He appeared before them in a nice suit holding the impressive title of president and managing director of GM Canada Ltd. Life, however, was not always this rosy for Kevin Williams, the youngest of 12 children, who grew up poor in a Maryland housing project.
At the second annual National Black Business and Professional Convention (NBBPC) and Leaders of Tomorrow student forum, Williams went to great lengths to explain to high school students the bumpy road he travelled from a ghetto neighbourhood with no role models to becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree and land a job as a top executive with one of the world’s largest automotive companies.
“I am nobody special but because of my commitment to excellence, hard work and the pursuit of education, I stand before you today,” he said in his keynote address. “My father drove the school bus on a military base and my mother worked three jobs until failing health forced her to stop working at age 41. My parents were never married and my dad left home when I was nine years old.”
Though all his brothers and sisters graduated from high school, none of them went on to pursue post-secondary education.
His oldest brother died before he was born, one died in a car crash shortly after returning from Vietnam as an alcoholic, another failed to fulfill the promise he showed as a Golden Gloves boxing champion and ended up as a carpenter and alcoholic, yet another brother came back from two tours of duty overseas as a drug addict and is still fighting the disease 30 years later while one – who is a year older than him – was released from prison last week after serving 16 years.
“I had no examples to draw upon but, young people, what I had was the audacity to dream big dreams that allow me to stand here today as the only African-American in the history of the largest automotive company in the world to become president and managing director of a $25 billion company,” he said.
“You all have a responsibility to dream big dreams by nature of who you are. You have that same possibility and you have to look beyond what is available and capture all the possibilities…You all have something that you are good at and I know that everyone of you has something to offer. You have the responsibility to find out what that is. You must believe in yourselves even when others don’t believe in you and you must stand tall and pursue all of your dreams. Remember, it’s your obligation to dream your own dreams and my direction to you today is to make them big dreams.”
The theme of this year’s event was Education + Job Creation = Financial Liberation: The Road to Generational Wealth.
The only conference of its kind in Canada, the Leaders of Tomorrow forum was incorporated into the NBBPC for the first time. The brainchild of Emery Collegiate Institute’s principal, Icilda Elliston and her daughter, Kareena, who is a TD Canada Trust management associate, the forum exposes Grade 11 and 12 students from some of the city’s designated priority neighbourhoods to business and career opportunities.
It also seeks to encourage and inspire students to strive for academic excellence and economic independence. Students took part in workshops that focused on interview skills, business etiquette, professional conduct and best practices, money management, cutting edge advancements in technology and strategic life mapping.
“By fulfilling your own promise and your own excellence, you can achieve greatness,” Williams told the students. “The job market is a bit challenging right now and there are fewer jobs. That means you will need more and more education and training. In order to qualify, you must prepare yourselves for a higher level…
“And, remember, never let the noise of someone else’s opinion drown out your own inner voice. You must have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition that will determine what you will become.”
Williams, who began his career with GM in 1983 as a reliability analyst, chided some of the youth who are fooling around with their education, telling them to quit making excuses for their lack of knowledge and capabilities. He also issued a stark reminder that there is no room for mediocrity in the executive suite, or anywhere else for that matter.
“Light your own internal fire, make education a priority and unleash the power of your potential,” he said. “The key is education, not explanation, and you must pursue the academic fields of excellence. It doesn’t matter where your degree comes from – Calgary, Harvard, Yale or even in the mail – the key is that you must have one…There are far too many young people walking around just hoping and trying. Is that you? Hope is not a strategy. Just quit trying and do.
“Excellence is the only answer for your success. A Grade ‘C’ wouldn’t see you through. You have been given tremendous opportunity to be in school. You must make yourselves responsible for the highest standard that anyone else expects of you.
“By making excellence your standard, you will also be able to stand in places where giants have stood.”
Williams and his wife are the parents of two daughters. The eldest is enrolled in Yale while the youngest is the top student in her Grade 11 class at The York School in Toronto.