If there was ever someone who wasn’t supposed to make it big in the world, if ever someone was supposed to get swallowed up by poverty and despair, it was J.T. McCormick.
And if ever there was someone to tell the story of entrepreneurial spirit at the Junior Achievement Youth Summit on Thursday morning, it was J.T. McCormick.
Talk about a guy who has proven anything is possible.
“You only fail if you stop trying,” McCormick told about 85 students from area high schools and programs (Gates Chili, Monroe, World of Inquiry, U Prep and Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection) and their mentors at the second annual summit at Monroe Community College.
Surrounded by poverty, drugs and prostitution in Dayton, Ohio, and Houston, Texas, and dealing with physical and sexual abuse as a child, McCormick never stopped trying.
His dad was a pimp and drug dealer, a man who fathered 23 children. “And no more than three with any woman,” McCormick said.
His mother was raised in an institutional orphanage in the 1950s. “She never saw the outside of those four walls,” he said. She was in no way prepared to enter the world alone, McCormick said. His smooth-talking father was the last person she needed to meet but ended up being one of the first.
At age 5, his father left him alone in a hotel room to care for his 6-month-old half-sister—and then was thrown out of the room because one of his father’s working girls needed the room. At age 12, he was left alone for three weeks to care for his three of his half-sisters and brothers, ages 2, 3 and 4.
“When we ran out of food, I left the 4-year-old to care for the 2- and 3-year-old so I could go to the store and steal food,” he said.
Predictably, he was in and out of juvenile detention centers three times.
Unpredictably, he prevailed. He earned his high school diploma—”I was 15 the first time I ever heard the word ‘geometry,’ ” he said—and set out to conquer life.
He did pretty well, too. He ended up the CEO of a software company with four offices in Texas, one in Mexico and hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. Now, at 47, he’s president and CEO of Scribe Media.
“I’m the CEO of a publishing company, and Lord knows I can’t tell you the difference between an adverb and a pronoun,” McCormick said.
He can, however, talk about determination and willpower.
“My first job out of high school was to clean toilets,” he told summit attendees. “I decided, ‘If this is going to be my job, I’m going to have the cleanest toilets in Texas,’ ” he said.
“I was fortunate that people would see I was willing to go the extra mile,” he said. “People ask, ‘How’d you do it, how’d you not end up in prison, how’d you not end up hooked on drugs?’ I chose not to be a victim, I chose not to blame other people. I can’t change it (his upbringing) but I can change the next day, the next month, the next year.”
The message was very much what Junior Achievement tries to convey to today’s youth.
“Many of these kids don’t have entrepreneurs in the household so we not only want to give them skills and knowledge, we want to inspire them,” said Patty Leva, president and CEO of Junior Achievement of Central Upstate New York.
The feedback JA hears often from teachers, Leva said, is that students need to learn risk-taking, problem solving, collaboration and critical thinking. “They’re skills used by all entrepreneurs, but employers want employees using all those skills, too,” she said.
Following McCormick’s talk, the students met with mentors from the local business community, most of whom ran their own business or operated an entrepreneurial enterprise on the side. They learned about the marketplace and needs, about innovation, about funding and about selling their idea.
“This is really about inspiring students to say, ‘Maybe that is for me,’ ” Leva said, “turning that I can’t into I can.”
Listening to McCormick certainly reinforced that message.
“Where I came from you had three options: rapper, athlete or drug dealer, and I sucked at all three,” McCormick said. “Your odds of becoming (rapper) Kendrick Lamar are astronomical. But entrepreneurship? The odds are in your favor. I’m proof you can do it.”
[email protected]/(585) 653-4020-