you better. If you’re not making other people better so that they can be executives, then you are not doing your job.

“It’s important that you grow your talent that works for you,” Johnson said to the business leaders in the room. “My job is to grow the talent that works for me.”

He offered as an example a young woman who came to work for him as a receptionist nearly 20 years before, because that was the only job he had available at the time. Now the woman is CEO of his company. “I saw something special in her… She asked questions. She became my assistant her first year… She kept growing and growing.”

Find a good mentor, Johnson advised. “Make sure you get somebody to mentor you. Dr. Jerry Buss became my first mentor,” he said of the late Los Angeles Lakers owner. Later he invited 30 CEOs to lunch “and started picking their brains. I love to learn. I always wanted to learn and get better.”

Someone asked if pro-Black business can be seen as anti-White business. “Good business is good business,” Johnson responded. “It’s a shame we have to answer this question. It’s not about being anti-White at all. Minorities just want a chance, a fair opportunity. Then if we don’t win, just explain to us why we didn’t win so the next time we can come back.”

Johnson concluded with an appeal for creating those fair opportunities: “I hope that you are serious about diversity and inclusion. It will make you a better company. It’s much needed in the marketplace today. Make sure [Blacks and other people of color] are able to advance in your company.

“If you’re really about diversity, you will also [have] minorities to advance and get to the executive level and make your company better.”


Next week: Former National Public Radio journalist Michele Norris, as closing session keynote speaker, told the gathering that race can’t be talked about enough if America is to move forward.