From growing up in a racially segregated town in Michigan to becoming the first African-American CEO of a majority-owned franchise company, Robert Holland has a lifetime of interesting stories. At 70 years old, he is still on “The Quest for Success.” Holland shared personal accounts of his life journey, with students, faculty and visitors on November 11, at Wake Forest University Schools of Business.
Dean of Business Steve Reinemund welcomed Holland, a personal friend and professional mentor, to campus to meet with students and deliver a presentation for the Leading Out Loud Broyhill Executive Lecture Series.
Holland is corporate director and managing partner of Essex Lake Group, a global consulting firm for Fortune 500 companies. He was the first African-American to be recruited as CEO of a majority-owned franchise company when he accepted the top post at Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream, Inc. He has also served as CEO at WorkPlace Integrators, Rokher-J, Gilreath Manufacturing, Inc., and City Marketing. Earlier in his career, Holland was an associate and partner with McKinsey & Company, Inc.
Rather than talk in depth about his career as an executive, Holland focused on his earlier years. “These are years that you can’t search on Google,” he said. “But, they are a pretty important part of who I am.”
A painful memory in Holland’s life history includes a cross burning in his front yard. He said his father was disturbed because he could not shelter Holland and his siblings from open racism and discrimination. For instance, Holland enjoyed the opportunity to go ice skating on Mondays. Always the entrepreneur, he encouraged the operator to also allow white kids to participate. The rink was “missing out on a business opportunity.” Holland later found out that he was actually the one missing out, because the rink was open for other kids every other day of the week.
“I am not looking for sympathy or a badge for the challenges of my childhood. I share it to provide some context to show, as my parents would say ‘what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger’,” said Holland.
Racial barriers almost kept Holland from fulfilling his dream of going to college. When he told a high school guidance counselor that he wanted to study to become an engineer, the counselor handed over a list of trade schools. Refusing to settle, Holland pursued and received a Congressional recommendation for the Air Force Academy. But that opportunity passed when his high school failed to turn over academic transcripts. In an era long before the Internet, he had to find catalogs to learn about colleges. He got his break when he met a college professor during a track meet.
The professor shared a list of colleges with engineering programs that would accept African American students. “Each application cost $25 and I only had $50, so I applied to the first and last in alphabetical order, and was accepted at Union College in Schenectady, NY.” Holland boarded a bus and headed to college, leaving Michigan for the very first time.
While at Union College, Holland quickly put his entrepreneurial talents to work. He had a job filling soft drink machines on campus, being able to keep a penny for every bottle sold. One day, Holland put a beer inside of a machine to keep it cold until he was done with work. A student ended up “buying it” before he was able to retrieve it from the machine. “The students were giddy when someone put in a quarter in and got a beer out. So, I decided I was going to start ‘peppering’ the soft drink machines with an occasional beer, and needless to say my profits went up,” said Holland.
Holland’s presentation was sprinkled with humor and readings of some of his personal writings. He told the audience, “I brought Ben & Jerry’s, but if you don’t like my poems, you don’t get ice cream.”
One such poem was “Time, Values and Ice Cream,” Holland wrote when he became CEO of Ben & Jerry’s. The ice cream maker launched a “Yo I want to be CEO” contest asking applicants to submit essays on the lid of their favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor. Holland was actually recruited by a corporate search firm, but still he went ahead and wrote a poem reflecting on how times changed because when growing up, his hometown ice cream parlor did not allow African Americans to sit inside.
Holland highlighted the importance of committing random acts of kindness. “Not one of you will achieve success if there is no one interested in helping you. It is very difficult to control who helps you. It is very easy to control who you help.”
During a small group discussion with Master of Arts in Management students, Holland shared the details of a program he founded to reduce drop-out rates and gang activity in Detroit. “The only way to combat gangs is to create one. A gang is basically a group who believes in each other and has an identity.” This new “Make a Difference Gang” looked out for each other through struggles to graduate from high school. Holland worked with local businesses to “employ” the kids, paid them a stipend, and taught them how to invest in the stock market. Of that first “gang” of 46, only two didn’t graduate. One dropped out, another was shot. “A little bit of time and attention can have an enormous impact,” said Holland.
Throughout his career, Holland has traveled extensively and done business around the world. He emphasized the value of recognizing different cultures and paying attention to non-verbal communication. When Jamin Lundy (MBA ’12) asked for the best piece of advice from his global experience, Holland recommended that students learn a dialect of Chinese, so they do not miss out on the many business opportunities in China for Westerners.
Chris Van Roekel (MBA ’11) asked Holland how he defined success in his own life. He responded, “I am still a work in progress…It won’t include a title and it won’t include the name of the company.”
Holland left audience with these final words of wisdom– “If you haven’t helped a stranger in some small way, you have missed out on an opportunity.”