Jul 30, 2020

Creating pathways to opportunity

Michael Haddix

One of the most frustrating and exciting times in my life happened at the same time. It was my first day at Columbia Business School and it was a whirlwind.

Meeting people from all over, with diverse backgrounds was a great experience. One person was in equity research, another was in growth equity. One had been investing in real estate since high school, some worked in the investment arms of large companies. And another had a father who had been Vice President of the United States.

It had to have been annoying for them when after asking what they did, I made them break down how they got there:

“What was your major?”

“Wait, these schools came to your school and recruited you?”

“They pay what???”

“What’s an exit opportunity?”

(As an aside, an exit opportunity is a more lucrative job that comes to you because you worked at one opportunity -- a stepping stone. I had never heard of it before then.)

The whole experience was shocking and eye-opening. I was learning about a world that I never knew existed and that was motivating. What’s more, this was a new world that I would have access to because I was now a Columbia MBA.

The frustrating part came after a few days. I was a 30 year-old student who realized he was playing catch-up. There were so many career paths that I now wanted to try, but I was later in the game than most. I had to choose.

Let’s take a step back. As most of you who have read my other articles know, I grew up outside of Philly and my father played in the NFL. What you may not know is that I spent my summers in Walnut, Mississippi. Walnut is where my dad is from and it’s a town of 500. I would go hang with my cousins on dirt roads and play sports all day. One of the highlights of these trips was being able to go to the gas station and get three chicken fingers, fries, and a roll for $1.69. It was a different world. I am proud of how far I have come and my life has in turn been driven by a passion to create pathways for others. Life is about opportunities; how do we create more for everyone? Success is about many things, but opportunity is at the top of the list. Here are a few thoughts on how we create more opportunity and help change trajectories.

Never settle
Doing something different is hard. As the first one forging your own path, you do not have many people to lean on. As the first in my family to start a company, questions about the day-to-day many times fell on deaf ears. I did not have a parent or grandparent to tell me how to get business loans or create invoices. As I learned how to do these things, I knew I represented more than myself. I had knowledge to share with my family and friends in the same way that many of my classmates had shared when describing the launch of their careers. You are just as capable as anyone else -- the only difference is that some will settle when things get challenging or when they think they don’t have the answers, while some will take their shot and keep going.

Never assume you shouldn’t be in the room
I have been fortunate to meet a lot of interesting and “powerful” people and be in a lot of board rooms. Initially, there was some intimidation, but I quickly realized that I was more than qualified to be there. If you get into those rooms, it is for a reason. Do not be afraid to speak up, challenge the status quo, and make an impact.

Think big
I had a great call with someone a few months ago. He is pretty successful and counts people like President Obama as his clients. One thing he told me was to think big. You will be as big as you think you should be. If you are raising money, ask for double. If you are starting a business, start an empire, and if you are at a company, assume you can be the CEO one day. We are only limited by our thoughts. The results of thinking big and being confident in those thoughts will surprise you.

There are lots of well-known examples of athletes coming from humble beginnings and achieving success that transcends sport -- and then forging pathways for others. Magic Johnson parlayed his Hall of Fame basketball career into a business empire, employing thousands through his real estate holdings, movie theaters, restaurant franchises and pro sports teams. Chris Paul has directed his philanthropic efforts towards developing young leaders, particularly those from marginalized communities, and has developed a course initiative for HBCUs focused on leadership development. Magic and Chris have both shared the importance of taking risks, asking questions, developing relationships -- and giving back as part of their journey to success.

But you don’t have to be a Hall of Famer (or Future Hall of Famer) to create significant, lasting opportunities for others. My parents started me on my path by supporting my dreams, exposing me to new experiences and teaching me the importance of curiosity, and the pursuit of knowledge. It’s something my wife and I hope to instill in our child, and it’s the goal of my work with young athletes.