Mega Star Mentors

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At 8 a.m. on a Friday in late February, a stream of prominent professionals enters a private club in Naples. There’s Don Fites, retired CEO of Caterpillar. In walks MacKenzie Herrick, president of the Young Professionals of Naples. And are those young people near the name-tag table … teenagers? Indeed, some of Immokalee Foundation’s best and brightest high schoolers are here. The occasion: A speaker event featuring Michael Duke, who retired as president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores in 2014 before moving to Naples.

Duke is the ninth business luminary to present at the NexGen Speaker Series, launched by financial services firm Benson Blackburn. NexGen is reminiscent of the TEDx program: independently organized speaker events around the nation, inspired by TED’s “ideas worth spreading” mission. Except NexGen is invitation-only, and the speakers tend to be captains of industry sharing their paths to success.

“What we want our speakers to do is [share] their life story, from where they were at age 20 to how they got where they are today. We want to hear their successes, their failures, what they’ve learned,” says Benson Blackburn CEO Michael Benson, who started NexGen in April 2013 as a way to give back to the community and help foster the next generation of local business leaders.

Inside one of the club’s legant rooms, a crowd that will reach more than 200 this morning chats over the din of clattering plates from the continental breakfast buffet. CEOs, CPAs, attorneys, wealth advisors, local business owners, college professors, students and other current and retired members of the community are here, and they continue to file in during NexGen’s designated networking hour.

Eric Perez, 21, a student at Florida Gulf Coast University and an intern at its Institute for Entrepreneurship, is visibly pumped about the chance to meet so many “powerful and influential people.” Time and again, he delivers a firm handshake, a wide smile and a tight pitch: “I help small businesses develop their presence leveraging social media.”

In front of every chair in the room is a paperback of Made in America, by Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. Some of the Immokalee high schoolers, already seated at their reserved table, flip through it. Mostly they’re eager to learn from Duke.

“I’m looking to go into the field of business, either accounting or marketing,” says Mark Trejo, 17. He’s hoping to hear about how Duke overcame career setbacks. “I have my failures, and I get kind of drawn back from them.”

Leslie Gallegos, 17, wants to study Duke’s presentation style. “I would like to learn from this former CEO how he communicates with people because that’s a key in anything you do in life,” says Gallegos, who plans to go into elementary school education.

Today NextGen is a polished event with an impressive turnout, videographer, glossy brochure and parting gift. But it all started in a Benson Blackburn conference room, where one of the firm’s most prominent clients—Richard Schulze, founder and former CEO of Best Buy—agreed to spend a few hours mentoring the associates. The story of Schulze’s career, including lessons he learned along the way, proved so interesting, so motivating, that Benson soon asked some other clients if they’d do the same.

“After listening to all of them, I said to my team, ‘This information needs to get shared with the community,’” Benson says. He set the wheels in motion for the NexGen speaker series, built on the pillars of “leadership, mentorship, empowerment and philanthropy.” More than 1,400 people have attended the events so far.

Once the networking hour ends, Benson takes the stage for announcements, including that a portion of the sponsorship dollars to underwrite this event would be donated to the American Cancer Society. And then, he welcomes Michael Duke.

Duke first appears as a commanding, 67-year-old business titan in a dark jacket and slacks. But as soon as Duke begins to speak, the daunting veneer melts to reveal Just Mike, Gracious Mike, Small-Town Mike who grew up on a Georgia farm with faith, family and football. He is leaning against the side of the podium, one leg crossed in front of the other, folksy and endear- ing. “I have so much respect for founders. Many of you are founders of your business. I have tremendous admiration for founders of companies,” Duke begins.

He talks about the values instilled by his parents, the importance of having mentors, his long career in the retail sector with Federated Department Stores. Duke shares a lesson learned in his football-playing youth that resonated throughout his career: You can play to win by being both hard-working and a good sport. “You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other,” he says.

Duke speaks a great deal about Wal-Mart’s strong foundation, its values and even its failures. Consider the hypermart: Wal-Mart’s 1980s mall-without-walls concept, a mega-retailer selling everything from tires to clothes to groceries. It failed. “Sam [Walton] and [then-CEO] David Glass looked at it and said, ‘But there’s something here about selling food,’” Duke says. “They came up with an idea of a super- center. It was a little bit smaller, less capital, more efficient, eas- ier to operate, and the rest is history.”

The last half-hour of NexGen’s speaker events is always reserved for Q&A. Audience members ask for Duke’s advice on everything from work-life balance (Duke regrets not doing a better job at that when he had a young family), to how self-driving vehicles might one day impact Wal-Mart truck drivers (Duke sees technology as a great driver of new opportunities). Some attendees and even former speakers see the Q&A portion as the most valuable aspect of NexGen.

While there may be a similar type of business lecture on the web, “people may not find it. Here’s a chance where you can ask the questions yourself and you’ll hear from the mouth of the [business leaders] themselves,” says Best Buy founder Schulze, who was NexGen’s first official guest speaker— after his original talk at the Benson Blackburn office. “I don’t know where else you’d find this kind of format, anywhere.” 


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