Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Entrepreneurial Mindset Project. Today I’m speaking with my friend, collaborator, and co-author, Clifton Taulbert.
Clifton has an amazing story to tell–from his childhood in the Mississippi Delta during the height of legal segregation to becoming a Pulitzer-nominated author and successful entrepreneur.
I first met Clifton in 2008 while doing a research project for CISCO. It was his story that became the inspiration for the book Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur.
In this episode, we discuss the life-changing influence of his Uncle Cleve Morman and how it shifted his thinking in ways that would ultimately transform his life.
So without any further ado, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Clifton Taulbert.
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Read the transcript below.
The Influence Of An Unlikely Entrepreneur With Clifton Taulbert
Clifton, welcome to the show.
Thanks a lot, Gary. It’s my pleasure to be here. I got up early in Tulsa, Oklahoma but the conversation is important. It warms your heart when you begin to talk about it.
Thank you for doing this, Clifton. I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a long time coming. I want to set the conversation. We met, I believe, in the spring of April 2008. I was doing a research project for the Cisco Entrepreneur Institute. I came to Tulsa to interview a guy that turned out to be a friend of yours who has an amazing story. Someone said, “You ought to talk to Clifton Taulbert while you’re here.” I said, “Who is Clifton Taulbert?” These were the days before we had smartphones, the clamshell days. I couldn’t Google search Clifton Taulbert. The guy gave me your phone number.
I remember calling you up and saying, “Mr. Taulbert, my name’s Gary Schoeniger. I’m doing these interviews and I’m only going to be in Tulsa today.” You graciously agreed to the interview. I remember coming into your office that afternoon with the camera guy, Mike, who was taking care of the technology. The first question out of my mouth was something to the effect of, “Mr. Taulbert, how did you learn how to be an entrepreneur?” The story that you told me altered the course of my life. I want to start by asking you the same question so our audience can read it. What got you on this entrepreneurial path?
One of the things to keep in mind, Gary, where I grew up on the Mississippi Delta and those people who were involved in my life, the entrepreneurial mindset pathway was not a common terminology but conceptually it existed. They had another word for it. They call it gumption. That was their word for the entrepreneurial way of being able to cast your net and see what you could catch.
I’ll always be grateful for that because that was the conversation early on as a young boy that allowed me to think differently than maybe many of the people in my community were thinking. Gumption not only paved a pathway for your future but it gave you a better understanding of your present set of circumstances. One man became instrumental and bringing that home to me. It was my Great-Uncle Cleve who owned the Ice House in Glen Allan, Mississippi.
You were a thirteen-year-old kid and when you weren’t in school, up until that time, you were in the cotton fields.
That was our life. One has to understand that when you are born in the Mississippi Delta, regardless of who you are, cotton, in one way or another, becomes a predominant part of your life. That was the economy of the Delta and American style. For many people of African-American descent, we were field workers. Many of my family were migrant field workers. That was the only world of work that I knew. I can’t say it was the only work that I anticipated but I was so surrounded by that world. That world seemed to be all that would ever be part of my life.
That was the dominant cultural paradigm that you were immersed in. You were thirteen years old and your Uncle Cleve invited you, the man who owned the Ice House, to work alongside him at the Ice House. Can you say a little bit about that?
I wish that I could all of a sudden wave my hand and Uncle Cleve would be sitting right beside me and I could ask him, “Why did you hire me?” He had established a reputation in Glen Allan as a Black businessman. He served ice to everybody in that community, regardless of your ethnicity. We watched his business and respect grow. To be given an opportunity to work alongside him was more than a slice of jelly cake.
The grand thing was to say, “Whom do you work for?” “I work for Mr. Cleve.” That was the thing, to have that opportunity. I was too young to work but he never got the email of a text from the Bureau of Child Labor that I probably should not have been working. It was during those days that I began to set in place the foundation that would impact me for the rest of my life.
That was the modern equivalent of an internship at Goldman Sachs, some consulting firm or something. You’ve got an inside look at how a business runs or how an entrepreneur thinks and acts every day. That’s a huge factor. I hear that over and over again from people that I interview, that they’re accidentally exposed to it.
When I was hired, I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to work for an entrepreneur. This is exciting.” It was simply an opportunity not to pick cotton anymore. Once I got involved in the world of Uncle Cleve, I found that world to be different from any world I had ever encountered as it related to work. All of a sudden, I didn’t know a name for it but I knew that being there would have an impact on my life for the rest of my life.
I didn’t know how it would turn out but I knew that I was gaining. It’s almost like the shadow of Uncle Cleve became so big that I found myself walking under his shadow every day, 24/7 because I wanted him to be proud of me. As a result of that, whatever he wanted me to do, I would do it better than he anticipated. I was always trying to knock it out of the ballpark because his personality demanded that level of excellence. Whereas in the field, you had to work hard to earn a living but you weren’t earning a life in the field. You were simply earning a living. At the Ice House, I was earning my life rights and that was an entirely different perspective.
Can you say more about the differences, Cliff? I remember you’ve talked to me over the years about Mr. Walter’s field truck. Can you explain that to folks?
It’s the same thing when you hear the word of migrant workers in the California area or other parts of our country where a truck would come along to pick you up. Sometimes, you didn’t exactly know where you were going. You just know that at the end of the ride, you would be working in a field doing something of that sort. That was the typical way. This work for many people like, “I get hired out to a Black entrepreneur.”
Mr. Walter was an entrepreneur, even though that was not the term that I used as a kid. When I look back, he owned a restaurant, the field trucks that picked up people and the food that you bought from him off of his truck. It’s a cycle that he had created. We were in that cycle. You would find a seat or space on the back of that truck and that truck would take you to the day’s work. At the end of the day, that same truck would bring you home.
It’s different also, Cliff. Can you talk to me about how it was different? One of the things I remember that you told me that left an impression on me was that Uncle Cleve was the only guy that you knew of in your community in Glen Allan, Mississippi that took money to the bank. The whole concept of banking was unfamiliar and was not part of the cultural paradigm.
Banking did exist but I don’t know who banked. To say that it didn’t exist would not be right because it did exist. The only person that I knew that took money to the bank was Uncle Cleve because everyone else that I knew, the mom, the grandma or the uncle, would have a little belt that they would wear around their waist and would keep the money in there. Many people kept their money on a mattress. They slept on their money. Uncle Cleve drove from Glen Allan to Greenville to the First National Bank and made deposits.
That world was entering from a Black world to a White world. The banking system was a White world. To go into that world, you had to adhere to what I call the cultural customs of the day, which meant although he would be a customer and his money would be accepted, we had to go in the back door and make sure that no hands touched as the money was being passed.
The passbook was being placed under the little wrought iron gate. Even though legal segregation dictated how one responded in that area, what legal segregation was not able to do was take away what I gained from that. I saw a man who was doing something that I had never seen before and that made an impression on me and it still does.
I can only imagine what that must have felt like or how you would have processed that as a thirteen-year-old boy.
That’s a good word because I don’t think I processed it from an anthropological perspective. It went back to that sense of pride that I had in working with Uncle Cleve but more importantly, how he handled himself was so amazing to me. He dressed well every day. It wasn’t in uniform. It was khaki pants, khaki shirt, brogan shoes, his hat and his pipe. He was in charge of his life. Even when he went to the bank and was treated less than, he did not respond less than.
He did what the order of the day required him to do. When he got his passport back, he stuck it in his pocket. Both of us walked out of the back door, got into his truck and drove home. His money was safe at the bank. I watched him live a life within the context of a life that had been defined by others for him. That is what impressed me and still does.
It seems difficult for me to understand or comprehend how. It seems like Uncle Cleve figured out whether he was conscious of this or not to focus on the things that he could change. That’s where he put his emphasis. He didn’t focus as much on things that he couldn’t change. I don’t know how to say that.
There are two things there. One is he certainly did not focus on those things that he couldn’t change but those things over which he had control in such a way that it impacted those things that weren’t supposed to change. I don’t even know the right word for how you live in a segregated world and at the same time end within this incredible sense of self, I can and doing it this way and it’ll serve you well. It wasn’t adherence to the laws of legal segregation. There seemed to have been an inner voice inside of him that was pushing him beyond the barriers that were put in place. I saw that and I was part of that process.
I’m borderline obsessed with the story of Uncle Cleve but it reminds me of something Viktor Frankl wrote about. The idea is that the last of human freedoms is the ability to choose the way we respond to our circumstances and separate the stimulus from the response in that space that we have, the ability to choose. It seems like he had that extraordinary ability. Whether he was conscious of it or not, it’s an amazing story to me.
For me, until our paths crossed, Uncle Cleve was a great story. He was my story but I never thought in terms of him as being a movement. When you heard Uncle Cleve’s story, you saw more than I did. That’s the value of culture connecting. If your path had not crossed mine, Uncle Cleve’s story would still have been told but it would not be a movement as it’s now because you were able to see beyond what I saw. You were standing on the outside looking at both of us with a different set of lenses. I’m on the inside embracing what’s happening to me and sharing that story globally but not necessarily seeing it as a movement that will impact hundreds and thousands of people.
Funny you say that because I didn’t even know what I was looking for. The Cisco project asked me to do a gap analysis on entrepreneurship education in North America. I very quickly saw that the way that entrepreneurship is typically portrayed in a classroom is largely divorced from the reality of what a typical entrepreneur is doing.
Cisco came back to me and said, “What are entrepreneurs doing?” I said, “I don’t know. I have some anecdotal ideas about that but I don’t have any hard data.” Cisco gave me the platform to go interview a couple of hundred entrepreneurs. I was looking for what entrepreneurs are doing. Something about that story resonated with me in a way that I did not anticipate. I was not looking for an Uncle Cleve story per se.
You had come to Tulsa to interview the mayor and several very significant people in our city. That’s understood. The innocence of the visit probably kept you from creating unreasonable expectations. That meant you came to my office at the end of the day to fill in the clock and probably with no idea that anything existed in my world that would be of significant value to your world and the world that you would encounter. All of those things began to happen during the process. Afterward, you had Uncle Cleve but you had the recipient of Uncle Cleve’s life lessons.
I remember walking out of your office 1.5 or 2 hours later, whatever it was and turning into Mike as we were dragging the equipment out of your office, holding the door for him. I looked back at him and said, “I don’t know why but I feel like that’s the reason we came to Tulsa.” I couldn’t say it any better than that. That story stuck with me. You and I had spoken several times afterwards. I saw that not only had you lived this experience but you were also committed to helping other people. Your life was more or less dedicated to helping others. We’ll talk later about how the lessons from the Ice House stuck with you through your whole life.
That’s part of what I got from Uncle Cleve in a very subtle way because many years later, if you run into someone, especially African-American who grew up in Glen Allan, Mississippi and you asked them, “Did you know the Iceman? Did you know Uncle Cleve,” they’d have that story. His impact was legitimate on the day it was happening and even more legitimate now because of where your mindset has taken this story.
I remember what happened next. Cathy Ashmore, the former head of the Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education, asked me to help her find a keynote speaker for their annual conference.
This was in Texas, right?
Correct. In Austin, Texas. She knew that I had been out interviewing entrepreneurs and the Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education is a K-12 consortium that promotes entrepreneurship in the classroom. I said, “There’s only one guy. It’s Clifton Taulbert. You got to get Clifton Taulbert.” She asked me to ask you and then told me she didn’t have a budget.
I was hat in hand coming to you saying, “Any chance we could get you to come and speak at this conference? There’s no budget. She’ll pay for your travel and hotel.” You graciously agreed. We wrote something about this together in our book, Clif. I feel like that was the moment when you realized that this is a powerful idea.
Prior to that was probably the first that I had told the story to a very diverse audience and people with a real sense of entrepreneurship that had not been part of my speaking across the country at that time. After that particular event, I had a different sense of Uncle Cleve and the story but still not the same sense that you would arrive at a couple of years later.
You’ve made this clear without saying it but you were fortunate. You were born to a teenage mom. You were raised by aunts, uncles and grandparents in your formative years primarily.
I call teenage anything under twenty. My mom was 19 when I was born and in our world, 19 was still considered a teenager.
You’ve also made clear that the people whom you were surrounded with that raised you made sure you went to school every day. You were still well taken care of. You were in a very nurturing, positive environment in spite of the legal segregation and the place and time. The people around you were very supportive, structured and loving people.
That is why my first book became so important in the African-American community. It told their story. That community of African-Americans who lived for the future of their children was well in place and in a certain place in Glen Allan, Mississippi when I was growing up.
That’s well put that they were living for the future of their children. Let’s talk about that. How did you come to be a writer? That’s one of many things you’ve done in your professional life and entrepreneurial career.
First of all, I never had thought in terms of being a writer. I was in the military during the very last days and years of the Vietnam War. I was never sent to Vietnam but I had an AFSC, a job description that was being demanded in Vietnam. Most of my friends were being shipped there and many of them were not returning home. It was the not returning home that caught me. I realized that it could be me. What I wanted to do was to write a thank you note to those ordinary people in Glen Allan, Mississippi, who had become extraordinary leaders in my life. I owed everything to them.
At night in my barracks, I would sit down with my yellow legal pad, no laptop because there was nothing like that at the time. I had scores of them filled with stories from the Mississippi Delta but more the stories of ordinary people who had my future on their hearts and minds. Those stories, after 24 years, became my 1st book.
Let’s talk about those 24 years. You had no inclination. Being a writer wasn’t something you ever thought of but it wasn’t until your bunkmate read some of your stories.
It was a guy that was right down the hall from me. We lived in the same barracks My barracks mate was Paul De Muniz who eventually became the Supreme Court Chief Justice in the State of Oregon. I would keep my writing in a brown box under my bed. I never had them out. No one ever saw me write it. It was something private that I did.
One day, maybe we had a duty call or something and I left the box on my bed. Paul had come down to my room and saw the box and all these papers there. He picked them up and began to read them. When I saw him maybe that afternoon or the next morning or something, he said, “Clifton, I can’t believe you’re a good writer. Have you ever thought of getting any of this stuff published?” I never had.
You get out of the Air Force. That stayed with you.
Yeah, most definitely.
As a young man in the Air Force, how did that get to be a book? As soon as you got out of the Air Force, did you try to write It?
I got out of the Air Force in 1968. The first book was published in 1989. The same stories had been rejected for years. In 1988, a small publishing company in Tulsa, Oklahoma said, “If all your stories are like the one you’re reading now, we’ll publish the book.” I don’t think they have any great hopes for it. They wanted at least to break even and make some profit. Surely, I can understand that but we were all surprised when the book came out. They had 3,000 copies of it done and those 3,000 copies were supposed to last for 5 years. Those 3,000 copies lasted maybe 3 months. That book has been reprinted probably almost ten different times. I was amazed at its journey as well.
What kept you going rejection letter after rejection letter? You told me if you had saved them, they would’ve filled up a crate or something. You had a lot of rejection to get there.
The early rejection letters were like, “Dear Mr. Taulbert. Dear Clifton Taulbert.” They become so commonplace that the rejection letter said, “Dear,” with a line drawn. It was like someone said, “Send a note.” I had all of those things. The one thing that I always would do is, every once in a while, I’d get enough nerve to ask someone to read one of the chapters or something. The feedback from them would always be the same as Paul had given me early on. “Clifton, this is good. Why don’t you publish this?” It was as if I was holding them back from publishing them.
I had tried everything I could to interest New York in my books. They had no interest at all. Eventually, they bought the rights from the publishing company in Tulsa. Penguin did. In the early days, I was unknown and I was writing a story that has not been written before. I’m using a term that has been dropped off the face of the Earth, the Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. I wanted to define the period in which I lived in which I was referring.
Yet, it took a while to get it done. There were people along the way and that’s the other part of the entrepreneurial journey. If you don’t get someone on your team or along the way that tells you to head in the right direction, you might stop. It’s that idea of people being there to support you and give you a pat on the back and say, “Keep moving. You’re headed in the right direction.” Even if you haven’t been published, that doesn’t mean you won’t be published.
What you’re saying is the people you allowed to read manuscripts or some of your stories kept encouraging. They kept saying, “Keep going.” You were getting that feedback loop.
That’s the feedback I was getting from them. I was very thoughtful. I wouldn’t willy-nilly give someone to read this for me. A conversation may have ensued that, “I love writing and wish I had continued it.” “I’ve been writing too. I got a couple of short stories. Would you care to read one of them?” I always look for an opening to pass that copy through rather than taking a copy and saying, “Read this.” The conversations always led me to the possibility that reading it would be something of value not only to them but to myself as well.
You got some small publishing company in Tulsa to pick it up?
Yeah, Council Oak Books. It doesn’t exist anymore but that was the name of the company that published my first book
It got picked up by local media and then The New York Times. Can you tell me the story about how you wound up on Phil Donahue’s show? Probably half the people reading this don’t even know who Phil Donahue was.
I say he was the Oprah of his day. All of those things happened. The New York Times review was amazing. One of the professors that I had spoken to at Ole Miss had become very enamored with the subject matter. It was he who sent the information, the copy of the book to The New York Times. He said, “This is a book you should review.” They did.
The person who reviewed it was named Rosemary Bray. She was a Review Editor at The New York Times and did a great job. The Boston Globe equally as well. When the Boston Globe’s article came out, that’s when I started getting calls from LA and other places in the film industry like, “We want to know more about this book and the story.”
What were you doing? How were you earning a living at the time? You weren’t just sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.
At that time, I was in the banking industry. My academic background in graduate school was in Banking and Finance. That was my world and I thought that was the world I would retire from. I never dreamed that Uncle Cleve’s life and a book that I would write would eventually come together and create a pathway for me that I had not imagined.
That’s what I was saying about your relatives dedicating their lives to making sure you had a brighter future with or without Uncle Cleve. They made sure you went to school every day and you did your homework. You were valedictorian of your high school. You went to college for banking. The entrepreneurial mindset that you’d been exposed to by your great-uncle Cleve, how did that affect the trajectory from there?
This is the first time I’ve been asked that question that you’ve asked. When I think about it, it didn’t take me long for my mind to start turning things over in my head. I realized that what I had learned from Uncle Cleve was more than how to cut a 300-pound block of ice. It was how to shape your life, how to believe in the impossible and how to reach beyond where you are.
All of those things, he lived every day in front of me. It wasn’t as much of a conversation as it was time for an entrepreneurial conversation but it was like, “Take this 300-pound block of ice, cut it correctly and don’t leave any shaves on the deal. Always treat every customer the same, no matter what their race might be. That way, everybody that comes to this site, Ice House, would know that they’re welcome and wanted here.”
All these simple little lessons became powerful tools that moved my life along the way. I took Uncle Cleve to the Air Force with me and I was able to function in the Air Force beyond just being an airman there. I took every chance to go to school that I could. I worked for the base commander. I was there 30 minutes before it was time to be there. I didn’t leave when the clock says 4:30. If they needed something done at 5:00, I stayed and I would do it. I picked it up at the Ice House. Uncle Cleve stayed with me and that was a great thing. That was my pride. “What did you do?” “I worked for my uncle.”
It was lessons. The thing that’s so interesting to me is the real impact of the learning that came from Uncle Cleve was nothing he said.
There were some things he said but there were 90% of the things that he did consistently. He had created a replicable pattern. You could replicate your life watching what he did.
Not necessarily a pattern with ice and going from here to there. It was more of a pattern of beliefs and behavior. He wasn’t teaching you how to start another Ice House. He was teaching you a way of thinking and acting that was repeatable.
I’m not sure that he was going at night saying, “I got to teach another class.” Uncle Cleve was an entrepreneur. I didn’t know the term but he understood that he had a responsibility to those under him and those who were trying to get to another place in life. The community knew him as that guy.
He understood a sense of responsibility or commitment beyond himself.
It’s almost like a character is caught more than taught. I caught more from him than he ever taught me. He was consistent in the casting of such a great shadow. I found myself walking into that shadow, under that shadow and around that shadow all of my young working life when I worked for him.
What you’re saying is you get in the Air Force and apply these same basic ideas, show up early, stay late, deliver a little more than is expected of you, be responsible and treat everybody the same. That helped elevate your career in the Air Force. Is that what you’re saying?
I wouldn’t say elevate but it made it a learning process. It made it another rung on the ladder that I would cross. I would leave the Air Force better than I was when I came in, having worked for two years in the 89th presidential wing, which is not an easy job to get. I got that job, a kid from Glen Allan. I had learned how to be that guy at the Ice House.
That’s a cool part of the story. I like that saying, “It’s caught more than taught.” You caught the spirit of Uncle Cleve and replicated it within the Air Force. You got noticed and it worked to some extent.
It did. I wouldn’t say to some extent but to a great extent, it worked because when I had extra time, I would go take college classes. Uncle Cleve probably never finished the 3rd or 4th grade but he could read and write. He always was reading. He was reading incessantly. He would go to his house and put up on the comfortable chairs. He had the newspaper or a book. He’s always reading a manual or something. He was always stuffing his head with more than what was going on the day.
That’s such a powerful part of the story. That desire to learn, over time gives the individual such an advantage. I’m still puzzled sometimes that people aren’t continuously learning.
Times will demand that of us but those who are not ready to continuously learn may miss that boat. Even in my time as a kid, that world was changing. Uncle Cleve was preparing me for a world that he would not live to see but he was preparing me for that world on his shift.
I feel the desire to learn is connected to hope. It’s the belief that the future could be better than the present coupled with the belief that I have the power to make it so. In other words, if you look at someone who’s not making an attempt to learn, that’s where the answer lies. You’re not trying to learn something because you don’t think you have any control over the circumstances.
All goes back to the other word of hope. Every day you go to the Ice House, you wonder how many customers you’re going to have and whether you’re going to have any customers. How many will you have? Will you do better yesterday than you did yesterday? Are you planning on having a better tomorrow? Uncle Cleve fostered that idea as to how we handle ourselves at the Ice House would also be the conversation that would be held outside and beyond the Ice House. He never had a Marketing degree but if you treat customers right, that would be a conversation that other people would hold for you.
He didn’t have a Marketing degree but he understood the power of building a brand or a reputation for being reliable. It’s easy to overlook the power of that, Clif. Anyone can embrace that idea that you said. If you show up early, you deliver a little more than is expected of you and you do that consistently, opportunities will find you.
You’ll be heading somewhere and your eyes will be open beyond the ordinary. You live in a state of the anticipatory state that I’m going to discover something along my journey.
The anticipatory state is part of that hope circuit being open in the brain. This is the mindset stuff, this deeply held belief that I have some control over this. At its essence, if I understand you properly, what Uncle Cleve taught you without ever saying it is it’s up to you to figure out how to make yourself useful, Clifton.
I would say yes. It’s up to us. I would make myself useful because he made himself useful. Every time Uncle Cleve was teaching me something, it was something that we were involved in at work. His hand would be on the broom and my hand would be on the dustpan. I’m the same way now. When I worked with people who worked for me, I found myself working with them when I don’t have to but it oozes out of me. All of a sudden, from behind my desk, I’m lifting a box and helping them carry stuff. I’m holding the door because that’s what Uncle Cleve did. Uncle Cleve allowed you to learn the lessons of tomorrow by implementing the lessons today.
That’s what I was trying to say. Any person can embrace that. It has nothing to do with owning a business. It’s a deeply held belief. Assumption is maybe a better word but we all connect by making ourselves useful to each other. Something Uncle Cleve seems to have understood intuitively is, “The more useful I become, the better off I’m going to be.” That seems to be the underlying assumption that drives the show-up-early, stay-late, over-deliver, under-commit and those kinds of things.
It’s not a formula. It’s a way of life that can be divided and shared in principles. We live in a society where someone is looking for the five things to do that are equal to that. It’s the life that one leads that eventually leads to the answer that you come up with the results that you’re seeking. Oftentimes, you end up with results that you didn’t even know was there but you’re headed in the right direction. I say to young people, “You made up your mind that you want to go to New York City. Don’t buy a plane ticket to Miami, Florida. Wrong destination, wrong place. Know where you want to go and make sure you’re headed that way.”
Clif, if someone asked me what’s the biggest takeaway I got from knowing you, interviewing you and learning about Uncle Cleve, the story of Uncle Cleve in the Ice House reveals this simple secret that’s hiding in plain sight.
That’s a good way to put it.
That idea is that by solving problems for other people, you can empower yourself. I say it’s simple and secret hiding in plain sight. We miss it because we’re trying to get our needs met, which I understand. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. The simple secret that Uncle Cleve taught me is that it’s putting the other first that empowers the self.
The Rotary Club has an appropriate mantra. It’s called Service Over Self. Uncle Cleve realized that the Ice House was not gathering ice for himself. If no one wanted his ice, he’s in a big problem. Service over self, in other words, the other person matters. That customer matters. What can you do to enhance that relationship? What can you do along the way that can make that relationship better? How can you grow it? One of the ways is service is not just the service. It is a concept. It’s a way of framing your thinking and how you live among your fellow human being.
There are all kinds of research to support that also when we’re able to solve problems and leverage our gifts, strengths, abilities and interests in ways that contribute to the greater good. That tends to lead to human flourishing and lifelong growth. That’s a powerful idea nested in the Ice House story.
Maybe 75% of the people that I’ve spoken with personally have read the book or taken their Ice House course. While they’re talking, all of a sudden, they start tearing up. They start crying and they say, “I can do this.” It opens up something inside of a person to realize a portion of their lives that they had overlooked and undervalued. That is what Uncle Cleve is saying. The road may be a dirt road but it’s still the road you travel to get to where you’re going. The journey may be hot but there’s something called an umbrella you can put over your head. Keep on the journey. It’s the consistency of not giving up on yourself and realizing your value to others. Service over self.
Life outside of Glen Allan wasn’t a walk in the park for you.
Of course not. It was a different world.
You were valedictorian of your high school. You went off to college. You were in the Air Force. You’ve done all these things but you continued to face racial barriers along the way. There’s the story of the washing dishes in the Ice House but are you aware of your self-dialogue? When you were finding yourself feeling like you’re stuck or trapped and people aren’t letting you get ahead, what story were you telling yourself? Are you aware of that? Can you say something about that?
I’m thinking out loud to myself. I traveled back to Glen Allan to get my mooring. Those early years of your life tend to shape you for the rest of your life. You have to figure out those things that shaped me that were good and those things that shaped me that I should leave behind. Go inside my brains and pull them out, put them on the side of the road, let the dump truck come and pick them up and take them to the garbage bin. When you are at a place where you think that equity exists and all of a sudden, you’re faced with the reality that it doesn’t, I go back to Glen Allan and realize that equity existed at the Ice House because we had a sense of equity for all of those that we serve.
Many times, our customers who may have been different from we were may not have had a sense of equity. They may have seen us simply as servants bringing them ice. I’m not quite sure what they saw us as. At the same time, the idea of your personality growing beyond the reality of a world that has disenfranchised you, you began to become enfranchised within your mind like, “I will not let this reality destroy the journey that I’m on.”
That’s how I go back and hold those conversations in my head. I look at my son’s world and I see that he has fewer challenges than I had but still some. At the same time, he faces them differently than I do. He doesn’t sit and moan over them. He said, “If I’m going to find another way, I would do it this way.” Believe it or not, he’s read Ice House twice. He can tell you whatever’s on every page. It keeps you from becoming trodden down by the atrocities of others.
You recalled your elders’ attitudes. You were assuming they had it worse than you did. Your son Marshall has got it better than you did, which is a point you made. That was where you would go.
I would go back to that place, that time and those people who were the community builders for me to realize that I’ve given my son at this point in his life all that I can. I’ll always be a voice to help him understand that tomorrow is still the best day because human hands have not touched it yet.
You’ve had your hands on so many different entrepreneurial adventures. You were the catalyst that helped bring the StairMaster exercise machine to life. That’s a story, like your book, of sheer persistence.
It goes back to the Ice House. The subtle lesson that I learned from Uncle Cleve was his consistency and tenacity. If he told me to be at work at 8:00, he meant that. He didn’t mean 8:05. To measure my timeliness, he had to be there at the same time or before me. I have never beat him to his Ice House. He was always there waiting on the steps with his pipe in his hand. “I see you made it.” That’s what he would always say.
That spoke volumes to me. I hadn’t even lifted a piece of ice. I had just gotten there and he says, “I see you made it.” It’s the subtlety that he was helping me to understand. My commitment to my task was very important because he can’t commit to me. I can’t commit to Marshall, my son. Marshall can’t commit to me. We commit to ourselves. I was learning to commit myself to myself. Going to the Ice House on time made me feel good. “I’m here. I’m your partner.”
That’s a big part of the Ice House story. It’s one of the eight life lessons in the Ice House. Perhaps one of the most potent lessons is this idea of perseverance. Perseverance, in your case, is not only against racial barriers but perseverance more broadly, in terms of making things happen in the world. People don’t run out of their doors and buy into your ideas right away. They require a lot of push that, in some cases, has nothing to do with racial barriers. It’s important for people to understand your self-talk. The story you tell yourself has an enormous impact on your ability to persist in the face of whatever challenges.
Self-talk is very important. That’s one of the things that Leonardo da Vinci was very good at taking introspective journeys. Oftentimes we were afraid to go there. To me, one of the best people to talk to is yourself. Hold that conversation, ask yourself hard questions and be able to ask, “Am I flourishing or withering?”
You’ve heard me say this before. It’s 99% mindset and entrepreneurship if folks can realize what you said. “Am I flourishing or floundering? If I’m floundering, why is that? How am I contributing to that?” It’s the key question. Those are hard questions to ask and even harder to answer.
However, as I teach my son, I said, “You are better off today than you were yesterday. You’re better off this year than you were two years in the companies that you run because you have learned to talk to yourself” Most people want to talk to someone else but talk to yourself. Don’t fail to talk to yourself. Ask yourself the hard questions and see where you may have let yourself down or how you could have done it differently. You could always get a lesson out of self-talk. Don’t be afraid to write those things down. That’s one of the things that we make a mistake. A good idea may pop into our heads and light up the car we were driving but we failed to write it down. Ten minutes later, we are doing this.
That happened to me once. I was driving down the street not long after I talked to you back in 2009. This phrase came into my mind, Clifton. “Who owns the Ice House?” I pulled over on the side of the road because I was afraid that I was going to forget it. I texted it to you. Just those words. It was such an occasion.
I don’t know how everything works within our brains, that process that we have. Self-talk is important. Also, anticipate the flash of ideas and new ways of doing something. It’s very important to anticipate that.
Look at you. You’re still learning. The hope circuit is still open. You’re still striving to make things happen, to do good in the world. Retirement isn’t a word that comes out of your mouth.
It never does. It comes out of other people talking to me. I believe that until I’m no longer here, I should be here in full force.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. It’s the hope circuit again. We’re looking to the future in a positive way that we have control over. I like this definition of active hope. It’s the belief that the future will be better coupled with the belief that I have the power to make it so.
I can be involved in the process.
That’s where the curiosity, the desire to learn and the willingness to try things come from. Those beliefs are deeply held. Here’s what I wanted to say. What happens is some people come to believe that nothing they do will matter. When that happens, our brain stopped searching for escape routes and starts looking for coping strategies. A person that came from where you came from in a time that you came from had every reason to believe that nothing you did would matter. Maybe that’s why that story moved me so much.
For many people, I’ve seen it at the very high-end level of the cultural ladder and the very low end. It’s amazing that Ice House has found a place at either end of the ladder. There’s something about it with a human being. That is where you recognize that of everything that you could bring to the table in the company that you inform, the human story is still the one that takes us to places we need to go.
I keep sending you text messages and emails I get from people that continue to be shocked, pleased and delighted with the way in which the story of Uncle Cleve is resonating with them and in Eastern Europe, South Africa and Latin America. You said something to me and I want to dig into this. You said, “I don’t even think we’ve begun to scratch the surface.”
We have been shown in your demographic study the response to the program and the book. You have little bright lights if you put the world map out there and put a light for every place where this book and program are gone. To light it up, you’ll find a lot of the world lit up. When you think in terms of 8 to 10 billion people on the planet, we haven’t touched the surface of those who need to have Uncle Cleve take them to the Ice House.
Can we talk about that a little bit more, Clif? One of the questions I’m stuck on is it’s almost like mindset intervention. The question I have in my mind and maybe you have an answer or don’t, is how do you intervene in people’s lives who are not looking for answers? People have given up. They’ve come to believe that nothing they do will matter so they’re no longer looking for answers. How do we help those folks?
This show and story may be a bit more specific. It’s almost like a person who’s had major surgery and the outcomes have been good. Another person who had the same symptoms was about to give up but when they read that other person’s story, all of a sudden, the light began to flicker rather than out. The flame began to come and all of a sudden, it was like, “If this person can have that surgery and they’re doing okay, who is to say that I could not have that same surgery and I could be okay?”
What I’m saying is that Uncle Cleve’s story and the curriculum that has been created around that give people an opportunity to see themselves in the same situation. Maybe different ethnicities and geography but they see themselves and come back with ideas like, “If he can, she can and they can, I can.” That’s the greatest thing. When I talk to anyone who’s ill, when they get to someone who has the same illness or similar challenges and they’re sitting there listening, they’re all in.
All of a sudden, when you’re by yourself, it’s very easy to assume that there’s no one out there with what you have. If you have to bear this burden all by yourself, you may as well give up. What Uncle Cleve says is, “You never give up. I didn’t give up. Who are the people who lived under my shadow? Did they give up?” He had no idea that I would write a book. I couldn’t even go to the library when I was a kid. He had no idea that books would be a major part of our life from a standpoint of authorship or anything like that or that his story would catch the eye of someone from Ohio.
Had you not said Cisco, we probably wouldn’t be talking. I recognize Cisco as a major player in the field of technology and questioning. That paved the way for you to come to the office. You talked to a couple of people in Tulsa. Those were people that identified themselves in certain ways that their word could be trusted as well to make you make the call. All these pieces of the puzzle fit. Ice House is a big piece of a puzzles puzzle that they don’t know they’re missing until they read it.
I started thinking about this when I was walking out of my hotel in LA at 3:00 in the morning. I was walking out to catch a flight home and there was no one behind the counter. I left my key cards on the counter. I said, “Goodbye. Thank you.” A young girl, probably late twenties, came out from behind the back office. She looked bleary-eyed and a little disheveled. I’m imagining she’s a single mom trying to get by working the night shift in a hotel for not a lot of money. I got on the plane and started thinking about this and writing about it, Clif. There are probably billions of smart capable people who find themselves trapped in low-paying jobs or unsatisfying careers.
They’re trapped there in part because they don’t see entrepreneurship as a mindset or an alternative path. To hear the word entrepreneur is part of what you and I have been trying to do for years. Redefine entrepreneurship. That’s why I wanted to put the picture of your uncle on the cover of the book because I wanted to say, “This isn’t the domain of the White male elite university student.” People find themselves trapped in these circumstances because they hear the word entrepreneur and they think, “That means I got to invent something and know venture capital. I got to have a lot of money. I got to mortgage my house.” They don’t understand it. It’s a way of thinking that can empower anyone in any set of circumstances.
That’s the key. Our ability to think is what sets us apart from everything. With the entrepreneurial mindset, at some point, we are going to have to figure out and break open the entrepreneurial mindset so that people have a chance to see what’s inside that. When you say entrepreneurial mindset, people are thinking, “I can go to the store and buy that. I can take a cup of teaspoons of that. It’ll become the magic that I’ve been looking for.”
If you go back and look at Leonardo da Vinci, all the things that he had to do to stay on track with the mind that he had are the perfect example of the mindset and what that mindset could cause you to think and make happen in your life. At the end of the day, Uncle Cleve never heard of mindset before. All he heard was gumption. He said, “You can see a person who has gumption.”
If a person has an entrepreneurial mindset, you can see it. I can go to a restaurant and be waited on by 5 servers and out of those 5, there’s 1 serving in every case. That guy is going to own his business one day. Not that that’s what he has but he’s in control of his life. At that moment in time, he may be bringing me a tossed bread but the way he does it and handles the moment tells you that he has a mindset that is applicable to every aspect of his or her life.
I feel that whenever I run into young people top of their game, whatever it is they’re doing,
Sometimes I have my son says, “Dad, you’re going to get in trouble one of these days.” I’ll stop the young person and I’ll say, “I know you don’t know me. There’s no reason for you to give time. I want to tell you that I’ve been very moved by the way you handle your life. You are going to make it. I know that.” You can get derailed but you can always come back because you’ve already established at that foundational level, who you are and who you can become.
We’ve got a few minutes left here. I want to be respectful of your time. The more I think about this, people look at the things that determine success in one’s life. People would tell you about academic achievement scores, IQ and the family you came from. Those are your personality traits, whether you’re optimistic, pessimistic or open to new experiences and so on.
A lot of those things are not within your control. You don’t get to choose the family you’re born into or your personality traits. Mindset is one of the most overlooked mechanisms because it’s the controllable part. Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” There are so many of these factors that influence our behavior that we’re not aware of.
Many of those factors are within our control. Yet control is contingent upon awareness. Warren Buffett said, “You can have a guy with a 400 horsepower engine but his mindset is such that he only knows how to get 100 horsepower out of the engine. You can have a guy over here with a 200-horsepower engine but he knows how to get all 200-horsepower out of it.” He’s better off than the guy with the 400-horsepower engine. That’s the power of mindset as I see it.
I agree with you wholeheartedly that the mindset is individualized. It’s your mindset. It’s my mindset. It’s their mindset. It is within our control but it can be impacted by the culture that surrounds us. That’s why it’s very important. What Uncle Cleve and the Ice House program do is help people to disassemble and reassemble. You need someone to tell you that you can and see someone who says, “This makes sense. I don’t have to stay at this place.”
I’ve been amazed that that person’s White, Black, Yellow or Red or come from a planet that I don’t know of yet but when they have read Ice House or become part of the Ice House story, there’s a flip in so many different areas of their life. All of a sudden, they began to go back and readjust their mental models. It is those mental models that we bring to the table that without our permission happen to live as part of life. We may not plan on getting wet but if it’s raining, we get wet.
It’s all the things like fear, faith and all these words that surround us but there are words that we respond to as a result of the culture that has shaped those words within us. What mindset does is it gives us the opportunity to rethink, re-look and re-examine our journey from a thinking perspective to an active perspective.
That’s it in a nutshell. That’s what I’ve been saying so often. It’s 99% mindset. If we can only get folks to realize that. Most of us are not even aware that we have a mindset, much less the ways in which it impacts our life. In getting people to realize that you have these deeply held beliefs, values and assumptions that you’re not aware of and those values and assumptions are largely influential in the outcomes in your life. It’s not that there aren’t external factors acting upon you but the thing you have control over is your mindset.
I don’t know if it’s in the Old Testament or the New Testament but it said, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in the Christ child.” It helped me to understand that the mindset is not set in the country. The mindset is a gift that humans have and that gift can be opened, changed, recalibrated or whatever the case may be. It is a tool we have. We can use that tool if we know that it’s there. Many people assume that the way I am is the way I am and the way I’m is the way I’ll always be.
That’s super powerful right there. We arrive at that assumption without realizing that we arrive at it.
Those mental models happened from the day you make your first cry on the planet. By the time you get 15 or 16 years of age, you have absorbed so many of them. How you feel, how you eat, what you like and what you don’t like, all those things have begun to happen because of the culture around you. You watch and inhale. You watch and take in. You watch and bring it into your life. A lot of things that we watch and bring in are not helping us at all. They’re hindrances.
You said something and maybe we can end on this idea. One of the observations you got from Uncle Cleve is there’s a formula in there. There is a mindset formula or some basic ideas. I have to make them my own, fine-tune them and adjust them to my situation, wants, desires and needs. There is a basic framework of this entrepreneurial mindset at its core. I accept what you’re saying. It needs fine tuning but there is this basic framework, this assumption that it’s up to me to make myself useful to other humans, to leverage my virtues and my strengths in ways that contribute. That’s the fundamental of an entrepreneurial mindset in my view.
The one good thing about the entrepreneurial mindset is it’s palatable to the times.
Also, the situation.
There will be someone when we’re not on this planet who will read my works and your words and will see it as part 1 of the 10 things that they will discover. Without that part 1, they wouldn’t have been on the journey toward the other 10 things. We will never be able to find closure in one dispensation. The closure is never-ending. That’s what makes it dynamic and important because the change comes within the person and the person who embraces that change is the one who understands what has happened. They’re the ones who go out and accomplish. They’re the ones who will leave what I call those distraught things behind and move forward. I look at my son as a clear example. I wanted to help him all my life because I knew how smart he was and could be but he didn’t know that.
Gary, when he figured that out for himself, even though it may have been based on the conversations we had, he took control of turning and fine-tuning it himself. All of a sudden, you would think he was born with the word entrepreneurship in his brain and that’s not the case at all. Once he found out, “This is who I am, this is who I can become and this is what I have, I can access this and make it work for me,” it makes all the difference in how you approach life and what you expect out of life. It’s almost like retuning a car or a piano in such a way as to maximize its potential. This is what the mindset does.
That’s what it is about maximizing human potential. That’s 100% what I feel that it’s all about. I may have said this to you in the past but I feel like having interviewed all these entrepreneurs over many years, I’m recognizing these patterns and looking at the literature to help explain these patterns. When you zoom out and look at an entrepreneur, whether it’s your Uncle Cleve, Clifton Taulbert or Marshall Taulbert, all you’re seeing is a human being trying to self-actualize. That self-actualizing tendency is in every living thing. That’s the power of the entrepreneurial mindset. It’s this activating agent that enables us to self-actualize.
With those things that would be negative, the mindset is like a sickle going through the jungles of your life, getting rid of those things that are going to tie you down and become overgrowth so that you can’t travel as quickly and flexibly as you’d like to. The mindset does so much and that’s why self-talk is a critical part of the mindset because the mindset and self-talk are like twins. They work together. They’re buddies.
Mindset, self-talk and then reflection. Try not to fool yourself along the way is another part of it. Clif, I’m so grateful to have had this conversation with you. I’m so grateful to you for sharing your story and being willing to share your story. I feel like we’re just getting warmed up. We need to have part two of this conversation. Any final comments that you want to end this episode with?
Sometimes, being at the right place at the right time is very important. Oftentimes, the right place and the right time do not seem to be it until you get there. You always want to keep your mind open to where the journey might take you because the journey of humanity is one that we are on but it’s not one that we started.
Thank you, Clifton.
About Clifton Taulbert
According to Clifton L. Taulbert, noted author and entrepreneur businessman, he could have failed had he not encountered community builders and entrepreneurial thinkers early on in his life. Taulbert was born on the Mississippi Delta during the era of legal segregation where he completed his secondary education. Though opportunities were few and barriers were plentiful, Taulbert managed to dream of being successful, not knowing the shape that success would take.
Today Taulbert is the President and CEO of the Freemount Corporation (a human capital development company) serving clients nationally and internationally-Fortune 500 Companies, small businesses, federal agencies, professional organizations, community colleges and K-12 leadership. Additionally, entrepreneur Taulbert is the President and CEO of Roots Java Coffee-an African-American owned national coffee brand, importing coffee from Africa. To pass his life lessons along, Taulbert shares his entrepreneurial journey with others as a Thrive15.com mentor.