(NNPA) - "It's symbolic, actually, because the ability to own does produce job opportunities in leadership roles for other African-Americans."
So says Michael V. Roberts, chairman and CEO of the Roberts Companies and one of the country's most successful African American businessmen. For this unapologetic capitalist, one of the keys to social betterment for African-Americans is for Blacks to become less bashful about their yearning for ownership, and less easily deterred from pursuing it.
Based in St. Louis, the company consists of a multitude of business ventures including hotels (11 hotels in 10 different cities), television stations (one-half of all the Black-owned stations remaining in the U.S. are under the Roberts umbrella) and wireless phone service (including a lucrative and innovative partnership with Sprint PCS).
Strangely, for a man who heads a business organization that consists of more than 76 companies, and who was recently profiled on CNN's Blacks in America 2 television special along with his brother, Roberts is relatively unknown within the African-American community. At first glance, this seems at odds with his apparent willingness to tout his achievements to all who are interested. To hear Roberts tell it, the fact that he's not a household name may be part of a larger phenomenon: the general unwillingness to widen the story of Black America to include hard-charging entrepreneurs like himself.
"If we were in a communist nation, we'd be called communists," Roberts said, "but we live in a capitalist nation, therefore we're capitalists. So if we're capitalists, where's our Black capitalist history? Why aren't we as interested in teaching capitalism through history as we are slavery and civil rights? It's so easy to write about Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, but for some reason it doesn't seem that easy to write about Mike Roberts." "Even though you'll see a ton of articles about me – if you Google me, I'll pop up all over the place," he added with a chuckle.
A lawyer by training, he has given speeches at colleges and universities across the country. He has coined the word "actionnaire," which he defines as "one who takes their dreams, their ideas, their aspiration, their vision, and pursues it with courage and bravado."
The Dallas Examiner (TDE) caught up with Roberts just a few days after the ribbon cutting for the newly renovated Roberts Marriott Courtyard in Dallas, purchased by the Roberts Group in 2006.
The Dallas Examiner: What can you tell us about the new hotel?
Roberts: We're the largest African American hotel group in America. We have 11 hotels, which translates to over 2,000 rooms. Our hotels have restaurants, spa facilities, business centers, etc. This hotel in Dallas may be the only African-American-owned hotel, I'm not sure, but it's certainly the newest and best Marriott in the state. It's totally renovated, with the new prototype layout, if you will. Of our 11 hotels, five are managed by African American women. It's interesting to note that, with all the hotels that exist out here, why is it that very few if any have general managers that are African American, and yet all of ours [do]?
TDE: How did your company get started?
Roberts: We started our company in 1974. We have over 76 companies and over 1,000 employees. According to Black Enterprise, we are one of the 100 largest Black companies in America. My brother Steven and I are equal partners. My dad helped us get started when he retired from the post office after 39 years. He'll be 88 in October and he still comes to the office everyday and helps his boys.
TDE: What do you think entrepreneurs who are not African American would learn from your whole approach to doing business?
Roberts: Everything. The title of my book is Action Has No Season: Strategies and Secrets to Gaining Wealth and Authority. We really are mainstream business people who happen to be African American. But one of the things that we, philosophically, do is [that] we take action. When we see that there's an opportunity, especially in areas that you would normally see very few people, and virtually no Blacks, like owning TV stations, owning hotels, or owning shopping centers or building "green" – we own three city blocks in downtown St. Louis, for example. Give me another city where somebody Black owns that many city blocks in their downtown, including Atlanta.
So, what we've done is that we've taken a very traditional approach to business, but we did it with courage and competence. We didn't sit back and wait for somebody to tell us what we could or could not do. You know how people talk about "thinking outside the box?" Well, we laugh at that because it presumes you're in a box. So we're what you would call "no box" thinkers. Maintaining a diversity in your thinking and in your business can provide you with a path that is fun, unpredictable, but can also create an interesting and abundant life.
TDE: What would you consider to be the main obstacle to a larger number of African Americans doing what you do?
Roberts: One of the first things is the fear of failure. Too frequently, we have brilliant ideas, and we have the resources to do it and then we stop because of this fear of failure. So let's break those words down. First, what is fear? Fear is really just a mental construct. It is not [natural] like grass growing or leaves falling. It is a mental construct that we've allowed ourselves to embrace. So if we can realize that [because] it's not of nature it doesn't exist, we can flush that out of our vocabulary and out of our psyche.
Second word: failure. I don't think there's such thing as that either, because everyday you're given 86,400 seconds, and in every moment you have to enjoy the experience of the moment. Now, there are times when you have endeavors and the outcome isn't as you would like for it to have been. But is that a failure, or is that an experience that you can draw upon in the future? So if we can eliminate the fear of failure, and hopefully [rewrite] it in that way, we can be a lot more proactive and confident in pursuing our ideas.
TDE: But is that really all there is to it? What about more practical obstacles?
Roberts: Of course there's the other business obstacles or questions. What about access to capital? [Or] developing sustainable relationships with banks; having good understandings of business and politics; and creating a balance and understanding that there are roles to play and relationships to be built in order to advance your business. All of these things are part of the process, of course.
TDE: You've already accomplished a great deal. What have you considered as the next frontier for your entrepreneurial ambitions?
Roberts: Well, know this, I'm no longer really an "entrepreneur," I'm a very cold-blooded capitalist [laughs]. "Cold-blooded" in the Rick James sense. I'm deep into building "green," and I'm involved with a team that is trying to perfect a new battery for automobiles … that has a much longer life than the lithium ion battery. I'm casting out with a team to look at how we can save Morris Brown College, which is on life support here, and I'd like to see more Black folks around the country take a look at this.
So my life is full of doing deals, making money, creating jobs and finding time for some philanthropy.