Question: What prompted you to start your own company?
Answer: Being fired by BET (Black Entertainment Television) back in 2001. We had been on the air for five years. There was huge outrage in black America but it was a wonderful blessing, because at BET I was an employee. When I got fired I said to myself this will never happen again and since then everything has been about me owning what I do and controlling my content. My whole philosophy on business and life changed. And here I am today talking to you.
Q: What would you say has been key to your success in building the Smiley Group over the past six years?
A: When I started my business my grandfather told me, "Tavis, be clear about why you are going into business. It has to be about more than being the boss because there is a lot that goes into running your own business." When those difficult days come at you, the only thing that sustains you is remembering why you are doing it.
Q: So, why are you doing it?
A: I view my work on radio, on television, in print, on the Internet, my public appearances, my speeches and my lectures as a way to empower people with information. I believe that information is power. My role is to empower them, to give them information that can help them live better. You can't lead people if you don't love people. And you can't save people if you don't serve people.
Q: Do you see any disconnect between being a private for-profit company and having what is in many respects a public service mandate?
A: There is not really a conflict because the mandate of our company is really about loving and serving people through these mediums. First and foremost, I don't see myself as an entrepreneur. We try to run a company that doesn't lose money but I see myself as an advocate. I occupy an entrepreneurial space but my mission is advocacy.
Q: How exactly do your television and radio programs fulfill this mission of advocacy that you have articulated?
A: You cannot survive on public TV or public radio as a black guy just expecting black folks to watch. But black, brown, red and yellow brothers and sisters are tuning in now because we are addressing issues that are important to them. We have the PBS TV show and we are doing some other specials on PBS next year. These presidential debates, the one I moderated in June with all the Democrats and the one coming up with the Republicans, are produced by TS Media and distributed by PBS. In addition to my radio program, we have a deal with PRI to produce other shows that I can't talk about in detail at the moment.
Q: In addition to the radio and television, the Smiley Group has several other divisions including a speakers bureau. How does the speakers bureau fit into the company's overall mission?
A: I think it is important that the voices of certain people be heard. We represent not just me, but also Princeton professor Cornel West, Olympic athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee and TV judge Glenda Hatchett. Often times, people of color feel maltreated in the speakers bureau industry and not properly prompted or booked. There is a lack of cultural competence in some aspects of the industry. Without sounding self-indulgent, I am accustomed to traveling in a certain way and the speakers bureau makes sure that all of our speakers are treated the way I am treated.
Q: Is the reasoning behind the book imprint similar? What are you trying to accomplish with that venture?
A: A lot of people have something to say and the publishing industry is really crazy. You have to do some crazy things to get a book deal. I just think that is pretty stupid and so I started a book imprint, Hay House distributes it. Early this year we put one of our books on the New York Times bestsellers list. Next month we are having a huge launch party for Smiley Books in New York City to let people know we are out there, we are looking at manuscripts.
Q: You also have an events production arm. What led to the establishment of that division?
A: Every couple of years I grab a hold of a topic and we literally put together a tour around that theme and we travel to big cities and small towns encouraging folks to address this issues. We just finished up a tour called "A Road to Health" that went for a few years. It was sponsored by Kaiser Permanente. A few years before that I did a thing called "Blacks in Technology" that was sponsored by Hewlett Packard and Microsoft. It traveled the country talking about getting black folks on the information superhighway so they wouldn't end up as road kill.
Q: You have been very successful at getting companies such as Wells Fargo, Toyota and Microsoft to sponsor your ventures. What has been the key element in getting these major corporations to invest in you and your worldview?
A: Some of these companies have made decisions about co-branding with me based upon my very high Q-rating. This is something I just discovered a couple of days ago. Apparently there is some connection that people have to me, and the authenticity of our brand, which I was pleased to hear about. I think the larger issue is that we live in the most multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic America ever. And I think that companies who are smart understand that the consumer base is shifting. We are a pretty good conduit to that audience while at the same time our brand doesn't offend the traditional customer.
Q: Some have argued that there is a dearth of African-American business owners and entrepreneurs. Do you agree with that assessment?
A: There are a lot of brothers and sisters who are holding on. The real challenge to being a black entrepreneur, as everybody knows, is lack of access to capital. So that if you do succeed, clearly you are succeeding against the odds. There is no debate about that. I believe in capitalism. The only thing wrong with capitalism is that they get the capital and we get the isms, the racism, the sexism, cronyism and the good old boy-ism.
Q: What do you find most challenging about being an entrepreneur, of sorts, and running your own business?
A: I am the first to admit it and my executive staff knows that I feel burdened by personnel matters. The day-to-day of human resources is a real challenge to me. It is not my favorite thing to do but I recognize that any operation to the extent that it is successful is successful because of its people. But as our company has grown from one employee to more people than I can count, the personnel issues have been the greatest challenge to me.
Q: When you are making those hiring decisions, what are the character traits that you look for in potential hires? What character traits have you found fit best in the Smiley Group?
A: Passion is most important especially for the kind of work we do, which is essentially advocacy on behalf of the least among us in our society. When I am hiring, once I read the obligatory stuff, what I'm looking for is their passion. What is the depth of their love for people? And what kind of service to these people have you provided in your past life?
Q: What is a typical day for you?
A: I am in the office about 4:45 a.m. to do my radio show, which feeds to the East Coast. My radio studio is in a building we bought six years ago here in Leimert Park in the Crenshaw district. At about 11 a.m. I head over to the TV studio, where I have lunch, and I spend the bulk of the afternoon on the TV side. After I leave the TV studio, I meet with my trainer to workout. And then I get back to work, either at my home office or at the main building, for a couple of more hours, which takes me to about 7 p.m.. Then it is time for dinner. By the time I am done with dinner, two courier packages have arrived at my house with information about tomorrow's shows that I have to go over. I make it to my bed no later than 10 p.m.
Q: You were born in Mississippi and raised in Indiana. Why have you decided to make Los Angeles your home base?
A: I came out here to work with Mayor Tom Bradley and L.A. has always been kind to me. I do serious media stuff, which in some ways is antithetical in many people's minds to living in L.A. You think L.A., you think Hollywood. I don't really occupy that sort of space. It allowed me an opportunity to distinguish myself as something different. My radio show was the first show in the history of NPR to broadcast live everyday from Los Angeles. NPR now owns a building in Culver City with tons of employees.
Q: Why did you decide to base your company in Leimert Park?
A: It is important for me to be specifically in Crenshaw because I am a community guy. I love operating in, working in, eating in, getting my hair cut in, and living in the community. I love the community so it was important for us to not only stay in the community but take a building on a block that was an eyesore and turn it into something beautiful so we can say to the community we can turn this around.
Q: In recent months, there has been a great deal of debate in the community surrounding the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. What is your take on the demise of that institution?
A: It spoke to a lack of quality political leadership. It broke the spirit and the backbone of the folks who rely on that facility. The hospital is a little further down the road but I am in the hood. Everyday I see people who can't afford services and it is not just health, but if you ain't got your health, then you ain't got nothing. I just cannot imagine being a member of the political leadership and allowing that to happen.
Company: Smiley Group Inc.
Born: 1964; Gulfport, Miss.
Education: B.S., law and public policy, Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind.
Career Turning Point: Being fired by Black Entertainment Television in 2001
Most Influential People: Parents Joyce and Emory Smiley, Cornel West and Martin Luther King Jr.
Personal: Single and lives in Hancock Park
Hobbies: Playing Scrabble, attending concerts and reading
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