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Michael V. Roberts was Northwestern University's keynote speaker for Black History Month. His Feb. 23 talk and book signing was sponsored in part by the Kellogg School and the Black Management Association.

Michael Roberts

Seize the day

Entrepreneur Michael V. Roberts urges students to ‘pursue your vision, put your passion behind it and believe in yourself”

By Sara Langen

3/2/2010 - Despite media reports of economic gloom and doom, self-made millionaire Michael V. Roberts believes there’s never been a better time to become an entrepreneur.

“What does an innovative thinker do in an environment like this?” Roberts said in his Black History Month keynote address Feb. 23 at Northwestern’s Norris University Center. “Fifty percent of the Fortune 500 companies began in an economic environment like the one we’re in now. This is the best time in history for you to go into business —you might have to if you can’t get a job anyway. So start thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur.”

Roberts, who serves as chairman and chief executive officer of The Roberts Companies in St. Louis, Mo., spoke to a crowd of students and faculty as part of the university’s Black History Month celebration, which featured the theme “The History of Black Economic Empowerment.” His lecture, “Now is the Time to Be an Entrepreneur Start-Up,” sponsored in part by the Kellogg School of Management and the Black Management Association, was followed by a reception where he signed copies of his book, Action Has No Season: Strategies and Secrets to Gaining Wealth and Authority.

The son of a United States Postal Service worker, Roberts and his brother Steven worked together to build a $900 million enterprise that includes television and radio broadcasting, real estate development and the largest African-American owned-and-operated hotel group.

Roberts said he’s gotten where he is today by looking at what’s coming up on the business horizon and finding a way to be a part of it. When he started, telecommunications and broadband were the waves of the future, so he invested in cell phone towers and digital technology, eventually owning his own phone company. Today, green energy is the next big thing, so he’s investing in developing alternative energy sources.

“Electric cars — we’re all hearing about it, but what are you doing about it?” he asked the audience. “Will you sit back and wait or embrace the concept and see where it can take you? How will you begin to position yourself?”

To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to recognize where the hot new developments are happening and then find a “nook or cranny” of your own within it, and begin to carve out your own business venture, he said. All it takes is guts.

“You can succeed if you continue to pursue your vision, put your passion behind it and believe in yourself,” he said. “It’s about networking, being on top of your game, being ready to respond and never giving up.”

Identifying your strengths and working with them is a recipe for success, Roberts said.

“What’s the resource within you?” he asked. “Are you still the fossil fuel sitting in the earth, or are you putting yourself into a position where you’re the commodity that everyone wants to be a part of? I want us to think about using the most creative resource we have, which is the minds of our people. If we do that, we will turn around our economy and we will do it very rapidly.”

Roberts also challenged the school, faculty and students to push for more case studies of African-American-owned businesses in the curriculum. He said that at almost every school he addresses, whether it’s an Ivy League or state university, there is a noticeable lack of information on the history of the African-American entrepreneurial experience in America. “We have to dig deeper for us to be properly educated,” he said.

Sponsors of the lecture and book signing also included the Black Graduate Student Association, the Undergraduate Black Management Association, the Medill School of Journalism and African American Student Affairs.