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Chip Davis: The man behind the Steamroller machine

November 26, 2018 3 comments

 

The man behind the Steamroller machine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of New Horizons

Music is a birthright for Grammy Award-winning American Gramophone and Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis.

The Omaha transplant has built an international following with his music, which has earned some half a billion dollars in retail sales over four decades. Millions more have come from performing multimedia concert dates across the U.S. and the world.

An acknowledged entrepreneurial and branding whiz, he’s leveraged his music’s appeal to partner with Walt Disney Company, NBC, Universal Studios, NASA and the National Parks System.

In terms of fame and riches, only one other Nebraska musician can rival Davis singer-composer Paul Williams, a Grammy and Oscar-winner. But where Williams is a solo act, Davis fronts a multi-dimensional machine under the Mannheim Steamroller name.

Davis maintains a large production-recording-distribution complex in North Omaha. It covers five acres and four buildings, three of which are interconnected. He sponsors two national touring bands performing Steamroller’s popular Christmas catalogue. The tours nearly rival the Nebraska Theatre Caravan’s tours of A Christmas Carol.

Due to a bum arm from neck surgery, Davis no longer tours, though he still makes surprise appearances. His touring musicians travel via luxury buses, but the grueling every night schedule is too strenuous for him.

His private Hawker 900 XP jet gets him wherever he needs to go quickly and in comfort. He keeps a vacation home in Florida.

In December he’ll fly to Orlando to conduct a 60-piece orchestra at Universal Studios playing the music from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The concerts are held in an outdoor bandshell he calls “absolutely beautiful.”

He creates and oversees a branded line of non-music products, including food items that range from a spay-on meat baste to a cinnamon hot chocolate mix.

Breaking the mold

This third-generation musician from small town Ohio is credited with helping give birth to the New Age genre for his signature fusion of classical and rock. Before that though he was hard on the path of becoming a symphony orchestra player. But then a funny thing happened on the way to his dream. He went from the world of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart to the great American Songbook to a rock opera to advertising jingles to winning country music writer of the year to hitting upon his synthesized Steamroller sound of baroque meets easy listening.

It wasn’t the first time someone in his musical family made a detour. His parents made their own break from classical to commercial. His father Louis played saxophone in the Glenn Miller touring band. His mother Betty played trombone in the NBC Symphony and in Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra.

His family’s connections to American popular music run deep. His country doctor grandfather loved the (John Philip) Sousa marches and the lead trombonist in the Sousa band taught Chip’s mother in high school.

His folks. plus an aunt and uncle, studied at the University of Michigan’s prestigious music school. His father taught music, led choirs and built instruments. His  mother also taught music. Davis intended following suit as a teacher and classical performer.

Influences

Reflecting on how much of his own musical predisposition is inherited and how much is a result of environment and exposure, he said, “I think there’s probably a combination of both. I grew up around it. Third generation both sides of my family.  Music was flowing in my veins from the time I was born. In fact, my mother said when I was 6-months old I could hum the melody to ‘Silent Night,’ which is pretty crazy at that age. So I must be just full of music.”

The precocious only child started on piano at 4 with his grandmother as his first teacher. He conducted in front of the family console radio. At 6 he composed a four-part chorale ode to his pet dog, Stormy, who died.

“It broke my heart.”

In addition to being immersed in music and feeling compelled to create it, he said, “I had some of the best teachers you could ever have.” His accomplished father taught music theory-music history and was Chip’s main teacher through high school.

“I had all of that and then I went to the University of Michigan’s famous music school.”

For his primary instrument, Davis chose bassoon though he’s best known as a percussionist. It may surprise some this instrumental icon was a singer through his early 20s.

“I sang in a boys choir when I was about 10-years old in Oregon after our family moved there.”

He was invited to sing with the Vienna Boys Choir.

The family moved back to Ohio, where Davis was in his dad’s high school choir.

At Michigan Davis sang in the glee club and played drums in the marching band. He joined select students performing with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.

His classical tradition focus was so intense he missed the en vogue music of the 1960s.

“I wasn’t sensitive to it at all. I mean, I certainly knew who Diana Ross and the Supremes were because they were right over in Detroit. I had roommates not in music that would go to concerts at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. But it kind of slipped by me. I was so classically oriented that I didn’t really notice what was going on.”

While his friends listened to the latest hits from Motown and British Invasion rock bands, he stuck to classical.

“I listened to WJR Detroit – a big 100,000 watt AM station –  primarily because Karl Haas (later an NPR fixture) had a classical music program on every day and I would listen to that. I actually learned quite a lot from his explanations of different things, of composers and pieces and the way they’re constructed.”

Music kept him so preoccupied he was oblivious to the Vietnam War and civil rights protests on the Michigan campus, which was a hotbed of student activism.

“I didn’t even notice that.”

He did not participate in the counter-culture revolution at Michigan, but the school gave him the foundation for his professional music career.

“I still have a close connection with them,” he said. “When I was first there as a student the university opened a new music building. Now they’ve added a new wing and I’m fortunate enough to have my name on the Chip Davis Technology Studio. It’s full of computers and things we use for composing today.”

He donated about a million dollars to create the tech suite, which serves as a project workshop, research laboratory and multimedia gallery for courses in Sound Recording and Production, Interactive Media Design, Immersive Media and Performance Systems.

Davis finds it ironic that Michigan became a legacy school – “a lot of family ended up there” – when his family’s from Ohio, not Michigan.

Little did he know a youthful fascination with electronics  would be revisited when his music career took off.

“I had this ridiculous notion in high school I was going to go into electrical engineering – until I found how much math it took. Then I was like, Well, I’m pretty good at music, I guess maybe I’ll do that. I built electrical things, including an oscilloscope, from a Heath kit. For a senior science project I used it to analyze music notes. For example, flute is almost all sign waves.”

He could never have imagined how electronics would intersect with his music years later.

“Right, exactly,” he said in his state-of-the-art recording studio where everything’s digitally programmed.

The room’s on its third control board, though it too has grown nearly obsolete in the new digital age, he said.

“We don’t even use it anymore. Everything’s done on Pro Tools” (an Avid Technology digital audio workstation for Microsoft Windows and macOS). Everything’s in the computer as far as controlling levels and all that.”

Exploration

Ever the searcher, Davis loves the freedom technology affords to explore.

“Something astounding you can do today you couldn’t just a few years ago is sample different instruments. I have a new album coming out called ‘Exotic Spaces.’ I wrote pieces about exotic spaces like the Taj Mahal. I had access through Pro Tools to all these Indian instruments. I wrote with those instruments and I did it in the style of Indian music but with my Mannheim spin.

“I wrote another piece about Egyptian pyramids and I found Egyptian instruments, including one called the nay, which is a flute that almost sounds like a bagpipe.”

Perhaps his “farthest out” experiments have involved capturing natural sounds.

“I’m a scuba diver. I’m way into that,” he said. “I have Navy grade hydrophones because I’m interested in capturing sound under the surface of the ocean. On one dive we recorded a whale singing. On this new album ‘Exotic Spaces’ I use the whale song as the basis for a song I wrote the accompaniment around.

“I almost always write in the key of C because you don’t have sharps and flats and all that unless you want to add them. It’s an easy key signature to maneuver around in. Well, that darn whale was singing in the key of C. I had no idea beforehand. but when I put down the whale song track in the mix  I discovered it was singing in the same key I write in.”

His Ambience series records terrestrial sounds.

“I’ve got microphones out in the woods back on my farm. They’re 200 feet apart in a square and record the sounds of nature out there. The sound engineers here come out and run the gear for me.

“I wanted to go further. I used to go to Canyon Ranch (Arizona) quite frequently as a chill-out place. Once, my crew and I home-based there and went out and recorded desert sounds, which are entirely different from Great Plains sounds. Then we went to the west coast and got the sounds of waves.”

On a Northern Minnesota excursion to record loons he and his crew arrived at Black Duck Lake. Listening devices were strategically placed before inclement weather set in. The team holed up in a cabin listening to what the remote devices picked up.

“Out of the blue, we heard a loon. I said, ‘Hey, hit the record button quick.’ We were getting this great loon sound. Then all of a sudden the door to the cabin opens and my son comes in, saying, ‘Did you get that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘That’s a loon whistle i got down at the Sinclair station.'”

Integrating music wit nature adds an ethereal depth of atmosphere and background listeners find soothing.

“I write the music over it. I write the music around the sounds. The sounds take precedence. The amount of music content is maybe only a third out of an hour. It’s not music heavy, it’s nature heavy. We’re hardwired to recognize those sounds.”

The Ambience series is available in four-channel DVDs. Davis sends film crews to capture images of nature that are then married with the nature sounds and music.

“People can play the DVDs in their home theater systems. Within three minutes, you are there. You close your eyes and you’re in the desert, you’re at the ocean. It seems to be real good chill out kind of stuff.”

He’s since applied this nature-music sonic approach to health and healing. His Ambience Medical company creates calming psychoacoustic tracks for use in medical settings. His Ambient Therapy combines specially-recorded sounds of nature with distinctive music content via a patented Ambient Therapy System.

The system is used in post-op treatment rooms at the Mayo Clinic, for example.

He also has a series on seasons.

Nature

This work combining nature with music has intersected with his abiding passion for wildlife conservation. His interest in the natural world, he said, goes back to his childhood, when he “played all the time in the woods.”

His “Yellowstone: The Music of Nature” project raised over $3 million for conservation efforts between the concert tour and album.

“I did ‘True Wilderness’ for Glacier National Park. The head ranger at the time was from my dad’s high school choir. She had grown up in my hometown. One of those quirky things. I did ‘Saving the Wildlife’ in conjunction with Lee Simmons as a fundraiser for the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo’s Species Survival program.”

He recently gave $350,000 to fund an Eagle Mew for the Raptor Woodland Refuge at Fontenelle Forest.

At his 150-acre farm nestled in Ponca Hills north of Omaha, Davis keeps horses and wolves. A buddy built his rustic-chic 10,000 square foot Swiss Chalet-style home there.

From classical to country

The expansive breadth of his musical life may not have blossomed had he not diverged from the classical path. Soon after graduating college he got an opportunity that changed the course of his life and career when he signed to sing with the famed Norman Luboff Choir.

“I met Norman when he came to do a workshop in Toledo. He took new singers on every year. I asked if I could audition and at his invitation I went to his New York apartment to audition. He hired me on the spot.”

Singing tenor with Luboff freed Davis to be more diverse in his own music appreciation and experimentation

“Absolutely. It was the way Norman was. He wrote original compositions but he was a fabulous arranger.

He had songs of the West and songs of the South, and we did those different songs on tour. So I became very familiar with a lot of different styles that my classical      upbringing kept a clamp on. It really opened a floodgate of, Hey, let’s try this.”

Thus, when Davis came to Omaha for an early ’70s workshop, he was ripe for branching off in new directions. While here he met the late noted choral conductor Mel Olson (Master Singers), who informed him Talk of the Town Dinner Theatre needed a music director for a regional production of Hair.

Davis had never seen the musical but was just curious enough about the opportunity to apply. He got the gig.

“They needed somebody to rewrite the arrangements from the Broadway size down to where it could be played by a handful of players. I wasn’t familiar with any of that type of music and I had to learn it and then figure out how to rearrange it. So I did.”

The show proved a smash.

“We did six shows a week. It was supposed to run six weeks and it ran 26.”

Singer-actress Karla DeVito was in that production and Davis became good friends with her. She later performed with national rock acts, on Broadway and in feature films. She’s married to actor Robby Benson.

Omaha began as a waystop for Davis but he found his creative home and career-making work here.

“It completely opened me up. During that time I met the guys at Sound Recorders. They asked me to write jingles for their ad agency clients, On my off days (he was teaching) I started writing jingles. I found out I could make a really good living doing that.”

He became music director at Sound Recorders, where  he met Bozell & Jacobs creative director Bill Fries.

“Bill and I started on the C.W. McCall path and that just took precedence over everything.”

 

“Convoy” Creators Chip Davis and William Fries Roll On To Success

 

Some Steamroller fans are too young to remember, but Davis first made the big-time writing music to a series of Old Home Bread commercials penned by Fries. The folksy campaign was built around a fictional trucker named C.W. McCall, the Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep-on-a-Truckin’ Café and a waitress named Mavis.

“Bill was writing these sagas of C.W. McCall and he was trying to find voice talent to do it the way he heard it in his head and the guys at the studio said, you sound great doing it, just do it yourself. I got involved writing the arrangements and songs .

“The C.W. McCall thing picked up and really took off.

People knew the commercials.”

The spots not only boosted the regional food company’s sales but caught the attention of media, advertising and music executives, especially when the campaign won the ad world’s highest honor – the Clio.

“Then we started writing a lot of original material,” said Davis. “I think we wrote 90 songs altogether.”

Realizing they were onto something big, Davis, Fries and Sound Recorders owner Don Sears formed American Gramophone to capitalize on these country and western musical tales, which they packaged and released as albums and singles.

“When we made the first 45 (record) we got it into all the jukeboxes. We had an ad campaign with a budget of $50. We turned it all into quarters. Everybody at the studio would grab a pocketful of quarters and go punch up the tune on jukeboxes at bars around town so that people could hear it and know that it existed.

“Later, we hired an independent promoter to go out and plug radio. In a very short period of time we sold 350,000 units.”

A subsequent single, “Wolf Creek Pass.'” was a crossover hit – even making Casey Kasem’s nationally syndicated “American Top 40” countdown show..

The second McCall album, “Black Bear Road,” contained a song called “Convoy” with an elaborate CB (Citizens Band) radio narrative. To everyone’s surprise, the single went viral.

“On the album we had ‘Convoy’ buried in the middle, as the seventh cut, because we thought it was too crazy. The DJs found it on their own. The DJs made that work. We didn’t push it at all.”

The success of “Convoy” led to commercial endorsement deals for CB radios, even lawnmowers.

Nashville came calling.

It even led to a 1978 major motion picture, Convoy, that took the song as its title. The legendary but troubled Sam Peckinpah directed the movie for EMI Films. It starred A-listers Kris Kristofferson, Ali McGraw, Burt Young and Ernest Borgnine.

The film shot in New Mexico. At that point in his life Peckinpah was an alcoholic and drug addict. He was nearly fired from the chaotic production and when he submitted a nearly four-hour long cut, the studio did ax him and editor Garth Craven. A new editor, Graeme Clifford, recut the film and drastically shortened it. Davis was then approached to score the film that his song inspired. The studio asked Davis to record a sample track before committing to him.

“They wanted me to record it in L.A. and I said, ‘No, I want to record it in Omaha.’ They were like, ‘All right, go try it.’ I recorded two or three cuts and synched it to film. We knew how to do all that stuff down at Sound Recorders. I took the sample out to L.A. and played it for the suits and they said, ‘You’ve got the job.’ I asked, ‘When do you need it?’ ‘Three weeks.'”

Doing a complete film score in that short of a window pushed Davis to the limit but he loved the challenge.

“It was frame-to-frame scoring. I had to synchronize all the music to the cuts.”

The movie did good box-office, due no doubt in part to its subject coinciding with the CB craze.

 

 

Finding his niche with Mannheim Steamroller

Davis was tempted to try his luck as a freelance film scorer in L.A. but thought better of it.

“It’s right when Mannheim Steamroller was about to start. I thought if I go out to L.A. I’m going to be up against these hot composers like James Horner and John Williams and I just decided that seems pretty competitive and out of my control. But I have a lot more control with my own record label and music back in Omaha, where I have a shot of maybe making   something out of this.”

The money Davis made off McCall funded his 18th century classical rock endeavor. As Davis readied his first Steamroller album, ‘Fresh Aire I,’ he had no idea how it would be received by the masses.

The first inkling he was onto something came from music producer Jimmy Bowen and TV music composer Mike Post, whose engineer John Boyd went to work for Davis.

“I played a couple tracks off of ‘Fresh Aire I’ and they said, ‘That’s what you should be doing. This McCall thing is great, you’ll make a bunch of money on it, your ship’s coming in, but this unique blend of classical and rock is worth exploring.'”

The first market inroad came when Sound Recorders owner Don Sears “got placement for the first ‘Fresh Aire’ album in hi-fi stores,” said Davis. “Then we started going to the Consumer Electronics Show, renting a booth and passing out these albums as demo material.”

Davis and Fries found a formula in McCall that worked in the country category, “but this was a completely different animal,” since no one had ever heard anything quite like ‘Fresh Aire’ before.

“I wanted to call it eclectic because it’s eclectic music. The retailers all thought I said electric,” Davis recalled.

Even Davis wasn’t sure what he had.

“I was so classical that when writing the first ‘Fresh Aire’ album I thought I was writing rock ‘n’ roll. I had no idea it was still sounding like classical music to a lot of people. I didn’t realize what I was doing and that this hybrid mix was coming out as a combination. Just because I put bass and drums with it didn’t make it rock. I kind of forgot I still had harpsichord and string orchestras in it.”

Do it yourself

Being an independent music creator and record producer may have been his greatest stroke of genius.

“The really fortunate thing for me is that the RCAs and industry guys I pitched it too did not take it. If they had taken it and if it didn’t work right away, I would have been dead in the water and never would have recovered. By distributing it ourselves, showing up with a trunk-full of records at Homer’s and other places around town, we got a good jumpstart right here in Omaha. That taught me how to go on with it.”

Besides, “he said, “I had more passion for it I’m sure than they did in New York or Los Angeles because it was my creation. And I had more control.”

He suddenly found himself both a musician and a businessman.

“The music part, I certainly was prepared for, but I had no business training at all. I was really flying seat of the pants trying to figure out how to run a company and how to promote and how to advertise and sell and do distribution and all that.”

What explains the appeal of his music and it selling something like 50 million units to date?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s different and it has a sound of its own.”

Mannheim Steamroller merchandising not only includes food lines but casual clothing, holiday books and personal comfort items like lotions and candles. Davis calls it “connect-the-dots marketing.”

For him, it’s all part of the same creative urge.

“it comes from the same place the music comes from. It’s just another way to do what I do and create. I mean, I love all of it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

His family enjoyed the ride as Steamroller gained momentum and found unexpected mega success.

“When I first started touring with my own band my parents went went me. My dad was part of the crew as the piano tuner. Mom went along, too. They went all over the place with us. They were really proud.”

When Davis needed a harpsichord with a distinct sound, his father built him one.

Fringe benefits

Travels for his music have brought him to Great Britain to record with the London Symphony Orchestra, St. Petersburg, Russia to score the Goodwill Games, the Czech Republic to record with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the namesake of his group’s name, Mannheim, as part of a nine-city tour in Germany.

“I’ve been all over the place/”

He’s recorded with notable guest artists such as popular pop singer Johnny Mathis and he produced an album with the late superstar John Denver. Denver went morel mushroom hunting on Davis’ farm.

Davis’ wide-ranging interests have given him access to NASA space subtle launches. He provided the technology to make hyper-accurate film-sound recordings of Discovery and Atlantis launches. He’s met several astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin.

Mannheim Steamroller has performed at the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree ceremony during the Clinton, George W. Bush and Trump administrations.

“I’m around a lot of cool people and get to see a lot of cool things.”

His celebrity isn’t something he dwells on.

“You don’t think about fame when you are concentrating on composing and producing music and building your own record label-company and planning for the future.”

Davis is grateful his music resonates with so many.

“I couldn’t do this without my fans obviously.”

He’s also wise enough to know he’s often been in the right place at the right time.

“I feel very fortunate I’ve had the retail breaks I’ve had. People gave me a shot with my 1984 Christmas album (the first of many Xmas recordings). With their help, we got it out there. I’m really fortunate to have run across these people and to be given those opportunities.”

 

 

 

Ties that bind

There there’s the artists he’s gathered around him for studio sessions and concerts. He credits concertmaster and violinist Arnie Roth with landing stellar classical musicians.

“We’re talking real big-deal players from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra I could never have gotten to myself. French Horn superstar Dale Clevenger played all my sessions. We had just monster players in the studio. I couldn’t have done it without Arnie.

“And my musicians are just intensely loyal.”

For the Steamroller tours, contract musicians are hired at each stop to join the touring players to create a great big sound machine on stage.

The first violin player Davis hired to play, Steve Shipps, is associate dean at UM’s School of Music and he sits in as lead violinist whenever Steamroller plays in that area.

“It’s like a gigantic family of musicians stationed in different places,” Davis said.

Some of Omaha’s best known musicians have collaborated with Steamroller: Jackson and Almeda Berkey, Joey Gulizia, Ron Cooley, Becky Kia, Chuck Penington.

The music connections are everywhere.

Omaha native Jonathan Swoboda plays keyboards in the Universal Studios orchestra Davis conducts. Swoboda’s father was the attorney who trademarked American Gramophone for Davis.

Davis has had the same business partner and the same agent for decades. He became-remains friends with the head buyer who got his work in Target.

“These relationships have lasted,” he said.

A gift shared

Most of all Davis is grateful for the gift of music and the ability to share it. He feels obligated to.

“This music comes into me from somewhere. I don’t know where. I feel like it comes from above or from God or the ultimate creator. I feel its pouring into me and it just kind of leaks out.

“Sometimes it comes to me in my sleep.”

He may awaken in the middle of the night with an idea and stay up all night to write it. He keeps a voice recorder handy to whistle or hum notes that appear.

The framework for his music is always classically based.

“There are very distinct forms like a Rondo form, a Saraband form. I follow those forms but I plug my own notes into them. It’s a super structure.”

Making a difference with his music is icing on the cake.

“Doing things for people like the Ambience project makes me feel I’m repurposing different things I have  been given a shot at doing. To not take advantage of it would be a sin.”

He’s made sizable donations of CDs to U.S. troops, military hospitals, the VFW and military support groups.

For the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum’s 20th anniversary gala on October 19 he conducted Mannheim Steamroller in concert and led the audience in singing the national anthem.

He’s far more comfortable in the studio than on the stage, where there are no do-overs.

“You’re only as good as your last performance. You can make mistakes out there in front of a bunch of people.”

The gregarious Davis is surprisingly shy.

“The thing that bothers me the most is talking to the audience.”

Doing press is another thing he’d rather not do, though he does a lot of it. He’s employed a high-priced interview coach to help him hone his message.

The family musical line hasn’t stopped with Davis. He said his two daughters are “really good singers.” He wrote an album for his youngest, Elyse. She’s yet to commit to music as a career. “I wish she’d pursue music,” he said. “Maybe she will later. It has to be on her own terms.”

Davis himself is still exploring new ground.

He and Mark Valenti co-wrote a boxed-set audio book, The Wolf and the Warlander, inspired by the friendship between a horse and a wolf who’ve grown up together on Chip’s farm.

The two men wrote the book in the Tiki-style hut Davis keeps in Florida.

“When we got done with the last chapter it was sad – we were having such a good time creating,” Davis said.

He could live and work anywhere but Omaha continues being his permanent home. Why leave where it all happened for him?

“The hand of God put me down here in this town and said, ‘You will create,” he said, laughing. Seriously, he added, “I wouldn’t want to be in any other place. There’s a lot of freedom here. A lot of memories.”

Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller will perform Christmas concerts at the Orpheum Theater on December 22 and 23.

Visit http://www.mannheimsteamroller.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again


Cathy Hughes proves you can come home again

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2018 issue of New Horizons

 

Nebraskans take pride in high achieving native sons and daughters, Some doers don’t live to see their accomplishments burnished in halls of history or celebrated by admirers. This past spring, however, Cathy Hughes, 71, personally accepted recognition in the place where her twin passions for communication and activism began, North Omaha.

The mogul’s media holdings include the Radio One and TV One networks.

During a May 16-19 homecoming filled with warm appreciation and sweet nostalgia, Urban One chair Hughes reunited with life-shaping persons and haunts. An entourage of friends and family accompanied Hughes, who lives in the Washington D.C. area where her billion dollar business empire’s based. Her son and business partner Alfred Liggins Jr., who was born in Omaha, basked in the heartfelt welcome.

Being back always stirs deep feelings.

“Every time I come I feel renewed,” Hughes said. “I feel the love, the kindred spirit I shared with classmates, friends, neighbors. I always leave feeling recharged.”

With part of Paxton Boulevard renamed after her, a day in her honor officially proclaimed in her hometown and the Omaha Press Club making her a Face on the Barroom Floor, this visit was extra special.

“It was so emotionally charged for me. It’s like hometown approval.”

During the street dedication ceremony at Fontenelle Park, surrounded by a who’s-who of North O, Hughes said, “I cannot put into words how important this is to me. This is the memory I will take to my grave. This is the day that will stand out. When you come home to your own and they say to you job well done, there’s nothing better than that.”

 

Cathy Hughes Headshot 1B - 2017.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Cathy Hughes

 

Cathy Hughes’ mother, Helen Jones Woods with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, circa 1940

 

Welcoming home an icon

Good-natured ribbing flowed at the park and at the Press Club, where she was roasted.

The irony of the Press Club honor is that when Hughes was young blacks were unwelcome there except as waiters, bartenders and kitchen help. The idea of a street honoring a person of color then was unthinkable.

“This community has progressed,” Hughes told an overflow Empowerment Network audience at the downtown Hilton. “An empowerment conference with this many people never could have taken place in my childhood in Omaha. This is impressive.”

Empowerment Network founder-president Willie Barney introduced her by saying, “She is a pioneer. She is one of the best entrepreneurs in the world. She is a legend.”

Nebraska Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers helped organize the weekend tribute for the legend.

“I think Cathy Hughes is the baddest girl on the planet,” Rodgers said. “She’s historical coming from Omaha all the way up to be this giant radio and TV mega producer and second richest black lady in the country. It’s just fantastic she’s a product of this black community. I want to make sure all the kids in our community realize they can be what Cathy’s done. Anything’s possible.

“I want hers to be a household name.”

Some felt the hometown honors long overdue. Everyone agreed they were well-deserved.

A promising start

People who grew up with her weren’t surprised when she left Omaha in 1972 as a single mother and realized her childhood dream of finding success in radio.

She had it all growing up – sharp intellect, good looks,  gift for gab, disarming charm, burning ambition and aspirational parents. Her precocious ways made her popular and attracted suitors.

“She’s very personable,” lifelong friend Theresa Glass  said. “She’s been a gifted communicator all the time. My grandmother Ora Glass was her godmother and she always believed Cathy was destined for great things.”

Radio veteran Edward L. “Buddy” King said, “She had this thing about her. Everybody projected she would be doing something real good. She knew how to carry herself. Cathy’s a beautiful woman. She’s smart, too.”

Glass recalled, “Cathy was always an excellent student. She’s always used her intellect in various pursuits. She was always out in the working world. Cathy used all the education and skills she learned and then she built on those things. So when she went to D.C, she was prepared to work hard and to do something out of the ordinary for women and for African Americans to do.”

 

Members of the De Porres Club in 1948

 

Cathy’s parents were pioneers themselves.

Her mother Helen Jones Woods, 94, played trombone in the all-girl, mixed-race swing band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Helen’s adoptive father, Laurence C. Jones. founded the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which Helen attended. Cathy and her family lived in Jim Crow Mississippi for two years. She’s a major supporter of the school today.

Cathy’s late father, William A. Woods, was the first black accounting graduate at Creighton University. He and Cathy’s mother were active in the Omaha civil rights group the De Porres Club, whose staunchest supporter was Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown.

“Very young, I marched,” recalled Cathy Hughes, who’s the oldest of four siblings. “I was maybe 6-years old when we picketed the street car (company) trying to get black drivers. I remember vividly being slapped on the back of my head by my mother to ‘hold the sign up straight.’ I remember demonstrating but most importantly I heard truth being spoken.”

“Cathy’s parents were community-oriented people,” King said. “They cared about their community. They were  well-to-do in their circles. Cathy grew up in that but she never lost her street savvy.”

While attending private schools (she integrated Duschene Academy), she said, “The nuns would send notes home to my mother saying I had delusions of grandeur, I talked all the time, and I was very opinionated. I bragged I would be the first black woman to have a nationally syndicated program.

“I was good and grown before I found out that had already been accomplished.”

Her penchant for speaking her mind stood her apart.

“When I was growing up black folks didn’t verbalize  their feelings and particularly children didn’t.”

Mildred Brown gave her father an office at the Star. Cathy did his books and sold classified ads for the paper. Her father also waited tables at the Omaha Club and on the Union Pacific passenger rail service between Omaha and Idaho. She sometimes rode the train with her father on those Omaha to Pocatello runs.

 

 Taken under wing

She found mentors in black media professionals Brown and Star reporter-columnist, Charlie Washington. The community-based advocacy practiced by the paper and by radio station KOWH, where she later worked, became her trademark.

“We had a militancy existing in Omaha and when you’re a child growing up in that you just assume you’re supposed to try to make life better for your people because that’s what was engrained in us. We didn’t have to wait to February for black history. We were told of great black accomplishments on a regular basis at church, in school, in social gatherings. Black folks in Omaha have a nationalist pride.

“I was imbued with community service and activism. I don’t know any different. My mother on Sunday would go to the orphanage and bring back children home for dinner. We were living in the Logan Fontenelle projects and one chicken was already serving six and she would bring two or three other kids and so that meant we got a piece of a wing because Daddy always got the breast.”

During her May visit she recalled the tight-knit “village” of North Omaha where “everybody knew everybody.”

In the spirit of “always doing something to improve your community and family,” she participated in NAACP Youth Council demonstrations to integrate the Peony Park swimming pool.

“Because we were disciplined and strategic, there was a calm and deliberate delivery of demands on our part. I don’t know if it was youth naivete or pure unadulterated optimism, but we didn’t think we would fail.”

Peony Park gave into the pressure.

Opposing injustice, she said, “instilled in me a certain level of fearlessness, purpose and accomplishment I carried with me for the rest of my life.”

“It taught me the lesson that there’s power in unity.”

Her passion once nearly sparked an international incident on a University of Nebraska at Omaha Black Studies tour to Africa.

“The first day we arrived in Addis Ababa, Eithiopia, the students at Haile Selassie University #1 were staging demonstrations that ultimately led to the dethroning of emperor Haile Selassie. Well, we almost got put out of the country because when I heard there was a demonstration I left the hotel and ran over to join the picket line with the Eithiopian students. My traveling companions were like, ‘No, you cant do that in a foreign country, they’re going to deport us.’ Hey, I never saw a demonstration I didn’t feel like i should be a part of.”

 

Charles b washington.jpg

Charlie Washington

 

The influence of her mentors went wherever she went.

“Mildred Brown unapologetically published Charlie Washington’s rants, exposes, accusations, evidence. She didn’t censor or edit him. If Charlie felt the mayor wasn’t doing a good job, that’s what you read in the Omaha Star. It took the mute button off of the voice of the black community. It promoted progress. It also provided information and jobs. It’s always been a vehicle for advocacy, inspiration and motivation.

“That probably was the greatest lesson I could have witnessed because one of the reasons some folks don’t speak out in the African-American community is they’re afraid of being financially penalized or losing their job, so they just remain silent. Mildred and Charlie did not remain silent and she was still financially successful.”

Both figures became extended family to her.

“Charlie Washington became like my godfather. He was the rabble rouser of my youth. He had the power of the pen. Charlie and the Omaha Star actually showed me the true power of the communications industry. I saw with Charlie you can tell the truth about the needs and the desires of your community without being penalized” even though he wrote “probably some of the most militant articles in the United States.”

“That’s the environment I grew up in. So the combination of Charlie always writing the truth and Mildred being able to keep a newspaper in Omaha solvent were both sides of my personality – the commitment side and the entrepreneurial side.”

Today, Hughes inspires young black communicators with her own journey of perseverance and imagination in pushing past barriers and redefining expectations.

 

No turning back

As an aspiring media professional. Hughes most admired Mildred Brown’s “dogged determination.”

“When somebody told Mildred no, they weren’t going to take an ad, she saw it as an opportunity to change their mind, she never saw it as a rejection. She didn’t take no seriously. No to her meant. Oh, they must not have enough information to come to the right conclusion because no is not the right conclusion.

“Nothing stopped Mildred.”

Nothing stopped Hughes either.

“When I was 17 I became a parent. I realized I was on the brink of becoming a black statistic. My son Alfred was the motivation for me to think past myself. It was the defining moment in my life direction because for the first time I had a priority I could not fail. I was like, We’ll be okay, I’m not going to disappoint you, don’t worry about it. It was Alfred who actually kept me going.”

Her first ever radio job was at Omaha’s then black format station, KOWH.

“KOWH fed into my fasciation with having a voice. I think it is truly a blessing to have your voice amplified. I wasn’t even thinking about being an entrepreneur then. I was thinking about being able to express. I wasn’t at an age yet where had come into who I was destined to be.”

She left for D.C. to lecture at Howard University at the invite of noted broadcaster Tony Brown, whom she met in Omaha. It’s then-fledgling commercial radio station, WHUR, made her the city’s first woman general manager.

Leaving home took guts. Staying in D.C. with no family or friends, sleeping on the floor of the radio station and resisting her mother’s long-distance pleas to come back or get a secure government job, showed her resolve.

“Omaha provided me a safe haven. Once in D.C., I had to rely on and call forth everything I had learned in Omaha just to survive and move forward. If I had not left, I probably would not have become a successful entrepreneur because I had a certain comfort level in Omaha. I was the apple of several individuals’ eyes. They saw potential in me, but I think their love and support would not have pushed me forward the way I had to push myself once I moved into a foreign land.”

She feels Nebraska’s extreme weather toughened her.

“It builds a certain strength in you that you may or may not find in other cities.”

If sweltering heat, high winds and subzero cold couldn’t deter her, neither could man-man challenges.

“You learn that determination that you can’t let anything turn you around. When I went to D.C. and realized there weren’t people of color doing what I wanted to do, I just kept my eye on the prize. I refused to let anyone turn me around. When you learn to persevere in all types of elements, then business is really a lot easier for you.”

 

Mildred Brown

 

Brown was her example of activist entrepreneur.

“The Star was to Omaha what Jet and Ebony were to the black community nationwide. It’s why I have this media conglomerate. When you’re 10 years old and you’re looking up to this bigger-than-life woman, she was a media mogul in my mind. She had a good looking man and wardrobe and all the trappings.”

Just as Hughes would later help causes in D.C., Brown, she said, “was kind of a one-woman social agency before social agencies became in vogue.”

“She helped a lot of people. My father graduated from college and didn’t have a place to open an office and she opened her lobby for him. He was just one of many. Charlie Washington had a very troubled background and yet because of her he rose to being respected as one of the great journalists of his time in Omaha. Dignitaries would come and sit on Charlie’s stoop and talk to him about what was going on. He was considered iconic because of Mildred Brown.

“She put students through school and raised hell to keep them there. When my mother was short my Duschene tuition, Mildred told them, ‘You’re going to get your money, but don’t be threatening to put her out.’ She literally walked the walk as well as talked the talk. She didn’t tell folks what they needed to do, she helped them do it. She continued to inspire and advise and mold me.”

Full circle

Howard’s School of Communications is named after Hughes, who never graduated college. Decades after first lecturing there, she’s a lecturer there again today.

“They say I am their most successful graduate who never matriculated. I wasn’t prepared to be the first woman general manager of a radio station in the nation’s capital. That’s why Howard sent me to Harvard to take a six-week course in broadcast management and to the University of Chicago to learn psychographic programming. I went to various seminars and training sessions. Howard literally groomed me. They were proud of the fact I was the first woman in the position they had placed me in “

Hughes readily admits she hasn’t done it by herself.

“I have been blessed by the individuals placed in my life. They sharpened me, prepared me, educated me, schooled me, nurtured me, mentored me. I have been blessed so many times to be in the right place at the right time and with the right people.”

She grew ad revenues and listeners at WHUR. A program she created, “The Quiet Storm,” popularized the urban format nationally. With ex-husband Dewey Hughes she worked wonders at WOL in D.C. After their split, she built Radio One.

Upon arriving in D.C., Hughes found an unlikely ally in Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. She met Graham through Susan Thompson Buffett, the wife of investor Warren Bufffett, and part owner of the paper.

“Susie was staying at the Grahams’ house. At that time Susie was a singer with professional entertainment aspirations and I was her manager. Katharine Graham took an interest in me and because she had this interest in me other people, including the folks at Howard University, embraced me.”

Networking

Hughes parlayed connections to advance herself.

“Part of my innate abilities since childhood has been to recognize an opportunity and take full advantage of it.”

Her first allegiance was to listeners though. Thus, she lambasted Graham’s Post for unfair portrayals of blacks, even encouraging listeners to burn copies of the paper.

Hughes has succeeded in a male-dominated industry.

“I never thought about being a woman in a male field. First of all. I was black. I’ve never put woman first. I was black first and a woman second. I had a goal I wanted to achieve, an objective that had to be accomplished. I didn’t see it as proving something to the old boys network. I was not intimidated by being the only female.

“I was naive. I really thought there would be a whole proliferation of black women owning and managing radio stations. Women have made more progress in professional basketball – they own and coach teams – than they have in the broadcasting industry.”

Men have played a vital role in her business success.

The two black partners in Syndicated Communications,  Herbert Wilkins and Terry Jones, loaned her her first million dollars to build Radio One. Wilkins has passed but Jones and his wife Marcella remain close friends.

When things were tough early on, it was Jones who instructed a downcast Hughes to change her mindset.

“He said to me when people ask you how are you doing they can’t be hearing you complaining or saying I don’t know. You’ve got to say it was a great day because the first person that hears the lie is you. Tell yourself your business is doing good. Tell yourself you’re going to make it. Everyone’s going to start agreeing with you. He told me to change my terminology, which changed my thinking, and guess what, one day it was no longer a lie, it became my truth,” she shared in Omaha.

Friends and family true

Theresa Glass said success has not changed Hughes, who looks keeping it real.

“She’s the kind of friend who’s always your friend and we always can start off where we last left off. I never have to do a whole bunch of catch up with her. We immediately go into friend mode and are able to talk to one another. A lot of times you’ve been away from somebody for a long time or your lives have really shifted and they’re not even close to being the same, and you feel awkward, and that’s not happened for us.”

Hughes acknowledges her success is not hers alone. “I didn’t do it on my own. Right time, right place, right people.” She leans on staff she calls “family.” She believes in the power of prayer she practices daily. She credits her son’s immeasurable contributions.

“Radio One was me. TV One was totally Alfred. He decided he wanted his own path. Our expansion, our going public, all of that, was in fact Alfred. He does the heavy lifting and I get to take all the bows.”

Not every mother-son could make it work.

“Alfred and I had to go to counseling, alright, because one of us was going to die during those early years. It was not happy times – and it was basically my refusal (to relinquish control),” she said at the Hilton.

Alfred Liggins acknowledges their business partnership ultimately worked.

“It was my mother’s willingness to want to see me succeed as a human being and as a business person and unselfish ability to share her journey with me. When it came time to let me fly the plane, she was more than willing to do that.”

He recognizes how special her story is.

“I could always recognize and appreciate her drive, tenacity and lessons. We didn’t let any of the mother-son-family potential squabbles disintegrate that partnership, so I guess we’ve always been a team since the day I was born.”

Challenges and opportunities 

“Buddy” King. who’s had his own success in satellite radio, is happy to share a KOWH tie with Hughes.

“I’ve always admired Cathy. We KOWH alums are all proud of her success because her success shines light on what we did in Omaha.”

King further admires Radio One continuing to thrive in an increasingly unstable broadcast environment.

“iHeart media and Cumulus, two of the largest broadcast owners in the country, are both in bankruptcy, but Cathy is still chugging along. Her son has done an excellent job since making it a publicly-traded company. As the stock market fluctuates, they’ve able to survive.”

Diversification into online services and, more recently, the gaming industry, has kept Urban One fluid.

The changing landscape extends to Me Too movement solidarity around survivors of sexual harassment in the entertainment field.

“Was I subjected to it? Yes, absolutely,” Hughes said, “and I’m so glad women are stepping forward. Now we have a voice. The reality is we need more than a voice, we need to have action. Just talking about it doesn’t change it. I mean, how long have black folks talked about disparity and a whole host of things.

“It’s great that women are speaking out but we have to put pressure on individuals and on systems. Wherever we can find an opening. we must apply pressure to change it. Let’s start with education.”

She despairs over what she perceives as the dismantling of public education and how it may further erode stagnant income of blacks and the lack of inherited wealth among black families. She shared how “disturbed” she was by how Omaha’s North 24th Street has declined from the Street of Dreams she once knew.

 

 

Street Dedication for Cathy Hughes

Mrs. Marcella Jones, Alfred Liggins, III and his mother Cathy Hughes

 

 

Black media

Voices like hers can often only be found in black media.

“Black radio is still the voice of the community. Next to the black church, black-owned media is the most important institution in our community,” she said.

She embraces technology opening avenues and fostering change, but not at the expense of truth.

“I pray that truth prevails in all of these advancements we’re making. I see a world of opportunity opening, particularly for young people. I’m so impressed with this young generation behind the millennials. These kids are awesome because they’re not interested in just celebrity status. They’re interested in real change and I think the technology will be a definite part of that and I think with it comes a different level of responsibility for media than we’ve had in the past.

“Information is power. Mildred Brown understood that and it wasn’t just about a business for her – it was about a community service.”

Hughes credits an unlikely source with unifying African-Americans today.

“President Trump has single-handedly reignited activism, particularly in the black community. That did not occur in the Clinton administration, nor the Obama administration. But Trump has got people riled up, which is good. He has made people so mad that people are willing to do things, voice their opinion, and that’s why black radio is so important. You are able to say and hear things that you couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The Omaha Star is in its eighth decade. Hughes maintains its survival is “absolutely critical – because again it’s the voice of the people,” adding, “It’s our story from our perspective.” She still reads every issue. “It’s how I know what’s going on. The first thing I do is read Ernie Chambers’ editorial comments.”

Hughes is adamant blacks must retain control over their own message.

“You cannot ever depend on a culture that enslaved you to accurately portray you. That just cannot happen. I think too often African Americans have looked to mainstream media to tell our story. Well, all stories go through a filter process based on the news deliverer’s experience and perception and so often our representation has not been accurate.

“The reality is we have to be responsible for the dissemination of our own information because that’s the only time we can be reasonably assured it’s going to be from the right perspective, that it’s going to be from the right experience, and for the right reasons.”

Yet, she feels blacks do not support black media or other black business segments as much as they should.

A challenge she addressed in Omaha is black media not getting full value from advertisers.

“My son and I are not going for that. We want full value for our black audience and we insist on that with advertisers. I learned that from Mildred Brown. She did not allow y’alll to be discounted because it was a black weekly newspaper. She wanted the black readership of the Omaha Star to have the same value as a white readership to the Omaha World-Herald.

“I learned at the Omaha Star you don’t take a discount for being black.”

 

 

Still learning 

Six decades into her media career and Hughes said, “I’m still learning. I’m not totally prepared for some of the responsibilities and charges I’m being blessed with now. Like I’m just learning how to produce a movie (her debut project, Media, premiered on TV One in 2017). I want to learn how to direct a movie. I want to learn how to do a series. Thank God we went into cable, which has given me an opportunity to learn the visual side.”

She’s searching for a new project to produce or direct.

“I’m reading everything I can get my hands on. I am just so thankful to the individuals in my life who have loved and nurtured me that I keep acquiring new skill sets at this age. I’m still growing and learning. which is kind of my hobby.”

Hughes is often approached about a documentary or book on her life. If there’s to be a book, she said, “I don’t want someone else interpreting who I am. I don’t want someone else telling my story from their perspective. I want to tell my own story.”

 

 

 

 

Lasting impact and legacy

Her staff is digitally archiving her career. There’s a lot to capture, including her Omaha story.

“I thank Omaha. Nothing’s better than making your mark in your hometown.”

Getting all those accolades back here is not her style.

“In Omaha, we just don’t get carried away with a whole bunch of fanfare and hero-worshiping. Again, it’s how I grew up. That’s our way of life in Omaha and I thank God for that because it’s made a big difference. It’s a whole different mentality and way of life quite frankly.”

Omaha’s impact on her is incalculable.

“It touched me probably a lot more deeply and seriously than I realized for many decades. When you’re trying to build your business you don’t have a lot of time to reflect on how did I get here and the people who influenced me. I went through a couple decades working on my career and my personal and professional growth and development before I realized the impact the Omaha Star had had on me and what a positive influence Omaha has been on me.”

“Buddy” King said he always knew if from afar.

“Even when she was a young single parent, Cathy was a fighter. It all to me comes back to her Omaha roots.”

Though Alfred Liggins and his mom have been back several times, with this 2018 visit, he said, “you feel like you finally made it and made good and you’re making you’re community proud.”

“It’s about meaning and legacy. That’s why this is hugely different. It really is the culmination of a journey I’ve shared with my mother trying to elevate ourselves and in the process elevating the community from which we came. I’m proud to have been part of what my mother embarked on and I feel like I am being recognized alongside her.

“And it is a deserving honor for her. She’s got guts, grit and she still has a ton of energy. She always gives me lots of praise and lots of love – until I do something she doesn’t like. But it has kept me on the up-and-up and to have my nose to the grindstone.”

At the close of her Empowerment Network talk, Hughes articulated why coming back to acclaim meant so much.

“I think Omaha teaches you to best your best and practices tough love. If you have the nerve to leave here and go someplace else, you better hope you do good because if you come home, you don’t want to hear (about returning a failure). But it’s really love telling you, You should have done better, you should have been more persistent.

“That whole village concept sometimes is not comfortable but it’s so productive because it pushes you to best your best. It teaches you that when you come home one day … they may hang a sign and name a boulevard in your honor.”

As she told a reporter earlier, “My picture’s on the floor of the Press Club, okay  It don’t get no better than that.”

Visit https://urban1.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Coming home is sweet for media giant Cathy Hughes



 

Coming home is sweet for media giant Cathy Hughes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the June 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Sweet nostalgia flowed when Omaha native media titan Cathy Hughes got feted in her hometown May 17-19. It marked the first time many Nebraskans heard of Hughes, even though this head of national networks cites her Midwest upbringing for the resilience behind her barrier-breaking entrepreneurial success.

After the hoopla around her coming back, she owns the state’s undivided attention.

The Omaha African-American community that produced Hughes has long followed her achievements. Her multimedia Urban One Inc., whose brands include Radio One and TV One, are black-centric platforms. Despite a media footprint rivaling Oprah and a personal net worth of half a billion dollars, her black market niche didn’t register with the general public. Until last month. Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Rodgers marshaled coverage for street renaming, Empowerment Network and Omaha Press Club recognitions.

Surrounded by friends, family and local black leaders, Hughes, the 71-year-old Urban One chair, and her son and business partner, CEO Alfred Liggins Jr., 53, basked in the glow of defining legacies. Liggins said admiringly of her: “She’s got guts, grit and she still has a ton of energy. She’s well-deserving of these honors.”

She recently produced her first movie, Media, for TV One.

Rodgers is among history-makers whose paths she’s intersected. She appreciates him making her mogul ascent more widely known so as to inspire others.

“Johnny told me, ‘I’m doing this for the black kids that need to know you exist – that you grew up in the projects in Omaha (to become the first black woman chair of a publicly traded company).’ Johnny added, ‘I’m also doing it for the white folks who don’t realize that in a whole different arena and way you’re our Warren Buffett.’ That kind of caused me to choke up.”

She came up in Logan-Fontenelle public housing when northeast Omaha truly was “a village.” Her accountant father and International Sweethearts of Rhythm musician mother were civil rights warriors (the De Porres Club). The former Cathy Woods attended Catholic schools. She demonstrated for equal rights. The bright Central High student was “the apple of many influential eyes.” When she became a teen single mom, she didn’t let that status or reality define her, but drive her.

Neither did she keep her radio fame ambitions to herself.

“Ever since I’ve been born, I’ve been running my mouth. I remember once almost getting suspended because I challenged a nun. She said, ‘You have a big mouth,’ and I said, ‘One day I’m going to make a lot of money off of my big mouth.’ I knew as a child I was a communicator. As I grew in my knowledge and awareness of my African history and legacy, I realized I was from the giro tradition of maintaining folklore and history in story form. I just innately had that ability.”

In 1972 she left for Washington D.C. to lecture at Howard University at the invite of noted broadcaster Tony Brown, whom she met in Omaha. It’s then-fledgling commercial radio station, WHUR, made her the city’s first woman general manager. She grew ad revenues and listeners. A program she created, “Quiet Storm,” popularized the urban format nationally. With ex-husband Dewey Hughes she worked wonders at WOL in D.C. After their split, she built Radio One.

“Omaha provided a safe haven, but once in Washington D.C. I had to rely on and call forth everything I had learned in Omaha in order just to survive and move forward. Folks in D.C. were like, ‘Oh yeah, another small town hick girl come to town to try to make a way for herself.’ It was an entirely different environment.”

Remarkable connections opened doors.

“I was prepared to recognize an opportunity and take full advantage of it. Howard University (whose School of Communication is named after her) literally groomed me. They were proud of the fact I was the first woman in the position they placed me in and they kept going with me because Katharine Graham (the late Washington Post publisher) was enthusiastic about me.”

She met Graham through the late Susan Thompson Buffett, the first wife of billionaire investor and then-major Post shareholder Warren Buffett.

“Susie was staying at her house. At that time Susie was a singer with professional entertainment aspirations and I was her manager.”

Hughes already knew Buffett from their shared social activism in Omaha.

“Katharine Graham took an interest in me. Because of her interest in me other people, including the folks at Howard University, embraced me. They saw potential in me. They paid for me to get training at Harvard University and the University of Chicago.”

The late publishing magnate John H. Johnson (Ebony, Jet magazines) became a friend, mentor and adviser.

She first got schooled in community-based black media by Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and columnist Charlie Washington. Her keen social consciousness got sharpened by Ernie Chambers, Rodney Wead and Al Goodwin. Thus, her guiding credo: “I’m unapologetically in the black people business.”

“In Omaha, we had black pride and black love and a militancy that was very unique. When you’re a child growing up in that you just assume you’re supposed to try to make life better for your people. That’s what was engrained in us. We didn’t have to wait to February for black history. We were told of great black accomplishments at church, in school, in social gatherings. I thank Omaha for instilling that in me.

“The combination of Charlie (Washington) always writing the truth and Mildred (Brown) keeping a newspaper solvent were both sides of my personality – the commitment side and the entrepreneurial side. Charlie taught me how to be proud of my blackness and Mildred taught me how not to compromise my blackness.”

Working at KOWH. the metro’s first black radio station, affirmed for her blacks could realize their media dreams.

Fulfilling her dreams necessitated leaving home.

“If I had not left Omaha I probably would not have become a successful entrepreneur because I had a certain comfort level here.”

Her career’s based on the proposition black media is the unfiltered voice of a people.

“It is impossible for a culture that enslaved you to accurately portray you. Our people are still under oppression and denied opportunities. We don’t need anybody to give us anything, just get the hell out of our way. All we want is self-determination.”

She advocates black consumers collectively focus their purchasing power in support of black businesses, thus creating greater opportunities for economic growth and job creation within black communities.

Her visit home sparked bittersweet nostalgia.

“Driving down North 24th Street was so disturbing to me,” she said of sparse business activity along this former Street of Dreams now undergoing revival efforts.

Fittingly for someone whose amplified voice reaches millions, the North Omaha Legends Award she received celebrates her work “”to empower individuals and communities through the power of information.”

She thanked those “who removed obstacles out of my path so I could be who God destined me to be” and  “Omaha’s tough love” for pushing her to excel.

“I haven’t done it on my own. Right time, right place, right people. Sometimes prepared, sometimes not. But the combination of it propelled me forward.”

She rejects the idea her recognition here was overdue.

“Everything in its proper time. I don’t think I’ve been overlooked or anything. Nothing’s better than your hometown saying job well done.”

Meanwhile, when she gets asked, “Are there black people in Omaha?” she’ll continue bragging on its notable black sons and daughters:

Bob Gibson

Malcolm X

Buddy Miles

Marlin Briscoe

John Beasley

Gabrielle Union

Monty Ross

Yolonda Ross

Kevyn Morrow

Q. Smith

“I want to help put Omaha in the right light. I am unapologetically Omaha until the day I die.”

Visit https://urban1.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at https://leoadambiga.com.

 

 

The Reader asked some African-American native Omaha media professionals what they find inspiring about Cathy Hughes:

ANGEL MARTIN

Freelance journalist

“Just to see where she started from in her career with a small studio in D.C. to large media owner. She was determined to never give up no matter what challenges she had to face. Very inspiring for a freelance journalist and radio host-producer at Mind and Soul/Malcolm X Radio like me. She also comes from very humble beginnings right in the Omaha metro. A very positive example of what can happen when you keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak.

“With her being a double minority -– this is a great example of how one should not only play with the ‘good ol’ boys’ but rather change the rules and win. When you think of radio and media ownership, Oprah’s name comes to mind and when you do your research you’ll soon realize Ms. Hughes is right up there, in fact she’s the number two based on her net worth.”

_ _ _

MONIQUE FARMER

Omaha Public Schools communications director

“Her accomplishments are truly inspirational, particularly for African-American women in the fields of journalism, communication, entertainment and entrepreneurship. She’s been breaking glass ceilings for decades and she continues to prove that some barriers are merely mental. She’s also proven that hard work, drive, discipline and possessing the boldness necessary to reach for one’s goals can account for so much. She makes us native Omahans all proud to be from the city we call home.”

_ _ _

WILLIAM KING

Founder, 1690-AM The One and 95.7-FM The Boss

“It’s inspiring because I’m currently walking in her footsteps with the creation of radio stations. I’m following every lesson from the matriarch of radio and TV.

“She’s an example that greatness come from the North Omaha community. It gives one the belief that if she can do it so can I. It’s motivation that drives you to succeed.

I recently talked to her and our conversation focused on both of us telling our stories on how we struggled and sacrificed to build our radio stations.”

_ _ _

MICHELLE TROXCLAIR

Mind and Soul radio host

“A black woman having achieved the success she has is an inspiration and motivator to all black women. Her accomplishments have transcended the barriers of race and gender. She has laid an important path.”

_ _ _

CARINA GLOVER

Founder, Ace Empire Media

“Cathy Hughes has raised the bar in the media industry and is inspirational as a black woman, professional,and business woman. As a young woman from Omaha on the path to building my own empire in media and tech, Cathy Hughes is a major inspiration. On a national scale, there’s a false perception that the roots of successful media companies generate from the west and wast coasts. Cathy demonstrates the barriers that can broken and how there’s no limit to success, despite where you began your journey.”

_ _ _

CHANELLE ELAINE

New York-based film producer (First Match

“What i find inspiring is Ms. Hughes’ willingness to take chances, to go against expectations and push forward by her own definition of what a young African-American woman can do. She refuses to be put in a box by gender, color or origin, giving us all equity in the landscape of opportunity.”

Tech maven LaShonna Dorsey pushes past stereotypes

January 8, 2018 1 comment

Tech maven pushes past stereotypes

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

LaShonna Dorsey, 38, busts stereotypes. Start with this sunny disruptor launching and selling a successful technology organization in her hometown.

As an African-American entrepreneur, she bridged the digital divide with Interface Web School. Though now part of the AIM Institute, she still heads the coding school that’s won her and its work much recognition. Her AIM title is Vice President, Tech Education.

She’s bypassed the Omaha ceiling for young black professionals that finds many leaving for better advancement opportunities elsewhere.

She’s defied expectations by going public, rather than remain silent, about an assault she endured.

For this superstar doer who serves on multiple boards, AIM’s acquisition of Interface was strategic.

“Interface had really reached a point of capacity,” said Dorsey. “We were growing, which was great, but I just knew I couldn’t take on more classes without having more infrastructure and all that. AIM has the infrastructure, they’ve got the space, they’ve got human resources, accounting, marketing departments.”

AIM Interface solidifies and expands partnerships.

“We had really good relationships with the Nebraska Department of Labor and Heartland Workforce Solutions and still maintain those, but it’s a lot easier for us to partner with companies and other organizations because we’re AIM now.

“It fit right with where AIM and Interface wanted to go. They have the youth education side and professional development, but they didn’t have adult tech training. The cool thing is that Interface LLC was a for-profit and now we’re a program within a nonprofit and so we get to take advantage of having that 501 designation.”

Building Interface fulfilled a dream.

“I really thought I was a starter, and so it was good to see something through from idea to completion in a major way.”

She frequently shares her start-up story, warts and all.

“I felt like especially in the early days of Interface I often had to act like I had it altogether all the time because I was selling it, too. It’s kind of a challenging position to be in because you can’t be truly authentic.

“I was really grateful to have good friends and a really strong support system. That made a huge difference.”

She especially enjoys sharing her story with women.

“Women that have done a ton in their career appreciate how difficult it is to do something like this. Women just getting started are like, ‘How did you even do that?’ We have real conversations about what it’s like and the pitfalls – but also the rewards. Being in the middle myself, I am kind of still navigating that.

“I do feel I have a lot of value to add and information to share if people are ready to hear it. I tell people it wasn’t easy all the time, but the thing that kept me moving forward was that it was so rewarding. I have so many graduate stories of people whose lives were changed because of what they learned. It helped them get better jobs and buy homes. They’re still reaping the benefits. It’s still rippling. The culture of Interface is like that.”

She readily accepts being a role model and mentor to young black women.

Growing up in a single-parent family, Dorsey learned self-reliance skills. As a bright Goodrich scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she became a self-motivated high achiever. Early in her career, she proved a project management whiz.

“I like to just figure my way forward. I like problem solving. When things get a little too simple, then that is hard for me. Then I’m like, ‘Okay, what else can we do here?’ I’m not afraid of conflict, so I do lean into it, and I encourage people who work for me to do the same. If you really want to get the thing you want, you have to work through the hard stuff, too.”

Omaha’s limited horizons saw Dorsey leave in her 20s.

“But I came back. The thing that’s really tough here is that as you move up in your career, the leadership gets more white. Working in tech, you’re with a lot of white professionals and when I lived in west Omaha I’d go home, where it was all white, and I felt I had no community. It’s unfortunate and it felt uncomfortable.

“Living in a diverse community is important for me.”

Workplace inclusion requires more than new hires.

“You can hire a bunch of black and whatever programmers but that is not going to change the culture of organizations who might not be ready for it. You have to give people a space where they’re comfortable being themselves and not feeling like they have to fully assimilate in order to fit in.

“I cannot wait until we don’t have to have this conversation anymore and where it’s not special that I’m a black woman in tech. But it matters a lot to people and I have to talk about it.”

She feels she’s reached a personal breakthrough by reclaiming her given name, LaShonna, in place of Shonna and letting her hair go natural.

“Now, I feel like I can be more of myself.”

Dorsey embraces the new diversity in revitalized northeast Omaha, where African-American culture is being discovered by white millennials.

“Whenever you can create opportunities for people to have those experiences with people they don’t interact with on a daily basis, you start to change the narrative. That’s the only way were going to see change.”

Mindset to her is critical to create the transformation she and others hope to see there.

“I think we’re still many years out from seeing the fruits of it. There’s a lot of work to do because we can’t deny the fact poverty is the highest in those zip codes. That’s something to address and fix but people have to want it and see it even as an issue.”

She’s doing her part to equip adults with job-ready tech skills by bringing her code school to the Highlander Village purpose-built community on North 30th Street.

“Those economic improvement opportunities can make a big difference for people,” she said. “It will be awesome to see all of that come to life.”

Her career exploded two years ago, but few knew she was reeling from having barely survived an assault.

“Everything was still new at Interface and I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing all the time when I had this really difficult, tragic thing happen. There were many work days when I had to meet attorneys or go to court Turning those emotions on and off was really hard.”

It stemmed from someone she’d dated suddenly revealing a side he’d concealed before.

“It turned into a night where he took me from where I was without my permission. He strangled me three times, including once where I lost consciousness. He assaulted me in all sorts of ways in what was a five-hour ordeal.”

Fifteen months elapsed from when she pressed charges to her attacker’s sentencing.

“It was a really hard process. I totally understand why people don’t pursue that path because it is very difficult and as the victim you have to prove something happened. Typically, this kind of stuff happens one-on- one.”

Dorsey nearly didn’t report the incident for fear of how she’d be perceived.

“I remember thinking this is going to be so embarrassing and people are going to think I can’t do anything right. It’s irrational thinking, I know, but that was in my head. I decided to report it anyway.

“I try to do everything on my own all the time. But I did get some counseling and I did work through some of this with friends. Leaning into work helped a lot.”

Nature walks and karaoke nights helped, too.

Then she began dealing with it in public forums, including a poignant Facebook post.

“It was hard to carry around all the time. People were really supportive. They called me brave and things like that. I just felt it was relieving a burden for me.”

She posted soon after the last presidential election and urged people to walk through their fear and anger over the results as she had with her assault.

“Every time I talk about it publicly, more than one person will come up to me and say, ‘Me, too,’ or “My friend, my sister, my daughter.’ It’s so common. There’s a bunch of people who feel like they can’t talk about it, so I decided to share what happened to me.”

If nothing else, she said, her story reveals all is not what it seems on the path to success.

“People tend to look at the surface and just assume that because you’ve done a lot, it was without hardship.”

Visit Interfaceschool.com. Follow Dorsey on Facebook.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Omaha Small Business Network Empowers Entrepreneurs

August 22, 2017 3 comments

If you’re an entrepreneur seeking to establish or take your start-up to the next level, then the Omaha Small Business Network may be the place for you. Julia Parker (pictured below) is the latest in a succession of women of color to head the OSBN. The OSBN is located at the historic 24th and Lake hub where a revitalization is happening. North Omaha entrepreneurs might want to look at working with the organization to help make their dreams come true and perhaps be a part of the North O revival. Read my B2B Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) feature about the services and programs the OSBN offers.

Omaha Small Business Network
Empowers Entrepreneurs

©By Leo Adam Biga
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally published in Jan-Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

The Omaha Small Business Network is on its third female executive director since its 1982 launch. Julia Parker leads an all-female full-time staff that continues the nonprofit’s founding mandate to assist historically undercapitalized entrepreneurs achieve financial inclusion.

OSBN helps remove barriers that inhibit some women and racial minorities from realizing business ventures. Parker says clients lack access to capital and lines of credit and often have no formal business training. Lacking collateral, they’re rejected by lenders. “To be eligible for our micro-loans, the first qualification is you be turned down for traditional financing,” Parker says.
OSBN helps “un-bankable” clients do a financial makeover.

“What OSBN seeks to do is to initially bridge that gap between the bank and the consumer. But after receiving an OSBN loan, our desire is for you to become bankable. We really hope after that two- or three- or six-year loan you develop a relationship with a local banker, through strong payments and good credit history, and then take the leap into the traditional financial market,” she says. “That’s really where we want you to go and thrive.”

On The Edge Technology co-owner Rebecca Weitzel credits a $35,000 OSBN micro-loan, plus information gleaned from OSBN classes, and network opportunities with helping grow her firm and navigate the economics of doing business. She explored options at banks and credit unions before deciding OSBN was “the best choice for us.”

“Each opportunity with OSBN helped develop my confidence as a business owner. Now, I refer other people to OSBN that want to start or grow a business,” says Weitzel.

OSBN offers a three-pronged support system: micro-loans between $1,000 and $50,000 at low interest rates; free monthly professional development and small business training classes; and below-market-rate commercial office spaces at Omaha Business and Technology Center (2505 N. 24th St.) and two nearby buildings. Ken and Associates LLC is one of two dozen OSBN tenants benefiting from commercial office space renting for 80 percent less than market value.

OSBN has lent $2 million-plus in micro-loans to startups and existing businesses since it began micro-lending in 2010.

As of October 2016, OSBN had $500,000 in outstanding loans, with $300,000 in loan payoffs during the past calendar year.

Parker says, “Those are big numbers. Our clients are paying off their loans and going on their way as successful entrepreneurs. We’re pretty proud of that.”

Spencer Management LLC owner Justin Moore is another OSBN success story.

Since receiving a $35,000 micro-loan, Parker says his business expanded services, moved to a new, larger facility, paid off the loan in full, and exceeded $1 million in annual revenue.

As a micro-enterprise development entity, OSBN is funded by private donations from local philanthropists and banks.

Parker leverages her plugged-in experience in the nonprofit and business arenas. She served as director of operations and communications at Building Bright Futures from 2007 to 2013. She applies the skills she used there, along with lessons learned as a black female running a small business, to engage OSBN clients and partners. She owns her own communications consulting agency.

“I think there’s always a barrier for minorities in certain spaces in Omaha,” she says. “The key is to try and overcome those by having a strong work ethic and being on top of your game at all times. But I think across the city, no matter what sector you’re in, there are barriers to entry.”

She reports to a board whose members represent public and private interests. OSBN partners with leading Omaha giving institutions to even the playing field.

“With the support of the Sherwood Foundation,” she says, “we have created a loan pool specifically for minority contractors and suppliers because of the issues they face. And we’ve teamed up with Creighton’s Financial Hope Collaborative to put those contractors and suppliers through a 12-week training course to ensure they’re prepared to go out and bid on, win, and fulfill those contracts. We just completed our first cohort and started our second.”

Parker likes helping dreams be realized. It’s why she said yes when the board offered her the job in 2013.

“I took the position because I really believe in the mission of supporting low-to-moderate-income entrepreneurs. I also like the idea of micro-enterprise development and its very unique take on financial inclusion.”

She described that mission in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship on Capitol Hill last August. She says OSBN is “dedicated to bringing underserved local small business owners, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits the tools needed to become successful and sustainable entities.” She added, “OSBN and like-minded, community-based micro-lenders…have the ability to become a catalyst for both community and economic development.”

She sees OSBN playing a role in increasing the dearth of black middle class residents and small business owners in northeast Omaha and stimulating economic revival there.

“Small business ownership has long been held as a path to financial inclusion. Owning your own business allows you to break that cycle of poverty. Often those businesses become generational. We would love to see the 24th Street corridor come alive again with small businesses.”

Besides, she says, small businesses have a positive ripple effect by creating jobs and paying taxes.
Visit osbnbtc.org for more information.

The Motivator – Willy Theisen


Serial food entrepreneur Willy Theisen of Omaha has a methodology for success in life and business that he likes sharing with others. When he’s not making deals or overseeing his various moneymaking ventures, he’s speaking to groups of aspiring and established entrepreneurs about some guiding principles he follows that he feels can help people achieve their dreams.  Many of his most attentive audiences are high school and college students who were not born when he had his breakout success with Godfather’s Pizza. He’s had many successes after selling Godfather’s and he’ll be stategizing and pitchng until his dying breath but he’s not just about accumulating weath and possessions these days, he’s also about giving back, and he views passing his wisdom and experience on to others, whether as a speaker or mentor, as a form of public service. My new profile of Theisen in the May-June-July 2017 issue of Metro Magazine (https://issuu.com/metmago/docs/thegivingguideandeventbook2017) delineates some of the key tenets he lives and works by and that he gladly shares with others.

 

The Motivator.

Willy Theisen

Photo by Jim Scholz

“We Don’t Coast!”

The Greater Omaha Chamber ads say it. Nebraska is motivated and motivational. So is one of her most inspiring success stories, Willy Theisen. This serial entrepreneur who first made a name for himself as founder, chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Corporation is anything but idle at 71. He still puts in 70 hours a week between his business pursuits and community endeavors.

After selling the brilliantly branded Godfather’s chain he grew to 500-plus franchises, he went on to new hospitality industry adventures. He returned to his roots with Pitch Coal-Fire Pizzeria but doing more refined pies than Godfather’s. With Pitch a hit in Omaha’s prime Dundee neighborhood, he’s opened a new eatery there, Paragon, featuring a completely different concept.

Theisen’s come a long way from his brash rise to fast-food fame and fortune that found him making news for his lavish lifestyle – once renting a Concorde supersonic passenger jet to take him and birthday celebrators to London and back. Over time, he’s devoted considerable energy to civic service work, including serving on the Omaha Airport Authority and Creighton University boards. More recently, he’s been appointed to the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Franchising at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He’s also been appointed chairman of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau Advisory Board and named a Creighton University Business Ethics Alliance Trustee.

With Nebraska feeling the pinch of persistent brain drain, massive state budget deficits and the loss of major corporate players, this serial entrepreneur is viewed as an economic stimulus expert.

At a recent presentation before Skutt Catholic High School business students and members of Future Business Leaders of America, he said, “Who creates jobs? Entrepreneurs create jobs.” He shared how he was taken aback to learn that in its 44-year history, Godfather’s has created more than half a million jobs.

His proven business savvy is well recognized per his induction in the Omaha Restaurant Association Hospitality, Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Nebraska Business & Commerce Halls of Fame.

Because of his-real world expertise and experience as a self-made man, he’s often asked to present before audiences ranging from professionals to high school and college students. He especially looks forward to interacting with young people because he believes in cultivating and supporting emerging entrepreneurs.

“I really think these people who produce new ideas and share those ideas and have them nurtured is our future job growth in this state,” Theisen said. “I think it’s a must that we identify and nurture them as early as possible.”

He told Skutt students: “Entrepreneurs are people that can see things other people don’t see.”

Theisen and Gallup Global Channel Leader of Entrepreneurship and Job Creation Todd Johnson share a passion for finding and coaching young entrepreneurs. In June, a group of area youth identified through Gallup assessment profiles as high potential entrepreneurs will attend the Omaha Builders Internship at Gallup, and Johnson’s already secured Theisen’s help.

Life Lessons.

“I called Willy and said, ‘I’m going to have the next generation of you here at Gallup for a month, will you engage?’ and he said yes. So he’ll mentor, coach and present to them.”

Johnson said the idea is to be more systematic, scientific and intentional in the early identification and development of entrepreneurial talent.

“Willy and I have really bonded on that project. We’ve socialized it and, I dare say, evangelized it and we’re going to set-up Omaha as a best-practice mecca. Gallup sees Willy right in the middle of the mentoring and coaching of this next generation of entrepreneurs.”

In recent Gallup testing he scored highly in eight of the ten metrics associated with greatly successful entrepreneurs, including knowledge-seeker.

Anthony Hendrickson, dean and professor of Business Intelligence & Analytics at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business, said he admires Theisen’s curiosity about what makes things work.

“He came to the Harper Center to speak to a group of students. I took him on a quick tour of the building, including the food-service kitchens. Willy wanted to walk through those facilities and see what was being prepared, how, by whom, the menus and processes. Willy was just trying to learn if there was anything he might have missed as a restauranteur. Ever the student of business and life.”

Theisen’s public speaking is part of a philanthropic thank-you to the city that supported his big idea.

Van Deeb, a national real estate speaker, author and coach, said, “Willy is spending the majority of his time giving back to the community that made him so successful. We spend a lot of time together and I see it and I feel it. He’s wanting to give to youth hope, direction, inspiration.”

Theisen said, “I make time now. Before, I probably cared just about things more than the impact I could make. I was always too busy working, opening restaurants all over the country. I don’t want to go all over the country. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do right here and it’s not all about restaurants – it’s about people.

“A lot of people are busy all their life and they don’t want to be part of anything. They just let things happen. I don’t want to let things happen – I want to make things happen. When I get done with a project I want it to be better off with my involvement than without it.”

Beverly Kracher, a Creighton business professor and CEO-executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance, said, “Willy is smart enough to see he has power. He’s also a man of character enough to use that power to take care of our community and to act responsibly.”

Johnson said he admires Theisen’s commitment to the Business Ethics Alliance they serve on together.

“We have events across the city throughout the year and you can always find Willy. He’s known as a man that shows up and I think that’s a real important insight into who he is. I can’t think of a time when I asked for Willy’s help and he said no. I sure hope I’m as generous with my time, talent and treasure in 20 years as he is. He’s such a good role model.”

Theisen said his focus on “giving back and paying forward” is something that “comes with age and from involvement in the community,” adding, “It just evolves into this and it becomes more important than not.”

When presenting he eschews prepared notes for a conversational, freestyle delivery that invites talk-back. His message emphasizes certain principles he lives and works by as well as certain truths he believes. One is the importance of first-time jobs and what they teach.

“First-time jobs give young people confidence. They direct you to come in on time, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ It gives you confidence in the things you need to be set up in to succeed. At Godfather’s it just happened that about 80 percent of the 545,000 jobs created during the company’s history have been filled by first-job seekers.

“Working at Godfather’s was a starting point for many young individuals. What’s most fulfilling to me is that they have gone on and bought houses and automobiles, raised children, contributed to society, and that first job was a part of their foundation.”

Growing up, Theisen’s parents modeled and he adopted a work ethic and earning-your-own-way mentality.

“I always had a job. I painted house numbers on curbs, I caddied, I worked in a pool hall, I flipped burgers, I cut lawns, I bagged and carried groceries at Eddie’s Market, I killed chickens in the market’s basement.

“I did a lot of stuff – and all of it matters. All of it got me here today.”

At Skutt he stressed that from humble origins great things can spring forth. Students young enough to be his great-grandchildren listened intently.

“My best audiences are young people,” he said. “I think they’re looking for a direction and I talk right to them, I don’t talk down to them. I relate to them. I want to be something they can count on. I’ve worked with young people in business all my life.”

Dale Eesley, an associate professor in UNO’s College of Business Administration, said, “Willy doesn’t lecture students. He tells them stories from his career and encourages them to look for the best in themselves. He emphasizes hard work – something anyone can do if they set their mind to it.”

Theisen knows any group includes entrepreneurs.

“There’s a handful of them in every audience. They’re there, we’ve just got to find them and show them the opportunity. Hopefully, I can inspire them to maybe have the courage to take it one step further.”

Eesley considers Theisen “a true mentor” figure for youth. “Many times I have arranged for students to seek advice from Willy. On several occasions he has hosted ‘Dinner with an Entrepreneur,’ where four to six students from the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization join him at Pitch and get to know him personally as well as professionally. Students all say it’s the highlight of their school year.”

Creighton’s Hendrickson said, “Willy is a tremendous resource for young people, especially aspiring entrepreneurs. He takes time to visit with students individually, listen to them intently and provide encouragement and wisdom about their ideas. He is quick to share the positive potential he sees in their thoughts and plans but equally quick to provide the kernels of truth they need to hear about the challenges they will face. I have referred many students to him.”

Until recently, Theisen said, what few entrepreneurial classes local schools offered were only for graduating seniors or graduate students.

“It’s too late. We can’t wait until they’re seniors to identify them as entrepreneurs. We’ve got to have entry-level. Now schools have departments and programs for entrepreneurship. This is where these ideas come from. They only need one and from one you can take it and make something out of it, and our schools now nurture that out of people.”

Theisen tells students none of this support existed when he was their age. “The word ‘entrepreneur’ wasn’t even used. We were called futzers or daydreamers.”

So much of what forms us, he tells audiences, is our habits. His checklist of positive habits to follow includes “showing up on time, being a person of character and being credible.” He encourages those working first jobs to foster traits that develop good lifetime habits that connote trust. “Be dependable, come in early, stay late. Make the boss look great. That’s how you advance.”

He said along with doing things right “comes confidence, then ethics and then trust,” adding, “I want to get people to where somebody can look at them and say, ‘I trust you, I can count on you, because you’re here on time, ready to work.’ I tell young people you gotta be ready to work when the opportunity is there. Don’t say, ‘Can I get back to you on this?’ Someone else will do it.”

He said the trust that flows from being ethical in business is not a legal requirement but “it sure helps to be a person of your word.” Besides, he said, “It is the right thing to do and the relationships are so much better when you’re ethical. No hidden agendas, no backroom deals, no going around in an underhanded way.”

He built his first business empire on trust.

“From 1977 through 1979 I opened 450 Godfather’s Pizzas in 36 months. You couldn’t have done it if you didn’t trust each other, if you weren’t ethical, if you picked the wrong partner to go into these things with. None of it would have happened.

“Some of the first franchise deals we had back in 1974, we didn’t have written agreements. You know what we had? You grabbed a person’s hand and you looked at them right in the eye and took them at their word.”

 

 

metroMAGAZINE/mQUARTERLY MAY/JUN/JUL 2017

 

 

Long before franchising became an option, Theisen had to sell a banker on a dream.

“Something life-changing for me happened in late 1972. I went over to Southwest Bank to get a small business loan. I was nervous. The lending manager I met with, Joe Sullivan, said, ‘What’s your idea?’ ‘Well, what I’m going to do is I’m going make a big, thick pizza with a bunch of toppings on it and I’m going to put my store right in the middle of Thomasville Apartments. There’s 500 or 600 people living there and everyone’s going to come there; nobody’s going to cook.’”

Theisen, who worked for a real estate developer then, had no real collateral other than his vision and belief.

“All I had was a rough ballpoint-ink outline of the building on a cocktail napkin. Joe looked at me and said, ‘Where’s the rest of your business plan?’ ‘That’s it.’ He stared at me, and said, ‘I like it, it’s simple, I understand it.’ He gave me Small Business Administration loan papers. He guessed I wasn’t good at filling out forms and said, ‘I’ve got a guy.’ He asked, ‘Do you work at night?’ ‘Yeah, I work at night,’ ‘Will you start tonight?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll start tonight.’ His accountant and I got those forms filled out and I got the loan. You know what Joe made that day? He made a character loan. He made me a loan. That’s what I call the Sullivan Effect.”

Additionally, Sullivan offered some sound advice via an admonition. “He said, ‘When you open your place, I want to see you there.’ I asked my business partner at that time, Greg Johnson, ‘What do you think that means?’ ‘It means you’ve got to be there all the time.’ I was there all the time. That’s the Sullivan Effect, too.”

Business Ethics Alliance activities have given Theisen fresh insights into lifelong practices.

“I thought I was always doing the right thing but now I know I’m doing the right thing, and I get a little more satisfaction out of it.”

Of his fellow Alliance trustees he said, “It’s evolved into quite a good list of individuals. It’s not a coincidence most of them are leaders. They got there being that.”

Creighton’s Kracher said Theisen brings credibility to advising about jobs since he’s created so many.

“He grooms young people to help them understand what it means to work hard, to show up on time, to be accountable, to be trusted – all those character traits that matter if you are going to be a business person.

“He takes the time to educate students that half of life is about showing up and in his fundamental belief that business and life is based on trust.”

She said his charisma plays equally well with students and seasoned business professionals.

“You can’t help enjoy hearing him speak and then afterwards telling five people what you heard.”

Theisen stresses to audiences the building blocks of success must be cultivated. “This just doesn’t happen,” he said. “You don’t wake up one morning and get this when you’re 69 years old. This is the fabric and core of who you are and how you treat and greet others.”

As a veteran restauranteur he knows how key quality control is. It’s why he shows up to observe and listen. He always checks the restrooms to ensure they’re clean. He stops to ask diners about their experience. He follows orders from the kitchen to the table to see if they’re coming out right.

One night at Pitch he followed an onion rings order from the kitchen to a table where two young women sat sipping cocktails. He regaled them with what makes the rings so fresh and special when one woman interrupted to say, “Willy, we trust you.” “And it kind of took me,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever worked for. It’s the core and fabric of what I am. Everything I am is to be trusted.”

Built on Trust.

“Trust”, he told Skutt students, “means everything to me. It doesn’t come quick, it doesn’t come easy. You’ve got to earn it every day. That’s one of your strengths.”

No detail’s too small for his attention. Nothing gets overlooked, ignored or abandoned.

“I try to talk to young folks about solving small problems. I’m a master at solving small problems. I try to have big ideas sometimes, but I want to solve small problems. If you’re driving to an appointment and you cut yourself short on time, you make yourself late and thus less credible, and I try to teach people how important that is,” he said.

“I generally ask, ‘How many of you made your bed this morning?’ I make the point it’s the first achievement of the day. There’s research showing you’ll be happier several percentage points by doing that one thing. Your day flows from there because it’s done. Then you clean up, get dressed. It organizes you and gets you set to take on things.”

Kracher said, “He’s a perfectionist and that perfectionism has driven him to the successes he’s had. He looks at every single detail over and over, down to the toilet paper in his restaurants’ restrooms.”

Theisen’s never without a to-do list.

“This is my to-do list,” he said, holding a small sheet of memo paper filled with entries. “I’m going to finish it and then I’ll have another list for tomorrow. But you have to finish things. You can’t leave everything half-assed, half-done. That’s what I tell people. You have to show up, you have to be prepared and you have to finish things.

“That’s who I am, that’s how I live my life. Successful people are finishers. If you’re a finisher, you’re going to be successful.”

In his talks, he said, “I really provoke thought. They remember me when I leave. That’s my job. That’s one of the reasons I’m there. I give them points to think about and I present in an untraditional way.” In a given session, he said he and students get around to discussing “food and beverage, hospitality, politics, education. Omaha’s generous philanthropic community and the philosophy of giving back and paying forward. We talk about a lot of things. It’s fun for me and them.”

Theisen doesn’t just engage with audiences of privilege. Through his work with UNO he visits inner-city schools to interact with diverse students, many of whom come from trying circumstances.

“This past summer my friend Van Deeb and I visited several inner-city high schools together – Blackburn, Central, South and Benson – to let them know UNO is an option to help people be entrepreneurs if they want to be entrepreneurs. It’s not for everybody.”

He said, “Something eye-opening happened at Benson. I was miked up, walking back and forth on stage, chatting, when I looked down in the front row and this young man was sound asleep. I looked over at the guy next to him and said, ‘Wake ‘Junior’ up, would you?’ So he gave him a shot and ‘Junior’ sat up.

“When I got done I was getting my things together on stage to join the students for Godfather’s pizza when I saw ‘Junior’ approaching me stage left. He’s a big guy. I thought, ‘This can go either way.’ He towers over me and I look up and he says, ‘Mr. Theisen, I want to apologize for falling asleep.’ I asked, ‘Who told you to come up here?’ ‘Nobody, I come on my own. After I did get with it, I heard you have to man up and take ownership for everything you do. That it’s not a blame game.’ So he shook my hand and as we walked off stage he put his arm around my shoulder, and I think I changed him for only a minute. He changed me.

“It was humbling. I’m up there to teach some takeaways, positive direction, leadership skills as sort of a life coach, and when he came up it tore at me because he heard enough that it changed him. It reminded me how fortunate I am to be in front of those students. He took my words to heart and that made my day and made it well worthwhile going there and sharing. I know I made an effect on one person for sure and hopefully many more. I take away so much more then these kids get. I’m the beneficiary of this when I get done with one of these groups. I love it.”

He’s well aware many of the urban kids he addresses face challenges their suburban peers do not.

“I was at Blackburn and this girl was asleep when I walked in the room. This was a group of students that had left school and were coming back to graduate. They were a little bit older and they were on a mission. I said to her, ‘You probably need a little more sleep,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I do, because I’m pregnant.’ I said. ‘Well, you know, others have been where you are and you’ll get through it. By coming here you’re going to get a high school degree and things will get better.’”

Connecting.

“They have tough lives. Listening to them, having empathy for them and encouraging them are among the things I try to give back. They don’t want me to sit up there and bark at them for an hour. I talk to them and I draw out of them things. They must trust me or they wouldn’t tell me.”

Todd Johnson said Theisen instinctively reacts to his audience and adapts as needed.

“No matter the setting or audience, Willy manages to engage. He figures out a way. And if you think about entrepreneurs, they always figure out a way. They see or hit an obstacle and they go over it, around it, under it and I think that applies to his community involvement and communication.

“He can read a room and adjust on the fly if he has to. He’s pretty good at that and he keeps it snappy.”

Van Deeb said he’s impressed by Theisen’s ability to reach people.

“I truly admire how he connects with youth. He relates to them. He commands the room. You can hear a pin drop. They listen to every word he says and he’s not just talking about being successful in business. He’s talking about how to be successful in life. Treat people well, do what you say you’re going to do, be on time. He never brings up his financial success. It’s never about making money, it’s about being a good person, and it’s refreshing.

“What I see in Willy is he cares about people. He wants to be significant in people’s lives. When I look at these students’ faces, it’s clear they’re learning from him.”

Far from the public eye, Theisen also personally intervenes in the lives of young people in crisis or at crossroads.

“Some people come into my life that are on the wrong track and need help getting over humps. I get gratification from seeing somebody get on that right track and do well. As a respected friend of the family I can often come in and talk to kids better than the parents can. I go in pretty straight-forward – here’s what we gotta do, no nonsense, no excuses.

“Many a time I get their attention when everything else has failed. We agree one-on-one what we need to get done. It’s better that way. I make the young woman or man responsible and we get on a timeline and we start. I don’t want to get disappointed and I don’t want to disappoint them. so we’ve both got to do X to get to where we’re going.”

Theisen didn’t come from money and he’s worked for everything he’s gotten. He’s had his own setbacks, both personal and business. He faced a serious health issue several years ago. He knows what it’s like to struggle and fail, though he likes to think of those misfortunes as “things that just didn’t work out.”

All of it’s given him a heart “for the little guy.”

“I’m a guy for second chances, I really am,” he said. “I don’t give beatdowns. It used to be one-and-done with me. As I’ve gotten older, I feel it’s more important to give second chances. I’ve seen people that have tried really hard to live up and they can’t do it the first chance and so I give them another. I know when somebody’s really trying and they just need a little more time.”

Whether for kids or adults, his how-tos are the same.

“There are steps I want people to take. To be formidable, competitive, resilient. To be mindful. To have empathy. To take and have ownership. To be a person of your word, I want people to know I walk the talk. I’m somebody you can count on.

“These are just words but there’s true meaning behind every one. My epitaph, if I do have one, would read: ‘He was a good guy who tried right some wrongs over the course of his life.’ That’s a big deal to me.”

Theisen doesn’t dwell on his mortality, not with a granddaughter to dote on, projects to work on and commitments to keep. But he’s aware each passing year brings him closer to the end.

“What I’m not going to do is waste one day.”

He’s never been more content or grateful knowing his purpose in life as a builder and creator is never really done and may even outlive him.

“I have good health and good fortune. I try to eat right. I hit the gym. I get enough sleep. Yeah, I’m very happy. I’ve not been any happier. I look forward to tomorrow and the next day. I don’t look back much. I want to move forward. I’ve got so many things to get done. I have to solve small things in each of them. They need me.”

 

“My epitaph, if i do have one, would read: ‘He was a good guy who tried to right some wrongs over the course of his life.’ That’s a big deal to me.”

Read more, including what young entrepreneurs have to say about Willy Theisen’s motivational impact on their lives, in our DIGITAL EDITION.

 

My Small Business Story

November 2, 2016 Leave a comment

My Small Business Story
As someone who writes stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions, I plug into what makes people tick and share their personal brand with the world. My work as an author-journalist-blogger introduces me to remarkable individuals whose stories I tell in books, articles and posts. Just as I find inspiration in these subjects, so do my readers. How do I know? Nearly every day I get to speak with or write about fascinating people whose stories affect me in some way. Readers tell me they are variously moved or stimulated by what I write.
 
Indeed, my mission as a writer is to inform, educate and entertain. If I can make readers feel and think, to learn and grow, to break away from the mundane, then I have done my job.
 
It has been my privilege to write about topics that affect my community, including issues having to do with race. On those occasions I believe my work does make a difference by giving voice to the voiceless and providing context for complex subjects. I have also had the opportunity to travel for my work, including reporting assignments in Africa, Washington DC, Hollywood, North Dakota and the greater Midwest.
 
There is an old saying that everyone has a story and I wholeheartedly believe that. Each of us has something to say and to offer. It is my great pleasure to give people a platform in which they can be heard.
 
I have entered the LinkedIn ProFinder Small Business Contest. Should I win, I would leverage LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder to find new stories to tell, collaborators to work with for telling these stories across different channels and sponsors to support these projects. LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder could also afford new opportunities for me to travel inside and outside Nebraska in search of stories and to conduct research. These tools would also enable me to hire an expert to enhance and coordinate my social media.
 
Additionally, I would leverage LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder to help realize two dream passion projects of mine:
•the multi-media Nebraska Screen Heritage project
•the multi-media Omaha Black Sports Legends project
 
LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder are wonderful tools for engagement and connectivity among thought-leaders, service providers and professionals from diverse disciplines. These tools can help bring stories to larger audiences and thus allow this work to make an even bigger impact.
 
We are all experts in our own fields and specialties but nobody knows it all. Therefore, I am eager to strategically use LinkedIn and LinkedIn ProFinder as tools for exploring collaborative partnerships. It will facilitate sharing stories across broader canvases in some cases and within niche segments in other cases. It is all about finding the right audience for a particular message or story.
 
Storytelling is my craft, my trade, my livelihood, my calling. Consider this post a call for likeminded individuals to work with me in telling compelling stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions.

 

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