In November 2016, NFL Hall of Famer and real estate developer Bruce Smith, frustrated by a decade of opposition to his varied proposals to develop land at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, wrote an open letter to then-Mayor Will Sessoms and more than 40 elected officials suggesting that racial prejudice was at the root of the constant rejection.
Smith noted his many qualifications as a developer and pointedly asked: “Is the Virginia Beach establishment safely guarding its gates to ensure that its most hallowed and exclusive club remains forever closed to minorities?”
His letter and his continued public advocacy led the Virginia Beach Council to commission a disparity study focusing on minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses. The study results, revealed this fall, provided data to buttress Smith’s contention, as it showed substantial disparities in how the city awarded contracts.
On Monday, Smith came to Norfolk Academy as part of Upper School Multicultural Day, organized by the school’s UNITID Club, to discuss his quest for just and fair treatment as a businessman. He appeared on a panel with distinguished business and civic leaders, all African-American, who shared moments of their individual journeys to success.
In addition to Smith, the panel included:
- Maurice Jones, President and CEO of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, who is former Secretary of Commerce for Virginia (under former Gov. Terry McAuliffe) and a former senior official in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (under President Obama)
- Norfolk Treasurer Daun Hester, who is a former member of Virginia House of Delegates and Norfolk City Council
- Owen Griffin, Managing Partner and CFO at OSHAKits, a company that he and a partner started as entrepreneurs
- Iris McClish, Director of BBC Research & Consulting, who conducted the disparity study for Virginia Beach
In the course of answering students' questions, submitted before the event, the panelists revealed that all had encountered racial bias and adversity along the way—sometimes outright prejudice and sometimes, unconscious bias; however, each one forged ahead, finding life lessons, and even humor, in some of the most painful moments.
Maurice Jones recalled a time when he was on an economic development trip to Germany with Gov. McAuliffe. He walked in behind the governor and was approached by a German official who asked him, “How long have you been doing security for the governor?” Jones defused the assumption, rife with prejudiced attitudes, with a humorous comment.
Griffin noted that when he walks into the room with his business partner, who is a white male, clients often direct most of their remarks to his partner, assuming that he is the owner. “Perception is the biggest thing to overcome,” he noted.
All panelists emphatically agreed that treating everyone equally in the current moment does not provide an adequate remedy for a nation that has had discrimination since its founding. Jones used the metaphor of a race--when the gun goes off, some runners are standing five miles back, and there is no possibility that they can ever catch up.
“You have to figure out how to treat people at the point they are in the journey...and give them what they need to prosper,” Jones said.
The panelists spoke passionately to the students about cultivating the skills and moral fortitude to be ethical leaders. They touched on the need to find good mentors, to work hard in school, and to be selfless.
Smith gave an example that touched on the value of active curiosity: Even when he was in the NFL, amassing records that made him a legend, he understood that he needed to think about his future and capitalize on the opportunity that his sports accomplishments presented. “I started studying during the off-season how real estate deals were done,” he said. “Friends of mine allowed me to sit in on meetings.”
Smith was vindicated in his quest for fair treatment in Virginia Beach, and his actions exemplified a trait that Jones emphasized in his closing remarks to students. “Resilience...your ability to lose and get up, your ability to fail and get up. That’s the most important asset for a leader,” he said. “You have to play the long game.”