Business leaders to Detroit students: ‘Be determined’

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Dream big. Take risks. Don’t be afraid to fail. Challenge authority. Give back to pull others forward.

Those were among the takeaways presented to 64 Mumford High School ninth-graders during a leadership day event Tuesday at Baker College’s Auburn Hills campus. It was hosted by Beyond Basics, which is part of their Expanding Horizons series. It provides an opportunity for high school students from the Detroit Public Schools Community District to learn from successful community leaders.

In its 10-year history, this is the first Leadership Day held on the campus of a college or university.

Beyond Basics is a 501(c)(3) student-centered, literacy nonprofit serving students in Metro Detroit public schools since 2002. They provide reading tutoring, literacy enrichment, and community partnership programs for students in pre-K through 12th grade during the school day.

Kevin Jacobs, Mumford High School dean of students, said it is crucial to expose students to college possibilities before they enter high school.

“We want to open our kids’ eyes to college now because a lot of times, they will wait until 12th grade,” he said. “But we want to start them off early so they’ll know what to do when they get to college.”

After Baker College of Auburn Hills president Peter Karsten welcomed the students, Henry Ford III was the first of three speakers discussing leadership qualities and their paths to success.

“You’ve heard of Henry Ford, right?” he began. “He was my great-great grandfather.”

Ford is the marketing manager for Ford Performance. Before joining the family business, Ford was a high school math teacher, and he currently serves on the boards of Henry Ford College, University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods, Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village, and Bridging Communities, Inc.

But when he first entered college, he said he really didn’t know what he wanted to do. The family business beckoned, and he knew he’d eventually land there. But before going to work for the company, he decided to pursue teaching.

“I had great teachers and they were role models for me,” he said. “So I decided to become a teacher and taught English and math for a while about 10 years ago.”

But when the auto industry fell on hard times, and everyone was buying Toyotas, he said, he “didn’t want to watch bad things happen from the sidelines.”

“So I joined the company and had a chance to be around people who are great leaders,” he said. “One of the most important things I learned is that you have to be willing to understand you’re not perfect, and you don’t have all the answers. You must be willing to ask for help from others when you need it.”

Good information, but ninth-grader LeAndre Palmer, 14, had a burning question: “What is it like to be the great-great grandson of Henry Ford?”

Ford pondered the question a moment and responded, “I didn’t like it that much.

“When I was in the sixth grade, I didn’t want to stand out or have people look at me differently and I always felt they looked at me differently,” he said.

But then, he said, in his teens, he thought about what being Ford’s great-great grandson meant.

“Ford did a lot of good things for a lot of people, and they do more than build cars,” he said. “We try to take care of the communities where we work and live and I realized Ford meant a lot to a lot of people.”

Later, LeAndre said he asked the question because he wanted to know if Ford felt famous.

“He came up to me and shook my hand and said I asked a good question before he left,” said LeAndre, who plays football at Mumford.

Asked if he’s already selected a college, he responded, “I want to attend the University of Michigan and study business so I can become the CEO of my own business. If I don’t make it to the NFL, I want to have a backup plan.”

The next speaker at the event was Jack Aronson, founder of Garden Fresh Gourmet and Clean Planet Foods, based in Ferndale. He started out creating an all-natural fresh salsa with a $10 blender and a 5-gallon bucket, before eventually selling the company to Campbell Soup Company for $231 million.

Today, Aronson and his wife Annette have launched a line of healthy proteins under the Clean Planet brand.

His message: Don’t give up when others tell you no.

“I tasted a delicious fresh salsa in Albuquerque (New Mexico) and returned to this area and wanted to make my own version without preservatives, which tasted soapy to me,” Aronson said. “But I was told you just can’t make salsa in Detroit without it spoiling because of the shelf life.”

But he was not to be deterred.

“Be determined,” he said. “I was told many times that you can’t make salsa here because Detroit is not a food town. But you must dream big.”

Student Jaquice Petty, 14, who said she is a straight-A student, admired Aronson’s tenacity.

“I enjoyed Mr. Aronson saying you have to learn from your mistakes, and you can’t just give up if you mess up in business,” she said. “He didn’t stop when people said he couldn’t make it in their industry.”

“I also liked when Henry Ford III said he knew he couldn’t live up to what his great great-grandfather accomplished, but he can work hard and do his best every day.”

Cleamon Moorer Jr. was the final speaker. He is the dean of the college of business at Baker College, and editor in chief of “PURSUIT,” the Baker College system’s official magazine. He teaches international business, management and strategic management.

“Yes, there is prejudice in the world, but you can trump prejudice with performance, and you can trump bigotry with brilliance,” he said. “You can’t argue with results.”

(313) 222-2296