I started in the business world working for a chocolate manufacturer in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, New York for 12 years. The chocolate factory was south, by only a few blocks, from where I grew up in the public housing projects. The square block on which I lived was exclusively projects. Our buildings were 20 stories high, with eight apartments per floor. There were at least ten buildings on my block. Using an average of five people per apartment, there were 8,000 people living there. Just north of the chocolate factory is another public housing complex.
Both of these projects were predominantly African-American. At almost any given time of any given day, you could see men and boys hanging out. The unemployment rate was high. The school drop out rate was high. So when we talk about men and boys hanging out, we are talking about substantial numbers in these two complexes. Yet, when you looked at the workers providing services or simply working in the neighborhood, they weren’t African-American. There were factories in the neighborhood but most of the employees were not African-American. There were stores in the neighborhood but none of them were owned by African-Americans. There were employees in these stores but very, very few were African-American and none of those were behind the cash register.
I knew a few African-American men who were successful. My father worked as a corrections officer for 33 years, a working man until he retired. My uncle, Furman Walls, was an educator. My maternal grandfather was a Baptist preacher. These men had a powerful impact on my life. But what is missing from this list of men is a businessman, a business leader. I can’t recall ever meeting an African-American business leader during my youth. I can’t recall ever meeting an African-American leader who owned something other than on rare occasions meeting someone who owned a house.
At the chocolate company where I started out, I asked my boss and the owners to try things like ESL classes, or a softball team or promoting from within. I am not claiming to be the originator of these ideas but I was an advocate. We now know the impact these practices and other employee-sensitive practices can have on a business when done right. But back then, my bosses simply looked at me and asked how much money they would make from these things. Today we have evidence that these types of activities can influence worker productivity through worker satisfaction. But, back then, those practices were seen as “liberal nonsense” by many of the most successful business people. They thought a business should simply drive its people as hard as possible, take as much as possible from its customers, and put as much as possible into the owners’ pockets, regardless of the impact on the community, employees or the world. I was an impressionable young man looking up to these successful business people and I said to myself, “They must be right, look at their success. If I am to satisfy my desire to help someone, I should go become a volunteer at my church.”
Please understand that these were not heartless men. I know for a fact that the owner and the president gave away significant dollars to charity. But there was no place for that type of thinking within the business. I know they gave people a chance but there was limited room for risk. One of those people they gave a chance to was me. As an African-American male, there were limited opportunities for me in the management of a successful company. This company provided me that opportunity. For that I am eternally grateful. The business training they provided was invaluable. I learned to be a productive business leader while working there. My business training came from within that institution. I didn’t get my bachelors degree until 2005 when I was 43 years old and had been president of Greyston Bakery for seven years.
While my business training began at the chocolate company, my leadership and compassion training had begun when I decided I wanted to be a priest. I pursued the priesthood through high school seminary and the middle of sophomore year at college seminary. I wanted to be a priest because I felt the calling to serve my people in general, and through spiritual leadership in particular. I didn’t see a black priest until the fifth grade, and that priest traveled from Uganda to visit us. He asked the class who would follow God’s call to serve. Right then, I decided I would. I thought that “calling” meant the priesthood. I now know it meant more than the vocation of choice. It means how I lead my life, through the vocation of business that eventually led me to Greyston. I never did become a priest but I have become a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. And between that and Greyston, I know I am doing God’s work.
I am not the same individual who arrived at the Bakery some 13 years ago. I met Greyston in 1992 but didn’t begin working there until 1995. In the three years prior to joining Greyston, I had a shifting of values that led me to be psychologically available to work there. I had left the chocolate company to start my own chocolate business. I called on Greyston while operating that business and doing some consulting for others in marketing and sales. I ended up volunteering to bring its cookies to the White House in 1993. Over the next three years, that value shift occurred. By 1995, I joined the then $2.5 million Greyston Bakery as a consultant in the role of Director of Marketing. Then, in early 1997, I was asked to join the Bakery as Director of Operations. Later that year, I was appointed CEO of the Bakery. I added the position of Vice-President of Greyston Foundation in 2000, and eventually Senior Vice President in 2003. I have been fortunate in that my ascent to President and CEO has coincided with the growth of the business and its increased notoriety.
My work today is a combination of business, priesthood, leader, and advocate. I am not easily described. Beyond my work, I am an active husband, father, son, brother, and uncle. My experiences have developed me into someone who wants to contribute my energies, skills, and efforts towards positive, life-changing impact. My personal mission, which I carry with me everyday reads:
Live my life in integrity, daily growing in my spiritual relationship with God; reading, studying, and meditating on His word and endeavoring to do His will.
Love, attend to and be faithful to my wife, Cheryl. Love and attend to my children, Nicole, Julius and Taylor. Love and honor my Mother and Father. Love my siblings, Denise, Monica, Gerard, Todd, and William. Remember Catherine.
Serve my people with the guidance and wisdom of God. Be sensitive to their needs, wants and desires. Help them grow in spirit and understand all that the world offers.
This is my mission in life. I will keep it in my heart. ["For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he." Proverbs 23:7]
My God-given mission has informed my decision to work in the social enterprise world as opposed to the general business world. My God-given mission influences my decisions of what I will do and what I will not do.
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