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American Airline Exec Offers Inspiration at HP Black History Month Event

February 24, 2011

I spent Wednesday with the Hewlett Packard Black Employee Leadership Council at their Black History Month event.

I was invited by Jambey Clinkscales, the chair of the BELC and the program manager for  Americas Web Hosting. Jambey wanted me to meet with other HP leaders, including Senior Vice President Tony Prophet and BELC co-Chair Dionne Morgan.

I have covered many events like this but what made this special was the keynote speaker, American Airlines Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Monte Ford.

He shared how several events in his childhood led him to be as successful as he is today.

“ I was a pretty good student but somewhere about the 6th or 7th grade I became distracted. My mom tricked me into signing up with ABC,” he said.

American Airlines SVP Monte Ford and HP SVP Tony Prophet

A Better Chance is an organization started in 1963 by headmasters at independent schools who wanted to change the composition of their student bodies. According to ABC’s website, the schools broadened their enrollment by accepting students of color who were economically disadvantaged but academically able.

Ford said one day his parents put him and a trunk of clothes in the car and began driving. They didn’t tell him where they were going but he was suspicious from the beginning.

“My mother would always wear a hat and gloves if she was going somewhere special,” he said.

He ended up at a military school near the Quantico Marine Base, which he “hated for about a week.”

But Ford soon fell in love with the discipline, the academics and the environment.

“It was run by the Marines and taught by nuns and you know who was feared most,” he said to laughter.

Ford eventually attended Northeastern University and decided that he wanted to work in technology. But one day a counselor discouraged him from following his dream and suggested he go into government.

There was an African American security guard who overheard the conversation and followed him out of the building.

“The guard pulled me aside and asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to go into technology but I guess I was going to have to work in government. He pushed me up against the building and said, ‘You do what you want to do and if you fail, then you can go into government.’”

That brought more laughs from the audience but he was describing what happens to many African Americans, including me.

When I joined the Navy in 1971 my test scores were high enough where I could go into any field I wanted.  At the time, the Navy was trying to diversify its officer ranks. Based on my scores my company commander recommended me for Officer Candidates School. That’s where enlisted personnel get a chance to become commissioned officers.

I was told I was medically unfit for OCS because of my color sight. Not knowing any better I said okay. I then decided to go into data processing but was told I couldn’t do that either because, “the wires are color coded and you may have a problem. I ended up in Supply.

Ford has had to prove himself over and over again. He described how one of his supervisors wanted to take him off the account of a client that was about to make some major acquisitions because, ‘you’re going to be in a room with a lot of older, White men and they just won’t be able to relate to you. I want you to be successful and I don’t want to take a chance.’

Ford came back later and told him that he was a good person and was just as competent as anybody else on the staff and had faith in himself so he saw no reason to come off the account. “And if you take me off the account, I’ll sue you,” he said. He stayed on the account and made the company a lot of money.

Ford’s success is a beacon of hope for many women and people of color who may have struggled in the business world. He has been able to pave the way for other African Americans at his places of employment, including American Airlines.

“I can create an environment where people understand they’re not taking a chance by hiring the Black guy,” he said.

He said he’s done this by earning the trust of his colleagues and co-workers with his competence.

That’s a good lesson for us all.

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