This past May 14-17, I had the privilege of participating in the Black Enterprise Entrepreneur’s Conference 2014 (BEEC 2104) in Columbus, Ohio. This conference, established and operated by Black Enterprise Magazine, is the largest gathering anywhere of African American entrepreneurs and business leaders.
I was at BEEC 2014 to participate in a panel discussion, “From Entrepreneurship to Exit Strategies.” This panel took place on the morning of May 15, the first full day of the conference. The session was a lively and fully subscribed, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with the audience and my fellow panelists, Clarence Wooten and Russell Wright. Immediately following the discussion, I held a book signing for attendees who had purchased Proving Ground: A Memoir.
This was my first time attending the Black Enterprise conference, but I definitely plan to participate in the future. It was heartening to see so many aspiring black entrepreneurs of all ages, and to hear and discuss their products and business strategies. Several of the entrepreneurs I met had investment-worthy ideas, and I found at least one investment opportunity that I intend to follow up on.
The conference was filled with memorable experiences, but for me the most memorable was meeting and then sharing dinner with Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the civil rights and economic empowerment pioneer. Rev. Jackson took the audience on a historical tour of the civil rights movement and the dynamics that led to his historic presidential run. Then he arrived at the topic of the day: the near non-existence of blacks in the management ranks and on the boards of Silicon Valley companies. At BEEC 2014, he was definitely preaching to the choir. Before and during dinner, I acquainted Rev. Jackson with my experience starting and running a tech company in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, and I expressed deep appreciation for the sacrifices he and others made to enable my success.
Another conference high point was the “master class” session with Bishop T.D. Jakes. Bishop Jakes is a highly influential religious leader, master communicator, philanthropist, and business leader. I have to admit, somewhat ashamedly, that I had never closely followed Bishop Jakes, nor had I ever heard him speak at length. He spoke primarily of his experiences in life and business, including the “business side” of his ministry. His comments focused on the role of instinct vs. intellect in our decision making processes. I can’t possibly do the topic justice here, but suffice it to say that I was blown away. I commented to people immediately afterward that every sentence that came from his mouth seemed profound. Bishop Jakes certainly has a gift, one that I am at least beginning to appreciate. I purchased a copy of his book, Instinct, immediately after he spoke, and presented him with a copy of Proving Ground: A Memoir.
Other high points at BEEC 2014 involved distinctly lighter moments. While I was signing books at the conference expo, I looked across the aisle and saw Bern Nadette Stanis, star of the 70’s sitcom Good Times. Like most men my age, I had a deep and enduring 70’s crush on Ms. Stanis, so couldn’t pass on the opportunity to meet and talk with her. Turns out she was at the conference to raise funds for Alzheimer’s disease awareness and treatment. She is the national black spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Association. Bern Nadette is a sweet person, and still quite beautiful. I enjoyed talking with her, and was happy to cross that long-imagined meeting off my bucket list. As I said in an earlier Facebook post, “I can die now.”
Owing to its status as the home of “that team from Ohio,” Columbus never held much appeal for me, a Michigan grad. However, the Black Enterprise conference afforded the opportunity to see much more of the city than I had ever seen before. One of the more impressive spots I visited was Tech Columbus, the technology incubator/accelerator associated with Ohio State University. I gave a “Lunch and Learn” lecture there that dealt with my own entrepreneurship journey, and I of course signed some books. Tech Columbus is an impressive space, and the businesses I encountered there seemed engaged in some high-potential activities. As an aside, technology incubators seem to be springing up everywhere nowadays. It’s going to be interesting (and hopefully gratifying) to see the effect these outfits have on the economy in years to come. Everyone associated with these incubators seems to be considering the same questions: “How effective are we at facilitating high-impact businesses? How can we be more effective?”
All in all, the trip to BEEC 2014 in Columbus was enlightening and invigorating, and I look forward to following up with many of the new contacts I made there.