CEO Panel focuses on overcoming hardships


Brittany Hively

The spring 2021 CEO Panel was held virtual. Pictured top left, Brad D. Smith; top right, Chris Gardner; bottom, Shellye Archambeau.

The Lewis College of Business, Brad D. Smith Schools of Business, hosted their third CEO Panel under the Dean’s Distinguished Speakers Series, on Wednesday, Mar. 3.

Marshall University alumnus, Brad D. Smith was joined by Shellye Archambeau and Chris Gardner for a brief speech and fireside style chat with questions from the audience via Zoom.

“The goal of this fireside chat is to provide insight and inspiration for the audience and further encourage them to apply their talent and energy to pursue their passion and create opportunities for themselves and their communities,” said Avinandan Mukherjee, Dean of Lewis College of Business.

Shellye Archambeau, one of tech’s first Black – female CEOs, is a board member for Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies and Okta, Inc. — as well as published “Unapologetically Ambitious” last year.

Chris Gardner, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and author of the critically acclaimed book “Pursuit of Happyness,” which was the basis of the award-winning movie starring Will Smith.

Archambeau spoke about how one can change the odds in their favor, life is hard and how she had no business achieving the things she has achieved.

“When I was little and tiny… a little girl. You think back those decades and decades ago. You wouldn’t see who you see today,” said Archambeau. “I was born to a family where my father didn’t have a college degree; mom was a stay-at-home mom; mom had four kids in less than five years. Money was so tight, and mom made all of our clothing. I didn’t eat at my first real restaurant until I was in high school.”

Shellye Archambeau, one of tech’s first Black – female CEOs, is a board member for Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies and Okta, Inc. — as well as published “Unapologetically Ambitious” last year. (Brittany Hively )

Archambeau also recounted her family making a huge move in the 60s when times were tense, and there were just as many people who did not want civil and equal rights as there were who did want them.

“My family is living in Philadelphia. I’m six years old, and we move over Christmas of all times to California because Dad has a new opportunity,” Archambeau said. “We moved to a suburb in LA, and this is the 60s. And we moved into a neighborhood where I was the only Black girl in the school. People made it very clear to me, at that very young age, that they didn’t want me around.”

She witnessed various abuses throughout her early years, but said she had parents who were determined to counteract the bad days and teach her a valuable lesson.

“When you come home, and things happen to you, people push you down, or hurt you or call you names, etc. You come home, and you complain, and you say, ‘it’s not fair,’” Archambeau said. “And instead of my mom just hugging me and saying, ‘better next time, so sorry etc.’ She’d still hug me, but she’d say, ‘Shellye, life’s not fair, so you need to decide what you’re going to do about that.’”

She also talked about being helpful to people and building relationships and how those relationships make people look past the stereotypes. Archambeau discussed how she thought she could do business because someone had compared it to a club, and she liked clubs.

“I said great. I want to run a business. And when I looked around, people who run businesses are called CEOs, so I said, I wanna be a CEO,” she said. “Did I know what that meant? No, I had no clue. I picked it because she said it was like running a club. It gave me a goal.”

Archambeau said deciding what she wanted to do led her to research what was needed to accomplish that goal and to form a plan. This helped her accomplish the goal because she was prepared, which she said was important because the odds were not in her favor.

“When I looked up 16 CEOs, not a single one looked like me. No females that I see or people that were Black,” she said. “I wasn’t getting a ton of encouragement either. But I determined I was going to do it.”

And she did. She became one of the youngest executives named at IBM. She was the first African American female sent as an executive overseas to run a multimillion-dollar company and eventually was one of the first Black female CEOs.

One big thing Archambeau emphasized was to ask for help.

“You take a lot of help. Life is hard. Nobody achieves all this stuff by themselves. We all had help and support along the way. It is not a weakness to ask for help, it is actually a strength,” she said.

Gardner spoke about a few of the hard experiences of life he had experienced, including foster care, being homeless, being an abandoned child, no father figure, sexual assault and domestic violence survivor, a single parent, and being Black.

“At the beginning of this pandemic, I was trying to explain to my granddaughter where we all are right now, and the best analogy that I could come up with was that of an earthquake,” Gardner said. “An earthquake that shook the entire planet at the same time. This is where we have all had to make a hard pivot. A hard pivot being defined as something that you would have never chosen, but you still got to make it work.”

Gardner said all of the hard pivots and experiences of life that everyone has had to make at some points have prepared them to move forward.

He also discussed how change is not coming, but it has already been here.

Gardner talked about the scare of Y2K and the youth born during that time who have since went through 9/11, the global financial crisis, political polarization and a pandemic- all “big dramatic, frightening change.”

Chris Gardner, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and author of the critically acclaimed book “Pursuit of Happyness,” which was the basis of the award-winning movie starring Will Smith. (Brittany Hively )

He said change is always here, but this generation is equipped for it in a different way.

“There has never been a generation better prepared to embrace, create or demand change than this generation right here,” Gardner said. “Just look at their timeline. Change is in their DNA.”

Gardner now goes all across America speaking to schools and sharing his story. The pandemic moved his tours to virtual, and he went from a scheduled 100 schools to speaking at 1,000 schools. He said when he interacts and sees the young people, he sees the future.

Gardner said he believes the best thing he can do is to “invest in human capital.”

“What I’m doing right now in public education is the largest investment that I will ever make in my 35-year career on Wallstreet, and I will not make a dime,” Gardner said. “I’m making a huge, alternative investment in human capital.

“This is not about doing good; feel good. We are the world. This is about job readiness, workforce preparation,” he said. “And when I’m with young people, I share with them the most important and the greatest gift that I ever got in my life, which was permission to dream.”

Gardner said he thanks God every day. His mother told him that he could do or be anything he wanted, but she never said he could have everything, buy anything or that he was guaranteed or entitled anything.

“And to me, that was an even bigger statement. Because if you could do or be anything, all of the other things will come,” Gardner said. “Permission to dream, if I could give it to everyone in America, I would. Actually, I choose to right now because I am the CEO of Happyness, and I love my job.”

Gardner said he believes the permission to dream could be what heals the country.

Smith talked about some of his favorite parts of both Archambeau and Gardner’s talks. He frequently mentioned that he loves and says that is a chapter in life all three of them are currently in.

“All of us should inspire to plant trees under whose shade we will never set, but others will be able to benefit from that shade,” Smith said.

Smith talked about how coronavirus has changed the world and everyone in it and asked if the American dream was still possible.

“The biggest change to the American dream is that it’s gone global,” Gardner said. “Because of globalization and technology, the people that you’re now competing with are not in your classroom. The people that you’re competing with are all around the world. The people you are competing with are someplace… grinding. They’re practicing; they’re networking; they’re researching; that’s going to make the difference in who signs the front of the check and who signs the back of the check.”

Sometimes motivation can be something as simple as proving oneself, and Archambeau shared her simple motivation.

“I’m capable, I can actually do things, and I wanted to be respected,” said Archambeau.

All three CEOs discussed the importance of sales and how they started in sales, but they believe everyone should work in sales at some point in their careers.

They also talked about how it is important to have a clear and concise plan for what one wants to achieve.

Smith offered his thoughts here and there, but one thing that stood out was what he has learned from the pandemic.

“We’re all looking into screens, and in one way we’re distanced and the other way we’re coming into each other’s living rooms and sometimes their kitchens,” Smith said. “We have dogs and kids coming in, and we’re really getting to see another side of life and just how challenging we all are trying to balance this, so I think empathy is important.

“I think the importance of choosing fewer things and making them matter. And adaptability, we’ve learned to adjust, and we’re finding silver linings in these clouds,” Smith said. “I think that’s the opportunity we have to seize right now, just come out of this not thinking about reopening, but think about reimagined. What is possible now, and how do we embrace it and take it to a whole new level.”

Brad D. Smith, executive chairman of Intuit, chairman of Nordstrom’s board of directors, SurveyMonkey board member, co-founder of Wing 2 Wing Foundation. (Brittany Hively)

It is no secret Smith’s, a West Virginian through and through. He said the mountains that once served as barriers are now welcome signs to the world. He said West Virginia has unmatched assets, and the tailwinds are blowing in the state’s favor.

“Studies suggest that rural has become the new urban. People that have been sheltered in place for a year in these big cities with one-hour commutes and cost of living that are just absurd,” Smith said. “[They] want to be out in an environment where they are a part of a community where they are surrounded by kind people, and they are surrounded by outdoor opportunities and just a great quality of life, and West Virginia has all of that.”

The panel ended with Mukherjee giving closing remarks and thanking the CEOs for extending an invitation for them to visit the campus.

Gardner shared his hope for the future with one statement.

“2020 showed us what could be, 2021 is where we show what can be. Could suggest the possibility of, can is a statement of fact,” Gardner said.

Brittany Hively can be contacted at [email protected]