As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Marlon Lindsay.
Marlon is a business leader and writer who is committed to helping people reach their full potential. He believes that the stewardship of our young is a biological imperative and thus our ultimate priority. He pursues this priority daily with his own six children and his work as Founder and CEO of 21stCentEd and CEO of TechTrep. He partners with school districts to launch comprehensive STEM initiatives for to capitalize on the disruptive and transformative technologies of artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Of course, thank you so much for having me today!
I was born in Jamaica and came to the United States when I was 13 years old. I lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut then went on to the University of Connecticut for my undergraduate degree, two of them actually, in psychology and communication science. After my undergraduate degree I went on to work for Kodak where I spent three years in sales.
I was doing really well in sales and got to a point where I was making more money than both my parents combined and was traveling back-and-forth to Jamaica to a condo that I bought with one of my best friends. After doing that for a while, I thought this couldn’t be what life is all about; go to college make some money and just have a good time.
So, eventually I got bored, and really unmotivated to continue into that work and decided to go back to school for a master’s degree. My master’s degree was in educational psychology but halfway through the program I realize that I don’t have the patience and maybe even the temperament to be a counselor so I graduated a year later and went back into business — actually went back to Kodak for a little while and then started a real estate development and mortgage company.
We got hit really hard in 2008, and lost everything! After that I took some time to write and really figure out what I was all about, instead of being motivated by external measures of what success looks like.
After being a struggling author and motivational speaker my wife told me I better figure out how to feed this family. So I decided to go back to corporate life for a while. I joined a fairly young company that was in the EdTech and it was a homecoming for me because that was my background. We focused on helping young people learn how to read using technology.
Four years ago after doing all of that I learned about the urgency of STEM education and jumped into it headfirst. And here we are four years later more focused on providing STEM education than any work I’ve done in my past.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
It’s an interesting journey because my inspiration came from learning and understanding about how I am versus who I am and that led down a path that got me here. By that I mean, I realized that I wasn’t motivated by just money because at an early age I was relatively successful. And that led to boredom which took me down the path of wanting more so I went back to school and the process got refined over the next few years. But what I learned is that I’m here to teach and provide access and resource to people so that they can create a life by their own design. And while I wrote a book specifically for adults called Reminder to Self (for adults 25 to 40), the work that I’m doing now is specifically for young people.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I remember I was in a meeting with someone with some pretty high-powered people when I was starting out and they were describing somebody with a bohemian lifestyle. I don’t know if I didn’t know what bohemian meant or if I heard Bahamian as in from the Bahamas. So I happily chimed in that I’m Jamaican. I realized that I threw them off with that comment because it was out of context, hahaha! From that I learned listen with complete focus and speak when you have something of value to add.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
You know it’s hard to pinpoint one person because I have a support team that has always been with me. My mom has normalized success for me as a birthright. When you come from where I came from, that’s a gift. I met a group of guys in college that been my cheering section, They have been my support, my toughest critics, and normalized doing great things and making a difference. However, if I have to narrow it down to one person over the last 15 years, it’s truly been my wife for engaging this crazy journey and holding the fort down at home, and with the kids while I run off across the country to improve the lives of other children. I do believe though when it comes to being successful in terms of business, there is an angel in every success story. You can’t be successful by yourself you need somebody to see what you’re doing believing it, and take it on, promote you so that you have an incredible spike. Now that can happen in your first year or your 10th year but it needs to happen and it puts you on a different level in terms of success.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Well this one is not hard at all, we don’t have to look further than last year 2020 and the pandemic. We were, and continue to hang on while this pandemic devastated the operations of school in our society. We are in our survival of the fittest mode, maybe more accurately survival of those who can hang in there longest until things normalize again. But one of the greatest things we learned from 2008 when we lost everything, was how to survive. Not many people have the privilege of learning how to survive. So while 2020 has been scary, it’s never been insurmountable. It’s been a game of chess where you figure out what your next move is; what grants, what resource, whether it is pass clients with current clients — you continue to move until you find away.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I was writing Reminder to Self, I learned some things about myself that’s true for everyone and if we can understand this fundamentally, and if we could make this a part of our core, then hardship is just another experience. And the thing that I learned is that we are meant to bend, we are not meant to break. And if we understand this then we remain flexible and we keep on exploring every opportunity, every avenue until we find a way. You don’t fail until you quit and there is no expiration date on perseverance!
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today, we’re on the road to recovery. There’s a lot of folks that need a lot of help and we have a tool, we have a team, and we have a commitment to help. Ironically, it seemed like we were a little before our time in trying to get school districts and their communities to embrace comprehensive STEM education. As a result of this pandemic, and the impact of artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation in the workforce, transformation in education is a ‘when’ not an ‘if’. We are poised to help.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are working with young people and providing the confidence for them to have multiple STEM experiences. Through this they come to know that STEM is not just for people with a certain disposition for the sciences or mathematics, but for anyone! In our quest to ensure that all students are provided a comprehensive STEM education, we make sure that we focus on the historically underrepresented people, communities, and cultures. One feedback that we got from a student was that she didn’t know that she was capable of doing STEM so she didn’t have an interest in STEM. And the stories go on and on with different students saying that they didn’t think STEM was for them and once they got it, they realize that it’s about perseverance and practice like everything else in life. And so we specifically stand out from other companies were in the business of providing STEM education to students for the simple fact that we offer more courses so that students may have a different entry point according to their interests. Our process has three stages; providing access, transforming school culture, and partnering with the community. We help schools to give every student exposure, the only number we are interested in is ALL.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Connect the money to the mission and then pursue the mission. If you are driven by the mission (in our case to ensure that the historically underrepresented people, communities, and cultures are our future-proofed against advancements in technology), then we may bend but we won’t break, particularly in times like these.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am blessed to have a career where success in it, brings goodness to the world. That may seem short, but it is true. My passion is to help the future generation thrive in the 21st century. By providing anyone and everyone I can with the proper STEM education, they can have a future to look forward to and not one full of struggles and difficulties (though those make individuals strong as well).
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Measure your outcomes, not your outputs.
Talking to a prospect is not the same as making a sale. For example, you’re measured on making a sale–outcome, not talking to a prospect–output.
2. Early success is not necessarily an indication of long-term success.
Invariably we have some beginners luck, but long-term success requires predictability and systems. We can have a great customer training experience and that could be a reflection of the moment and the dynamics of the people in the room, but if we don’t have deliberate steps on executing and predicting the customer success, we can’t replicate it.
3. Build a team of people who buy into the vision but challenge the process until it achieves the outcomes that support vision.
You want to be around people who are excited enthusiastic about the mission of the work. However, you also want to make sure these people are smart, committed, and aren’t afraid to push you, to disagree, and to come up with solutions that truly work regardless of who is looking at it.
4. Work on the business as much as you work in the business.
Don’t just work on the part you know and are comfortable with. For example, in my case it’s sales. Know and improve every aspects of the business by spending a lot of time examining and improving your systems and processes.
5. Success is not a function of the number of hours you put in, but the quality of hours you put in.
Stephen Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People said that when you’re climbing the ladder of success make sure your ladder is leaning against the right wall. You have to figure out the few things that make you successful and put the time in versus the many they’re going to keep you busy and distracted from the critical factors for success.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Completely! In this life we all want to contribute meaningfully, and work is no exception to that. In fact, it’s really crucial that you get to creatively express your gifts, talents, and abilities. And so, as we continue to work and develop teams, we are a place where can you use your gifts, talents, and abilities to create something bigger than yourself. This impacts my leadership of people and more importantly for people.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
It’s really simple, knowledge can be taught, experiences cannot be taught; you have to live it and when you live it you know it, and when you know it, it becomes a part of how you are, not just who you are.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Well, I don’t know that I’m a person of great influence but to the extent that I can influence one person for good, then I’m okay with that. I’m blessed to be living the movement that I’d like to start. Than movement making sure that every student gets a comprehensive STEM education so their future-proofed against the disruption of artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, and other emerging technologies that will dominate the rest of the 21st century and beyond!
How can our readers further follow your work online?