XCEL Lunch Rewind: A Conversation With Chris Womack And David Grain On Entrepreneurship Beginnings
This past week, some of the country’s most successful Black businesspeople and CEOS convened at BLACK ENTERPRISE’s XCEL Lunch, part of this year’s Black Men XCEL Summit, to share their wisdom about the industry and how they maintain their companies through leadership and excellence.
On Oct. 12, BE facilitated A Masterclass on C-Suite Leadership, which featured several industry leaders, including the President and CEO of Southern Company, Chris Womack, who was this year’s 2023 Excel Award honorée. David Grain, the founder and CEO of Grain Management, LLC, also spoke at the event. The conversation was moderated by none other than BE’s own CEO, Butch Graves Jr., the son of the company’s late founder, Earl Graves, Sr.
This week’s questions: What does it take to get to the C-Suite? And how can you excel once you get there?
The three men joined together to answer these questions, offering gems for aspiring business owners so that they too can find their niche.
As any entrepreneur knows, launching a business isn’t easy and requires sacrifice. However, a far-too-overlooked aspect of starting a business is having a good support system. Though both Womack and Grain’s careers were started in different ways, family is an integral part in both of their stories.
“I was born and raised in South Alabama, about 50 miles South of Montgomery,” said Womack. “I grew up in the 60s and so my mom was a teacher and I grew up with my grandmother and my mother. I would hunt in the morning. I’d shoot squirrels and my grandmother would prepare them before I went to school and I would fish in the afternoons. I mean, I grew up on the land, but I also grew up doing.”
Though Womack was raised in the midst of Jim Crow, he was always inspired to work toward his goals. His family frequently encouraged him in spite of racism’s overreaching influence.
“As difficult and as challenging as it was, my grandmother always said to me that I could be whatever I wanted to be and that I had to work hard,” Womack stated. “I had to study. I had to get it. I had to get an education. And I had to work well with others. But it’s essentially I had to collaborate because she always said you know, ‘You can’t do anything by yourself.’”
Grain recounted his own childhood, revealing that his father and mother heavily inspired him.
“I’m really the product of my parents and my family,” Grain shared. “You know, I was fortunate enough to have both my parents. They were married for 54 years. You know, I didn’t have a sort of Hard Knocks upbringing. I never had to wonder where I was going to sleep, what I was going to eat,” he continued.
The youngest of seven children, Grain’s family stability was due to his parents’ hardworking spirits, a trait that he seems to have inherited.
“My dad was born in Newburn, North Carolina in 1908. He was 54 when I was born, so a little bit older, and he moved to New York when he was 12 with his 10-year-old brother in 1920. Of course, the Great Depression was beginning and they were kind of left on their own so they lived at the YMCA in the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” said Grain.
Grain shared that his father worked a series of odd jobs to make it when he was younger, picking up work for the Prohibition Department and later the U.S. Post Office.
“He was one of these get in early and stay late kind of guys who was always looking for an opportunity to do a little bit better,” said Grain. Eventually, Grain’s father started a trucking business in Midtown Manhattan during the 1940s, where he would deliver postage, as there were no mail rooms. “I was very impressed by my father’s determined hard work. You know there wasn’t a lot of Little League or Boy Scouts or any of that stuff but he taught me how to work.”
His mother and grandmother were equally influential. A member of the Black Power movement, Grain’s mother instilled in him a great sense of pride, encouraging the young man to embrace his identity as a Black man. From his grandmother, Grain learned to turn to spirituality as a source of strength.
Throughout the interview, Womack, Grain, and Graves shared how they came to be business giants, what it was like getting started, and the work it takes to be a true leader. Check out the full panel discussion here.