Be curious. Throughout history we have examples of people whose open minds and curiosity led to significant successes… Einstein’s curiosity about matter and energy is one example. I recall being an eight-year-old child in rural South Carolina, living on my grandparents’ farm, and seeing an airplane fly by for the first time. My grandfather said, “Always be curious. And always know that you can do what you are interested in.” And I went on to become a pilot! I feel that our job as leaders, parents and teachers is to spark children’s curiosity, inspire their visions, and keep their trust while doing so.
As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim White.
Jim White, PhD, is Founder and President of JL White International, Chairman and CEO of Post Harvest Technologies and Growers Ice Company, and Founder and CEO of PHT Opportunity Fund. Dr. White holds a BS in Civil Engineering, an MBA, and a PhD in Psychology and Organizational Behavior and over his career has bought, expanded, and sold 23 companies operating in 44 countries, and generated over 1.8 billion dollars. Dr. White is the bestselling author of Opportunity Investing: How to Revitalize Urban and Rural Communities with Opportunity Funds (www.opporunityinvesting.com). His fifth book, Broken America: Ten Guiding Principles to Restore America (www.brokenamerica.come), launches September 9, 2020.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was born in what would today be called a Qualified Opportunity Zone — that is, a federally designated census tract where residents suffer from poverty, unemployment, lack of healthcare, education and other resources, failing infrastructure, and a variety of social ills like crime and drugs.
Knowing that some 35 million people across the country live in these impoverished conditions makes me realize that I am obligated to help because today I am fortunate enough to be in a position to do so.
Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
I grew up in a sharecropper cabin in a low-income, rural area of South Carolina, and spent my childhood as an abused and neglected child. I was something of an entrepreneur from the beginning: by the age of five I’d started collecting and selling bottles of Coke to help support my family. It was not a happy childhood. But even then, I always happened to be creative. How do you do deals? How do you structure them? How do you finance them? I started asking these questions at a young age.
Later, as an Army Ranger, I did two tours in Vietnam and was discharged in April, 1971.
The lessons I learned in the military were invaluable. I eventually enrolled at Georgia Tech University on the G.I. Bill, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering, went on to earn my Masters, and then my doctorate in Psychology and Organizational Behavior.
What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
I was dealt a bad hand as a kid. But, out of every tragedy one can find an opportunity… that is if you are willing to open your mind to such opportunities. I also believe I was born with the right stuff to overcome any situation. Failure has never been an option for me. I have been knocked down many times. But, I get up and up and up every time. I never give up.
Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
I firmly believe that my success is based on three factors: education, hard work, and critical thinking.
I started at Ingersoll Rand Company as a salesman and, with commissions, I was soon making more money than the Chairman of the Board I left Ingersoll Rand in 1980 and started my first company.
I led trade missions for JACC to Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Haiti. Later, as chief executive of Blount World Trade Corp., I oversaw all international trade. Over my career I’ve bought and sold 23 companies operating in 44 nations, generating more than 1.8 billion dollars.
Right now I am the CEO of 13 different companies, all strategically aligned to tackle the challenge of bringing agricultural crops to market. It’s an essential industry and one that is flourishing, even during — and to some extent because of — the global pandemic.
At 60, I wrote my first book, “What’s My Purpose? A Journey of Personal and Professional Growth,” which became an international best seller. I’ve since written four more, and my fifth book launches on September 9. It’s a bit different from the others since its theme is political — it’s about the intersection of successful business leadership and politics. Political leadership today — or the lack thereof — is something I feel very passionate about. I love this country and I don’t want to see it run into the ground.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I am a huge proponent of critical thinking. In fact, I spent months discussing it during my weekly webinar and will continue to espouse critical thinking skills as we discuss politics, currents events and social challenges in my Healing America with Dr. Jim Whiteseries. Here are three pieces of advice related to critical thinking:
- Be curious. Throughout history we have examples of people whose open minds and curiosity led to significant successes… Einstein’s curiosity about matter and energy is one example. I recall being an eight-year-old child in rural South Carolina, living on my grandparents’ farm, and seeing an airplane fly by for the first time. My grandfather said, “Always be curious. And always know that you can do what you are interested in.” And I went on to become a pilot! I feel that our job as leaders, parents and teachers is to spark children’s curiosity, inspire their visions, and keep their trust while doing so.
- Ask questions. We can’t be afraid to offend people by asking questions. We must use logic and ask, “What are the premises of an argument?” “Is any information missing?” “Am I being fed facts (truths) or values (beliefs)?” We must ask where the data is coming from. I would certainly be more inclined to listen to experts, scientists, doctors, and engineers, when it comes to the coronavirus, for instance.
- Analyze the data. I remember working on an engineering project where the information we were given wasn’t taken seriously. It was the 1970s, when I was a young sales engineer at Ingersoll Rand. I was working with a contractor to try to fix a dam in West Virginia that eventually burst. The tragedy occurred on February 26, 1972, when a coal slurry impoundment dam on a hillside burst, four days after having been declared “satisfactory” by a federal mine inspector. The resulting flood unleashed approximately 132 million gallons of black waste water on the residents below. Out of a population of 5,000 people, 125 were killed, 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless, with several hundred homes and businesses destroyed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Bill Burch, owner of Burch-Lowe in Atlanta, Ga gave me my first job when I returned from Vietnam and allowed me to work and go to school at the same time.
Gene Jackson, owner of a small gas station in Lawrenceville, Ga took me under his wing when I was 14 and taught me how to work on cars. He provided security and a sense of belonging.
J.D. Humphreys gave me a job as a crane operator when I was 18 years old.
Orville Freeman taught me the ins and outs of Washington DC and opened my eyes to international business possibilities after I left Ingersoll Rand.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Here’s my rallying cry: join me in investing in PHT Opportunity Fund, which is a Qualified Opportunity Fund created to channel investor capital into a Qualified Opportunity Zone. Its groundwork was set by Congress when it passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and, along with it, a hidden gem: a vehicle to invest in Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZs).
Funds directed to QOZs are critical to impact the 35 million residents of over 8,800 struggling urban and rural neighborhoods: to provide them with employment opportunities, healthcare, education, community resources, housing, recreation, and more.
Specifically, PHT Opportunity Fund is redeveloping a 28-acre site in Salinas, CA, the “salad bowl of the world,” a farmland epicenter of wine grapes, leafy greens, vegetables and berries. Unfortunately, Salinas suffers from a high rate of unemployment — it topped 12% this spring during the pandemic — and the campus itself, built in 1936, is quite obsolete.
Once complete, however, the campus will house one of the most state-of-the-art pre-cooling and cold storage facilities in the nation. Its two goals are, first, “pre-cooling,” which is a process to remove heat from vegetables once they are picked to prevent the growth of microbes that speed decay. Second, cold storage to house the vegetables before they are shipped out to markets across the globe. Both processes increase the quality of produce and extend its shelf life.
The Salinas cold storage campus will significantly help the farmers of the area, and bring automation and technology to the industry, thus increasing efficiency — and improving the lives and livelihoods of those involved in California agriculture.
Unfortunately, under the pall of COVID-19, unemployment is skyrocketing and already-impoverished, distressed communities are suffering even more. I think that we will see an increase in the number of QOZs, so the influx of investor dollars will be even more needed in future.
By the way, the benefits are not just for the residents of the opportunity zones. There is a huge upside for investors, who benefit from the initiative’s capital gains tax breaks; they keep their money in a fund for 10 years and all the appreciation is tax-free. They will make money, possibly even an outsized ROI. This is also a means of diversifying their own portfolios away from equities and into new revenue streams and avenues of investment which, as we’ve experienced in this volatile and terrifying market, is critical. Investing through Qualified Opportunity Funds is a strategy for multigenerational long-term financial planning.
And of course, investors will have the satisfaction of knowing they are positively impacting low-income urban and rural communities and potentially the lives of millions of people.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Because it hits so close to home, I am always eager to help disadvantaged youth and give them tools to set them on a good path. Education is a priority of mine. Later this year I intend to launch the Post Harvest Technologies Scholarship Fund to benefit youth in the area surrounding the Salinas campus. My hope is that it will give disadvantaged students an opportunity to learn agriscience and Ag-Tech at area schools… and perhaps they will even work at the Salinas site one day.
I’m also a big supporter of Rancho Cielo, a comprehensive learning and social services center for underserved and disconnected youth in Monterey County. It’s a fantastic organization that teaches kids to avoid bad choices and overcome barriers to success.
As far as a “movement” goes, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel… the structure is already in place: Qualified Opportunity Zones. I believe that, as a movement, investing in these communities is the best and most efficient way to serve the greatest number of struggling people, by improving their neighborhoods and giving them tools and resources.
If businesses in the zones thrive, the communities will have more jobs and better salaries to offer. More people will want to relocate to these areas, which will increase real estate values and breathe new life into local shops and stores. When residents and business owners are doing well, they spend more money on beautifying their homes, storefronts, public buildings, streets, parks, and monuments. The infrastructure will improve, crime will decrease, and better health care will be available for residents.
As a whole, this approach could reinvigorate the entire nation. Investing in our poorest communities is definitely the best first step to take.
Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
As we approach the November elections, I implore people to use critical thinking skills and ask the necessary questions about our leadership and the kind of society we want to live in. Do we want to live in a fractured society that has become so divided along party lines that civil discourse is impossible? Or do we want to return to dialogue, to a sense of civility, to the values of the Constitution, and the wisdom and principles that our Founding Fathers and Mothers set forth for us?
We must demand honest and ethical behavior from our political leaders. We must hold them accountable. We must demand transparency.
Regardless of which party voters belong to, there are certain criteria all patriotic Americans should be requiring, and these criteria can easily be found in the texts and teachings of our Founding Fathers and Mothers. The teachings are not only relevant today but they can help restore the wellbeing of our nation.
Wisdom, truth, respect, patriotism, equality and other values must be demanded by voters to bring our nation back on course.
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