Saturday, April 11, 2009

GEEKS Gone Great Talks with Dr. Randal Pinkett

by Sheila Marionneaux

“Being very good at what you do, and being excellent at what you do, is not a solution to racism, but it is one of the best counter-strategies.”

--Dr. Randal Pinkett

Blacks Gone Geek (BGG) chats with Dr. Randal Pinkett, Chairman and CEO of BCT Partners for perspective and insight on his mindset for success getting through these disruptive times.
Click here to see Dr. Pinkett’s bio.

BGG: Dr. Pinkett, your website and bio featuring your professional service offerings and achievements are like looking at The Game of Life – but without a single mediocre square to land on! You’re a former NCAA Division 1 athlete, a Rhodes Scholar who holds five academic degrees, from MIT, of course Oxford, and Rutgers-- you’re CEO and Founder of five ventures, a published author of two books, with a third to launch this year; you’re in high demand on the speaker circuit, and you are an active community leader and head a prominent family. To add to that, you were even Season 4’s winner of NBC’s hit reality show, “The Apprentice”, with Donald Trump! How is it that you raised the bar to accomplish so much for yourself? How did you get there?

RP: I would say it all goes back to my foundation, my upbringing, and that combined with having really great people placed in my life at various times. My father had a background in math and science. He attended Morgan State University where he studied math and, therefore, he was a big believer in exposing my older brother Dan and me to the sciences and technology. When we were kids we wanted a video game. He bought us a computer! We were like, “what is this”?! We wanted Atari and wound up with a Commodore VIC-20! For the longest time we left the computer in the box without opening it. And then we got curious. We didn’t have any games on it so we got the manual and started playing around and programming games ourselves; eventually Dan and I sort of got hooked on the computer, spending more time on the computer than we were outside playing sports!

My technology foundation comes from my father and his vision. On the other hand, my mother is the most organized person on the planet! Not only is she extremely organized, she also has high expectations. When we were growing up she always told us, “If you’re going to do something, do it right, or don’t bother doing it at all.” Because of my mother’s belief in hard work and discipline, mediocrity was never even an option when it came to my brother and I getting good grades in school.

In fact, I just took some things for granted because I just didn’t know any other way. I always knew that I had to work hard and get good grades. That foundation really provided me with the right set of tools growing up and then going to college and even later as I started my career.

Fortunately during my years at Rutgers, I became close friends with four gentlemen: Lawrence Hibbert, Jeffrey Robinson, Dallas Grundy and Aldwyn Porter. We were all involved with the Rutgers Chapter of the National Black Society of Engineers (NSBE) and ultimately started a business together while in college. That business evolved into the firm I run today, BCT Partners. To this day they all remain my closest friends. In fact, Lawrence, Dallas, Jeffrey and I have been business partners for more than 15 years now.

BGG: I have to ask the question may likely going to trigger more than a few responses. As an African American Male in the United States of America, the land of opportunity for some and oppression for many, how did you beat the odds or “buck the system” of the “Black Man in America” factor?

RP: Good question. I would argue that I’m still trying to “buck that system”! From my vantage point, I still face challenges that stem from the fact that I am a Black man and the playing field is not level, at any level. So I still find myself having to work twice as hard or overcome twice the obstacles at times. It’s a little disheartening but true. And if it’s still hard for me then what does that say here in 2009 about others who don’t have the kind of support that I’ve been fortunate to receive? We still have a lot of work to do. But to your point earlier, being very good at what you do, and being excellent at what you do is not a solution to racism, but it is one of the best counter-strategies. It’s harder for someone to hold you back or to deny you opportunity or to circumvent what indeed may be your destiny, when you’re very good at what you do. As an entrepreneur who runs a technology company I must be excellent. As a minority-owned business my firm, BCT Partners, must be excellent. It doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it definitely makes it harder for people to hold us back.

BGG: That is such a key point! There it is….

BGG: So more about your journey. Why Oxford?

RP: As I was graduating college, one of my professors at Rutgers approached me and asked if I had I ever considered applying for the Rhodes scholarship. I had never heard of the Rhodes scholarship! The Rhodes Scholarship is perhaps the most prestigious scholarship and provides funding to study abroad at Oxford University for up to three years. Past Rhodes Scholars include President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice David Souter, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and Senator Bill Bradley, just to name a few. It was something I couldn’t pass up. I was optimistic entering the competition but I certainly wasn’t banking on it. No African American in the history of Rutgers had ever won the Rhodes Scholarship. By the grace of God I was named a recipient. So while I had applied to other graduate programs in the U.S., I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to study at Oxford. I’m proud to say that even to this day I remain the only African American in the history of Rutgers to receive the Rhodes Scholarship.

BGG: You were Captain of Rutgers University Men’s Track and Field Team (1989-1994), right? What were your event(s)?

RP: I was a high jumper, a long jumper and occasionally a sprinter.

BGG: Are there any correlations to be drawn around certain training disciplines that you apply in your professional life?

RP: Absolutely! I studied electrical engineering in college which was a significant demand on my time. Every semester I had 5 or 6 classes of largely math and science-based classes plus an elective. In addition to that I was an NCAA Division I athlete. I attended track practice at least two hours every day and travelled to competitions both during the week and on the weekends. Sometimes I would miss class time and study time while I was on the road for competitions. I was also heavily involved in the National Society of Black Engineers and trying to have a social life! The one thing I learned early in college, not just with track but with the totality of all my extracurricular activities was, first, the ability to first multi-task and, second, the ability to focus in on what I’m doing when I’m doing it. So for example, if I had an exam on Friday and had to compete at a track and field meet on Saturday, I would block out that exam and focus on what I needed to do on the athletic field. Once the meet was over, I had to get back into the mindset of being a student to get ready for another exam Monday.

So I learned how to filter out distractions, concentrate and be very good at what I’m doing at a given time and then transition my attention to what might be my next priority. This ability was directly transferrable to my life as an entrepreneur. I wear so many hats at BCT Partners, with my primary hat being that of business developmnent. I spend most of my time cultivating new clients. But whether I’m on the road cultivating clients or making sure I’m staying abreast of the latest trends in information technology, I have to be able to wear each of those hats very well.

BGG: Dr. Pinkett, we couldn’t let our time with you end without talking about the show, “ Apprentice”. How did that come about?

RP: The idea for me to go on the show was my wife’s idea! Zahara was a fan of the show. Sometimes we’d watch it together. She encouraged me to look into getting on the show. Honestly, I never really thought about going on a reality TV show! We had a few follow-up conversations with her insisting that she thought I could win. She went online and found the application for the show, downloaded it and put it on my desk! She basically convinced me to fill it out. About one month later I got a call from one of the producers saying they wanted to talk to me. So at that point I started taking it a little more seriously and the rest is history. I was selected to be on the show and, thankfully, I won. I worked for Trump Entertainment Resorts in Atlantic City, NJ, for one year. Incredibly, still to this day I’m the only person of color who has won on the show.

BGG: I love your Apprentice Lessons Learned Blog. For Episode Five’s show, where Dennis Rodman was fired, you wrote: “Tough assignments let you show off your abilities and your great work ethic. There are no small jobs - only small workers”. What is a small worker?

RP: A small worker is someone who thinks that they’re above doing small tasks. I believe that you should never be above doing anything. I believe you do what you have to do to get the job done, no matter what it is, and, that no task is ever beneath you. When you get into that kind of thinking, then you begin to think that what you do is better than what other people do, etc. and that’s the beginning of a very dangerous and slippery slope.

BGG: And speaking of a slippery slope, we’re living in a very surreal period, what with the shrinking job market, fading advancement opportunities, catastrophic economic and housing challenges. What overall parting words can you leave our BGG audience that will help us face whatever challenging factors looming?

RP: I would advise people to think of their careers as their own private business. That is one of my favorite quotes from Earl Graves. Entrepreneurs think about how they can take advantage of opportunities that may exist. Because whether it’s a strong economy, a moderate economy or a weak economy, there’s still an economy. So there must be opportunities that can be leveraged. While there may be different opportunities in a weak economy than in a strong one, opportunities still exist. And if people think about their career as a business, they begin to think creatively about the opportunities the market is willing to offer. They begin to ask some very important questions: Where are the pockets of opportunity? What are the skill sets that are still in demand? How do I position myself to go after those opportunities? Even in these tough times, there are still areas that are growing. There are still professions that are facing shortages. There are still jobs that remain unfilled. I believe a measure of creativity, innovation, vision, and initiative in seeking out job opportunities – the same approach an entrepreneur would take in seeking out market opportunities – stands the best chance of getting results.

BGG: Just more question, any relation to Jada?

RP: (Laughs) Great question! There is no relation that I am aware of directly. However, I have to say that every African American Pinkett I’ve ever encountered, including Jada, has roots in the Southeast shore of Maryland. My theory is that we’re all likely related and migrated from the same area.

BGG: Thank you so much for sharing a glimpse of your story with us, I know there is still so much we didn’t cover, but like they say if you want to know more, read the book right? Seriously yours is such a powerful story and inspiring to a young person reading this, to understand that being a geek early can lead to GREAT things!

RP: Absolutely! Thank you! I encourage people to get copies of my books: the forthcoming, Black Faces in White Places: 10 Strategies for African Americans to Redefine the Game and Reshape America; No-Money Down CEO: How to Start Your Dream Business with Little or No Cash; and Campus CEO: The Student Entrepreneur’s Guide in Launching a Multimillion-Dollar Business. I will close by saying that there are a LOT of wealthy people in this world that are, were, or continue to be geeks. So if that’s what it means to be a geek, then I’ll be a geek for life!

To learn more about Dr. Randal Pinkett, visit or

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