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Cathy Hughes: Forging a Media Empire by 
Disrupting the Status Quo

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Cathy Hughes has forged media empire by disrupting the status quo 

photo by Bill Sitzmann

story by Leo Adam Biga and Daisy Hutzell-Rodman

Originally published in B2B Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com/articles/cathyhughes)

Disruptors don’t ask permission. They refuse accepting no for an answer. Neither do they cow to tradition for tradition’s sake, nor let barriers deny realizing their goal.

Make no mistake, Omaha native media mogul Cathy Hughes built the first leg of her Urban One empire by being a disruptor. Doing it in the nation’s capital gave her a national platform. After running radio station WHUR at Howard University, where her innovative programming made waves, she made her move in ownership at WOL, which became the flagship for her Radio One broadcast network.

She developed a reputation as a sharp entrepreneur and tough negotiator. Her intuitive grasp of what the public wanted and her ability to provide it as both a programmer and an on-air host built a brand and a following. In 1999 she became the first African-American woman to chair a publicly traded company. This media magnate added a television network to her holdings when her son Alfred Liggins III launched TV One. Though Alfred now runs things on a day by day basis for a diverse portfolio of companies, including online and gaming divisions, she’s still very much involved and remains Urban One’s public face.

Hughes recently added movie producer to her credits.  She is second only to Oprah when it comes to individual black women wealth. None of it would have been possible, she says, without what she learned in her hometown of Omaha, where Alfred also grew up.

Mentors included civil rights champion priest John Markoe, Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and advocate journalist Charles B. Washington. Her activist parents resisted racial inequality as members of the social action group the De Porres Club, Her mother Helen Jones Woods was a professional musician turned licensed practical nurse and social worker. Her father William Woods was an accountant. Her maternal grandfather, Lawrence C. Jones, was founder of Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi.

“My mother, father and grandfather were very committed to trying to improve the plight of our people, and I inherited that,” says Hughes.

Another influence informing her own independent spirit was a group of prominent African-Americans who bought local radio station KOWH.

“Their example inspired me to become a broadcast owner of what ultimately became the largest black media company in the world.”

Her sense of self-determination and aspiration as a single mother in North Omaha, where she worked at both the Star and KOWH and participated in demonstrations, carried her far.

Instead of making her single mother status a negative or barrier, she embraced it and used it as motivation to achieve. Her son was there for her entire struggle and ascent. She sometimes brought him to classes and to work.

National journalist Tony Brown was so impressed upon meeting the vivacious Hughes when he appeared in Omaha that he invited her to be a lecturer at Howard despite the fact she was not a college graduate herself.

“He saw that I was so hungry for the opportunity and that this was a passion for me.”

Brown was one of a string of illustrious mentors who saw her potential. Others included Susan Thompson Buffett, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Johnson Publishing founded John H. Johnson.

Hughes parlayed the Howard opportunity to become D.C.’s first female general manager of a radio station when asked to take the reins at WHUR in 1973. She grew ad revenues and helped WHUR go national after creating the urban format “Quiet Storm,” which hundreds of stations across the country adopted.

Realizing she still had a lot to learn, Hughes studied psychographic programming at Harvard and took a programming seminar at the University of Chicago.

In 1980, she and then-husband Dewey Hughes purchased struggling WOL. She reversed the station’s fortunes by transforming it from R&B to a 24-hour-a-day news-talk format she dubbed “Information is Power.” She hosted an on-air morning show for 11 years, thus becoming the voice and face of black urban radio.

Hughes took cues from her Omaha mentors in remaining connected to her community while finding commercial success.

Years before in Omaha, she said Mildred Brown and Charles Washington “understood that information is power.” She learned from them and the folks who ran KOWH that black media isn’t just about a business, it’s about a community service.” That realization has informed everything she’s done with Urban One.

“Our commitment to our community is what has built brand loyalty. Investors and bankers respect that.  They’re interested in numbers and they understand the numbers will be there because the community responds positively to that loyalty.”

Building a radio network was her vision and ambition.

“I always wanted more than one station,” she says.

She sees opportunity where others don’t.

“We have been turnaround experts. That’s what our whole corporate strategy has been. We take under-performing stations and turn them around. Under-performing stations have practically called our name. That’s how we’ve approached broadcasting.

“We built Radio One with numerous formats, including some mainstream white formats.”

Hughes put together most of the funds for her initial purchase of WOL.

“I had $100,000 of my own personal money. That’s why when Dewey and I split there wasn’t a big hassle because it was his opportunity and my money.

“I raised an additional $100,000 from 10 investors – each putting in $10,000 a piece, and then I borrowed the rest. I needed a million dollars from a senior lender. I was turned down by 32 different banks. The 33rd presentation was to a Puerto Rican woman banker – and she said yes. She was the one that made the difference. I put together another $600,000 from black venture capitalists.”

Part of persevering and being resilient meant having to prove to skeptics that she could go it alone.

“The most perilous time in the history of my company was when I decided to divorce my husband. He was not making a contribution to the business. He was a drain. But that’s not how it was seen by my advertisers, by my lenders, by my creditors, by my listeners. They saw it from the perspective that I wouldn’t be able to survive with Dewey no longer in the picture.”

Survive and thrive she did by leaning into the example set by Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, whose “dogged determination” she admired.

“When somebody told Mildred no, 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.”

Like that earlier media matriarch, the charismatic Hughes brings “activism with marketing and salesmanship” to her personal art of persuasion.

Early in her Radio One ownership, when loans were hard to come by, she openly expressed doubts. She credits a male investor-advisor with getting her to speak into action her successful acquisition of capital, stations, listeners and advertisers.

“He told me to change my terminology, which changed my thinking, because I was the first person to hear it.

And guess what, one day it was no longer a lie, it became my truth.”

Even after her multi-billion dollar company went public, the ever-driven Hughes was anything but complacent.

“I don’t see it as success yet, I still see it as a work in progress.”

Being a woman in a male-centric industry hasn’t fazed her, she said, because “I never put woman first. I am black first and a woman second. Plus, I had my eyes on a prize. I didn’t see it as proving something to the old boys network. I was not intimidated by the fact I was the only female. I really thought because I was the first woman general manager there would be a whole proliferation of black women owning and managing radio stations. But women have made more progress in sports than they have in media.”

Her business rise took some aback as it didn’t follow expectations. For instance, when she found herself a single mother again after putting together the WOL deal, she and her son Alfred slept at the station until things improved. A black single mom with a penchant for telling it like it is disrupted the prototypical corporate culture.

“It’s not a role white women have enjoyed for too long and so it’s definitely still brand new for African-American women, especially for someone outspoken like me.”

Along the way, she says, she’s had to educate some folks that it was she who actually built Radio One and made it a success, not her ex-husband or her business partner son. Perhaps a sign of progress is that she now gets credit for forming TV One and taking the parent company public when it was her son Alfred’s doing.

She’s grateful that her son, a Wharton School of Business graduate, came to not only embrace her media vision and passion but to expand it to across platforms.

Things came full circle for the pair last May when Hughes was honored in Omaha for her achievements and Liggins joined others in singing her praises.

“I could always recognize and appreciate her drive, tenacity and lessons,” he says. “First and foremost, I respect her as a human being and as my mother. In terms of our business partnership, we don’t let any of the mother-son-family potential squabbles disintegrate that partnership. I guess we’ve always been a team since the day I was born.”

Hughes now has a boulevard named after her in North Omaha and she is a Face on the Barroom Floor at the Omaha Press Club.

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” she says.

Visit https://urban1.com.

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

This article was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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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.”

 

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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.”

 

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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.

Omaha Press Club to salute media mogul Cathy Hughes


Omaha Press Club to salute media mogul Cathy Hughes

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Nebraskans are about to get an education about one of their own they should know more about and embrace as one of the state’s greatest ever exports but very few outside of Omaha’s African-American community do. This exemplary product is Omaha native Cathy Hughes, founder and owner of two major media networks, Radio One and TV One, that she grew into African-American market empires. Hers is an entrepreneurial success story unlike few others and one that transcends color and gender. Think Oprah Winfrey but only more niche and you have an idea of just how big a deal she is and just what a footprint she has in a segment of the national media marketplace. Her personal net worth is estimated at half a billion dollars. Get the picture? She’s about to come on your radar in a big way, perhaps for the first time, because of a series of events feting and featuring her in her hometown the week of May 14-20.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of her before or why there haven’t been things named after her before, it may say something about how this predominantly white state has not exactly gone out of its way to recognize her or any other woman of color. As a whole, Omaha’s been guilty of the same, The festivities being planned around her are largely the effort of the African-American community here, though a broad spectrum of city officials and movers and shakers will be present for the street renaming ceremony and the Omaha Press Club Face on the Barroom Floor roast in her honor (see about the Press Club event by clicking below). Her omission, until now, as a generally known and acknowledged Nebraska Great is all the more vexing because she got her media start in Omaha, counted as her mentor Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown and has retained very close ties to the city and the black community. She has also been very generous with her time with this reporter and others from here and with other members of the community here. I will be doing a whole new round of writing about Cathy and her business and life journey in the coming months.

Oh, by the way, her mother Helen Jones Woods is a great story in herself as a member of the famed International Sweethearts of Rhythm during the big band swing era.

For those of you playing catch-up when it comes to Cathy Hughes, here are links to some stories I have done about her or that have extensively quoted her:

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/radio-one-queen-…-keeping-it-real

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/04/11/the-omaha-star-c…ack-woman-legacy

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/08/11/native-omaha-day…ng-like-no-other

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/12/04/news-of-omaha-st…ic-papers-future/

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/04/native-omahans-t…n-their-hometown

Here’s a link to my story about Cathy’s mother, Helen Jones Woods, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm:

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/17/

 

The Omaha Press Club
Celebrates Its 157th
Face on the Barroom Floor 


 
Cathy Hughes

Friday, May 18, 2018

5:30 – 6:30 p.m.

Cocktail Reception

6:30 – 7:30 p.m.

Dinner

Hors d’oeuvres
Potato Leek Smoked Salmon with Goat Cheese and Bacon
Parmesan Onion Canapé
Salad

OPC’s Signature Thunderbird Salad

Entrée
OPC Tenderloin Filet Maytag Bleu and Béarnaise
Gouda & Roasted Twice-Baked Potato
Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus
Dessert
OPC’s Signature Bavarian Chocolate Mousse Gateau Riche
7:30 p.m.

The Roast featuring:

Roasters
Johnny Rodgers, 1972 Heisman Trophy winner,
founder/CEO, Johnny Rodgers Youth Foundation
and Face on the Barroom Floor (No. 102, July 2005) — emcee
Theresa Glass Union, AT&T, Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services (retired)
Elmer J. Crumbley, educational consultant/Minnesota Humanities Center, educator, Omaha Public Schools,
former principal, Skinner Magnet School (retired)
Dr. Blandina Rose Willis, educator/psychologist,
president, Humanistic Solutions, LLC
Al Goodwin, economic development director, Omaha Economic Development Corp. (retired)
Face Reveal

Artist Jim Horan

Dinner: $50 for Omaha Press Club members;

$60 for nonmembers

To RSVP for dinner:
Call the Omaha Press Club at 402-345-8008,

Email


(If you have special dietary needs, please notify the Omaha Press Club
when you make your reservation.)
Reservations must be accompanied by OPC member number or credit card.

Cancellations require a 48-hour notice.

Omaha Press Club
First National Center, 22nd Floor (adjoining the DoubleTree Hotel)
1620 Dodge Street, Omaha, Nebraska 68102-1593
Twitter: @omahapressclub
Parking Available in the Central City Parking Garage
(the garage just west of the First National Bank Building)

 

Free parking for OPC members in the Central City Garage from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.;

discounted parking available for nonmembers with ticket validation.
Bring your Central City Garage ticket with you to the club.
(No validated parking available in the garage attached
to the DoubleTree Hotel; however, self-pay parking is available)

 

In Memoriam: George Eisenberg

March 27, 2018 2 comments

In Memoriam: George Eisenberg 

A man intimate with the Old Market’s origins is gone, but his legacy lives on.

©Story by Leo Adam Biga
©Photography by Nebraska Jewish Historical Society
Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

The late George Eisenberg, 88, appreciated the historic Old Market the way few people do because of his many relationships to it. His experience encompassed the Market’s life as a wholesale produce center and eventual transformation into an arts-culture destination and trendy neighborhood.

He began working in the Old Market as a peddler’s son, manning a fruit stall alongside his father, Ben, and brother, Hymie, in what was then the Omaha City Market. Later, he founded and ran a successful niche business with Hymie supplying national food manufacturers’ thrown-away bits of onions and potatoes. The brothers, known as “the potato and onion kings of the U.S.,” officed in adjoining warehouses their father kept for storage and distribution. Eisenberg held onto the building even after the produce market disbanded and the area fell into decline. As the area transitioned and property rates skyrocketed, he became a well-positioned landlord and active Old Market Business Association and Omaha Downtown Improvement District member.

“He went to the meetings and spoke his mind,” son Steve Eisenberg says. More than speak his mind, Eisenberg oversaw the careful renovation of his building and secured many of the lamp posts that adorn the Old Market.

The Eisenberg property at 414-418 South 10th Street housed many tenants over the years, and today is home to J.D. Tucker’s and Stadium View sports bars.

Eisenberg-on-truck-copy_2

Eisenberg was half of the wholesaler Eisenberg and Rothstein Co.

As the Old Market grew, he became one of its biggest advocates and enjoyed playing the role of unofficial historian. He’s remembered as a gentle lion who proudly shared the district’s past with business owners, visitors, media, and anyone interested in its history. He loved telling stories of what used to be a teeming Old World marketplace where Jewish, Italian, and other ethnic merchants dickered with customers over the price of fruit and vegetables.

“Something he really enjoyed doing, especially in his retirement, was going down there and letting people know where the Old Market came from and where it’s going. Up till his last days, he saw such a bright future for the Old Market and was very proud of what all was going on down there,” says Steve.

“George was just terrific, a real gentleman, also a wonderful character with a great sense of humor and compassion. He was revered as an ‘elder statesman,’” says Old Market Business Association member Angela Barry. “He was very sharp and knowledgeable about the neighborhood’s history. Even in his later years, he lovingly and passionately cared about the business of the Old Market.

“He really was something special. When I heard of his passing, it was a sad day.”

Nouvelle Eve owner Kat Moser will remember Eisenberg for his wise and generous business counsel.

Steve Eisenberg will remember his father as “a very hard worker who, even in retirement, kept busy promoting other people’s businesses and the Old Market area itself.”

The Eisenberg presence will live on there. “My siblings and I promised him we’re never selling the building,” says Steve. “It’s staying in the family, and we’re going to run it like he did.”

With Eisenberg’s passing and his peddler pal, Joe Vitale, preceding him in death a year earlier, the last sources with first-hand knowledge of the Omaha City Market are gone. But they leave behind an Old Market legacy not soon forgotten.

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.

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.

 

Dick Holland: Builder of Omaha’s Arts, Culture and Human Services Landscape (1921-2016)

August 25, 2016 1 comment

Dick Holland: Builder of Omaha’s Arts, Culture and Human Services Landscape (1921-2016)

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

A force of nature named Dick Holland died at 95 on August 9. The philanthropist’s passing triggered warm, appreciative tributes from leaders of organizations he supported as well as individuals who worked with him or just admired his frank manner and good heart.

Many say this plain-talking old lion of charitable giving changed the face of Omaha by funding major brick-and-mortar projects, some bearing the Holland name. Before the term social entrepreneurship came in vogue, he applied his wealth to humanistic causes in his hometown reflecting his broad interests.

Fellow Omaha philanthropist Todd Simon said, “Dick was a builder. He helped build and then supported many cultural, arts and human services organizations we take for granted today. He and my father (the late Fred Simon) had a kind of cultural brain-trust. As a kid, I remember going over to the Hollands’ house with my dad. They made plans to support the opera or symphony while listening to their favorite records. Today, I realize the seeds that grew into the foundation of Omaha’s cultural scene were planted in Dick Holland’s living room.”

As an adult, Simon said, “I learned so much about tenacity and determination from Dick, who accomplished so much in such an informal way. He was easy to approach and generous with his time – for seven decades.”

The accessible philanthropist kept a publicly listed phone number and often fielded calls himself from people seeking help. After listening to a plea, he’d tell personal assistant Deb Love, “We need to find a way to help them.” He usually did.

 

 

Holland’s various youthful escapades – Fuller Brush salesman, ice house laborer, drover, bookie – didn’t hint at his future except for his brass and hustle. The Omaha Central High graduate and World War II veteran found his calling at his father’s advertising agency. He then made his own way partnering in the Holland, Dreves, Reilly agency (later Swanson, Rollheiser, Holland) in the Mad Men era – its wild success rivaled only by Bozell and Jacobs. The devoted husband and father was all business but kew how to have fun, too. Valmont Industries became a breakthrough client that made him a player in the business-civic community.

In an interview, Holland said, “Some of the great lessons I learned in advertising, like how to talk to people to try and convince them of an idea, have served me well.”

He did things on his own terms. He once said, “I found out kind of early I didn’t want to work for somebody – I wanted to be my own boss.” He said a personality test developed by his brother Jack Holland pegged him “investigative, artistic and entrepreneurial.” His independent, outlier sensibilities found harbor in the Unitarian Church. Achieving wealth provided autonomy to follow his passions. He wealth came as an early investor in friend Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. He took credit for introducing Buffett to BH’s No. 2 man, Charlie Munger.

His real entry into circles of influence came after he and wife Mary formed a foundation that was the conduit for their giving the rest of their lives together. She died in 2006 (he earlier lost a son). He went right on giving and in his last decade he sought ever more opportunities to make a difference and leave a mark.

In a typical year, 2014, the Holland Foundation reported total giving as $19 million and total assets as $158 million.

His largesse can be seen downtown and midtown in the Holland Performing Arts Center, the Child Saving Institute and University of Nebraska Medical Center. In North Omaha his helping hand is seen at North Star Foundation and Jesuit Middle School. After breaking with Building Bright Futures, he formed the Holland Children’s Movement and Holland Children’s Institute to prepare and support at-risk youth for success from birth through college.

Virtually every Omaha arts organization of size benefited from his generosity and belief the arts enrich a community and attract new talent and business.

“The whole cultural scene is a big, big part of a community,” he told a reporter.

Arts leaders were present at a private celebration of his life held August 15 at the Holland Center – a favorite venue where he was a familiar presence. Members of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra accompanied singers performing operatic selections.

Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires said, “He well understood the impact the arts have on all of us. In the Holland Center’s 10th Anniversary video, he said  ‘I don’t know of anything I’ve done that satisfies me more. We made a difference for the happiness of the people of the town. We opened the door to new feelings of all kinds of beauty.’ That was Dick. I know it’s not ever going to be the same without hearing Dick’s bird calls at the conclusion of a performance.”

Holland was a Omaha University graduate who became a mega contributor to his alma mater. He made key gifts to the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Holland Computing Center and the Baxter Arena, whose Community Ice Center is dedicated to him. His support of UNMC played a significant role in that institution’s physical growth, including the Durham Research Centers, the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center and the College of Public Health.

 

The self-described “liberal Democrat” used the platform his fortune and status afforded by voicing opinions about social causes, railing against policies he opposed and throwing his weight behind bills and candidates he supported. He decried local, state, federal government not working together for the country’s betterment. He criticized Omaha’s failure to uplift a large segment of its minority population who experience poverty. “To me, that’s the worst thing Omaha does,” he said. Though he felt Omaha did public education well from elementary school through college, he bemoaned early childhood gaps and disparities between what inner city children receive and what suburban kids receive.

“I don’t see this so much as an intellectual problem but as a community problem,” he said. “We have all kinds of government programs designed to grab these people as they fall off the cliff. The failure is to raise them so they can climb cliffs.”

Someone privy to his most intimate deliberations was Deb Love, his personal assistant and a Holland Foundation staffer.

Love recalled the many op eds he submitted to the Omaha World-Herald and New York Times. “Sometimes his words were so frank, I would cringe and ask if maybe we should soften them a bit. He usually didn’t take my advice. He would stand up for what he believed.”

She said Holland was the same in private and public when speaking his mind, asking probing questions and seeking ways to remedy problems or meet needs.

“We worked side-by-side in his small home office,” she said, “and I heard every phone conversation, every meeting plan, every decision – personal and business. He would share his innermost feelings and thoughts and would ask my opinion. There are so many things I will miss about Dick: his humor, his advice, his wealth of knowledge. But most of all I will miss our private conversations. He was not only a boss, but a mentor, friend and father-figure.”

Similarly, Joan Squires of Omaha Performing Arts developed a fondness for Holland.

“Each of us has a chance to meet a few very special people in our lives. People that touch us and who we feel privileged to know. For me, one of those people was Dick Holland. He was so much more than a board member and donor – he was one of my closest friends.,” Squires said. “He was so widely read and intelligent, you found yourself scrambling to keep up. He was fun, he was funny and most of all, he cared for others.”

Love said despite grants totaling many millions of dollars over the foundation’s life, Holland never felt he did enough.

“He always wanted to help people in any way he could, whether financially, helping find a job or giving moral support. He was a man of such generosity and humor and very observant of people’s needs. Not long before he passed, he said, ‘I wish I was a magician and had more money to give to all Omaha organizations.’ His joy of giving was contagious. He always said there was nothing that made him feel better than helping someone else. He believed if you have the means, you should share with those who don’t.”

Love said she marveled at his magnanimous spirit.

“Dick treated everyone with the utmost respect. He thoroughly loved children and watching them learn and giving them opportunities to do so. When in public, he would always talk to children. He enjoyed giving his time and money to organizations that help underprivileged children. He wanted them to be able to experience Omaha as any other child would. Some of his donations provide educational opportunities as well as transportation to events at the Holland Center.”

His contributions were well recognized in his lifetime, including by the national Horatio Alger Association. But even someone so accomplished needed assurance in what he’d leave behind.

“He told me he didn’t want to be forgotten after he passed and wanted his foundation and legacy to go on for many years,” Love said. “I am so thankful I will continue to work for the Holland Foundation to carry on Dick’s legacy.”

Holland’s survivors include three daughters, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

A public memorial for Holland is pending.

 
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