One Final Lesson: Bottom-Line Advice Every Business Person Should Know

It has been nearly seven years since the death of Ebony magazine founder John H. Johnson and nearly three decades since I sat in his thick-carpeted, exquisitely paneled office as he quizzed me on the rudiments of operating a successful business as well as the inner secrets of wealth creation. At his peak Johnson's financial portfolio included publishing, cosmetics, television and radio. In 1982, he was the first African-American to be cited on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Before Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball, before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., marched on Washington, before Motown changed music, America had Ebony. During my interview, Johnson shared that he was in the business of inspiring people, heralding achievements of other African-Americans which mainstream magazines would never publish or simply overlook.

Thirty years ago, I sat in the office of the one individual who would put my abilities to the test. Although Johnson did not create the American media, he drew awareness to the Black consumer market and eventually altered the industry's color and content. Born in poverty in Arkansas, he was the greatest salesman, entrepreneur and Black chief executive of his time. As my interview drew to a close and I began to gather my notes, my mind reverted back to his parting question: "Young man, why aren't you rich?" After nearly one hour, it seemed as if Johnson had waited until the time was ripe, preparing to hear my vague, sheepish answer and subsequently dismiss any excuse that I may offer. To put it bluntly, he would have none of it. Yet he was also quick to point out my inherent advantages and gifts that I had overlooked or failed to consider. "Young man," he began, "with your youth and education, the opportunities that stand before you are beyond computation. There are no secrets to amassing a fortune," he continued:

As this process was taught to me I enjoy sharing these keys with you. And it doesn't take volumes to explain these principles. Never before was there such a demand for the energetic, resourceful man or woman; the individual who knows no limits; who will master his or her circumstances; who will never be satisfied with anything short of perfection; and who will manage his or her own business. Your hour of opportunity is at hand.

Mr. Johnson had made his point. Short of demanding an answer, he waited for my response, and it was only fair. After all, he had given me a portion of his day -- nearly one hour of his most precious resource -- time. Though each of us is blessed with the same twenty-four hours, it is not the hours of the day that concern the wealthy and successful, but how we account for our time that matters most. And within that timeframe, Johnson's thoughts never shifted. As he shook my hand and bid me farewell, this giant of a man found the time to teach me a valuable lesson. He told me to imagine the life I wanted and decide to live it. He urged me to discover my calling, and to make it my vocation and then devote my energy and lifeblood to its attainment. He admonished me to set clear goals As well as a specific timetable for their completion. He warned me to never quit in the pursuit of my goals. Be persistent, he implored. See possibilities where others see problems; and remember, rules are made for those who will follow them. And finally, to live by the infallible rule to whom much is given, much is required. Give back and give thanks. Johnson believed that these seven keys will provide even the least of us with a road map to a life or more wealth, more freedom, and infinite joy and well-being.

As he walked me to his door, he closed by saying:

Never forget, until you are free economically, true independence will always be an afterthought. Today, so many of us can live where we want, eat what we want, sleep where we want, and send our children to the finest schools we so desire. But, for far too many this form of freedom is difficult to express. Why? Because, in most cases, it is a freedom we cannot afford. Unless you are free economically and financially, you will never be free personally.

Due in part to my recently released book, The Wealth Choice, hundreds of Black millionaires indicated -- either through interviews, focus groups or surveys -- that true success and prosperity is an inward transformation of knowledge, belief, effort, discipline and faith. In short, you need not concern yourself with your current state of affairs. Rest assured that circumstances have rarely favored great men or women. A lowly beginning is no bar to a wealthy life. Not indifferent or poor parents; nor inadequate schooling or shoddy teaching, nor want of books or contacts; not questionable backgrounds or calling; not poverty nor ill-health or affliction; not hunger, abandonment or weariness have been able to keep the determined soul from reaching his or her financial objectives.

If wealth and prosperity is what you desire, how will you achieve your goals? Own a business? You may want to study the strategies utilized by Bob Johnson, David Steward and Cathy Hughes -- three of Black America's five billionaires who did what you propose to do on a shoestring. Is writing your passion? I suggest that you lean on the words of best-selling author Terry McMillan. It's important to note that potential publishers trashed her first submission. Oppressed by debt and struggling to make ends meet, she produced her greatest work -- Waiting to Exhale. What about fashion? There's so much to learn by implementing the lessons of Shark Tank investor Daymond John who, for six long years, slept on the floor of his Queens, New York home until the world took notice of his youthful urban designs.

So what's the bottom line? Don't settle for less than you can be. As I discovered during my seven-year study, the wealthy make money while others make excuses.