Lessons In Leadership: One On One With David Robinson

I spoke to NBA Hall of Famer and co-founder of Admiral Capital David Robinson about his journey and best advice

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I recently interviewed David Robinson on my podcast, Thirty Minute Mentors. We spoke about David’s journey and best advice on a range of topics. Here are some highlights and excerpts from our conversation:

Adam: What were your most formative and impactful experiences at the Naval Academy and in your time in the service?

David: I decided to go to the Naval Academy because my father was a military guy. My grandfather was also in the army. My father was in the Navy, and I’d been around the military most of my life. So I wasn’t opposed to going in and I thought the Naval Academy is a great engineering school, I want to be an engineer, it would be a good path for me with the discipline. I knew I needed the discipline. You know, in high school, things were kind of easy and I didn’t really force myself to work as hard as I could have. So I thought just about everything about the Naval Academy would be positive for me and I was pretty much right. They pushed me from day one and really gave me a solid foundation in work ethic, with being a part of something greater really having a sense for mission and duty. And they obviously trained me well to lead. I think all the service academies are incredible leadership factories, they do a phenomenal job in preparing people to lead. So when I went to play basketball, I think I was maybe more emotionally and mentally prepared than I would have been coming straight out of college.

Adam: What were your sharpest memories from your experience playing on the Dream Team and what are the best lessons you took away from that summer?

David: I have great memories from that experience. That was an amazing opportunity. One thing that was special about the Dream Team is that everyone took it very seriously. It was an opportunity for us to kind of right the USA Basketball ship, which was obviously important to us, but we kind of knew that this was a seminal moment in international basketball. I look back at it now and I see people coming up to me and saying, “I grew up with this and it changed the way basketball was in Europe or in Australia or in the Middle East.”

Adam: Who in today’s game do you admire?

Mark: I will say, across the board, if they made it to the NBA, I respect their game. Now, I guess the next logical question is: do I like them? Do I want to watch them? You know, that’s a different story for a lot of guys. My favorite players right now include Steph Curry. I like the way that the Warriors brought both the defense and the offense. They played like they were having fun. They just did things the right way. Steph is one of my favorite guys – he played with us down in San Antonio and just to see him have that level of success is just amazing. Obviously watching the Spurs, my favorite guys were Manu and Tony Parker. They’re amazing guys right there – they’re high, high-quality guys who played with a fierceness and a feistiness, but they always respected the game. They respected people around them. They were the ultimate teammates. You look at a guy like Russell Westbrook, who’s an incredible competitor. This guy is a fiery, incredible guy. But he’s had to mature over the years. He’s had to kind of learn how to play with other guys. How do I help other guys and I think he is maturing? I think he is growing into that. Kevin Durant is a guy I respect for his abilities. It’s just his set of abilities is not like anything I’ve seen. And he’s had to kind of grow into being who he is and so I respect and I appreciate that about him. LeBron James has had to grow up a lot. And not only that, he takes very seriously his role in the community, which I think is phenomenal. He’s very outspoken. I don’t always agree with everything he says and does and I’m not personally a big fan of how social media kind of puts everything out there on the front page, but at the same time, I think a guy like LeBron is coming into his own where he’s earned the ability get the platform to speak. A lot of guys speak but have no platform. There’s nothing that they’ve done that backs up what they’re saying. But I have respect for people who put their money where their mouth is and their time and energy where their mouth is. And so I think he’s getting to that stage where you’ve seen it, put money behind it, you’ve seen him put his you know, his reputation on the line, and so I don’t mind guys like that speaking out.

Adam: What inspired your decision to start Carver Academy and to then start Admiral Capital Group and how can we make more of an impact in our communities and in the broader community that we all live in?

David: I grew up with my mom and dad from Little Rock, Arkansas. My dad was a Little Rock guy and in the 50’s – so that’s segregation. That’s Central High School. That’s all of that stuff. And so, when I remember going to Little Rock when I was a kid, and kind of knowing that that’s what my dad grew up in. And my mother grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, not much different, at the time very segregated. She went to the black school on the outskirts of Columbia when she lived near a really good school. It was a white school, so she couldn’t go there. And so, for them, when they grew up, when they got married, and they said, we’re gonna have kids, our kids will go to college. And you think about that, these parents from the 50’s – black parents from the 50s – I have my master’s degree, my sister has a PhD, and my brother went to the Naval Academy and has been a pastor now for 25 years or so. That’s an amazing job that they did, really putting that in a saying that regardless of where we were, you’re going to do this. And so I give them a lot of credit for being the inspiration, the true meaning of a patriarch and matriarch of a family, to be able to change the narrative. So for me, I feel like I’ve got to step on their shoulders and I’ve got to teach my kids to step on their shoulders and so that’s why Carver knows what it was about going into these communities. I see the numbers just like everybody. People in any city in the country, you say, okay, here’s I-10 or I-35. And on one side of I-35, is a certain community and on the other side of I-35, is another community. In the minority community, you see 9% of those kids transitioning into college. On the other side of the highway, you see 77% of those kids going to college. That’s an unsustainable statistic. That’s crazy. So you know, you dig a little bit deeper and you say, okay, on that side of it – and that’s 35 those people on average, because society between $150 and $200,000 per person, on the other side, those people will contribute to the economy. $200,000 per person. That’s a vast difference, right? There’s a huge inequity difference. So, for me seeing that and saying, okay, what can I do? I have limited resources. I’m not in charge of everything. I don’t have enough money to change the world. So I started and said, “Look, I’m gonna help educate these kids. I’m gonna get them to go to college. I can get them to focus like my parents got me focused.” And I said, “You’re going to college. You say what you want to say, but you’re going to college.” And so starting them at kindergarten and preparing them for that mentality of “I’ve got to come against the best kids in the country” – that was important to me. And so Carver Academy, that’s where we started. We started with pre-K through second grade, in a low-income area here in San Antonio. We bought four city blocks, we kind of took down the crack houses and whatever, we built a campus, a beautiful campus that the community could take ownership in. And, you know, early on, we had some incidences of vandalism, some other things, but over time, it’s become a real source of pride for the community. And in that whole area we’ve seen all the housing prices and everything quadrupled in the last 20 years. We wanted to have impact economically, we wanted to have impact educationally, socially, all these different ways. And now we joined up with a charter school system about seven or eight years ago called IDEA Public Schools. And we became their first school here in San Antonio. They started in the Rio Grande Valley, with one school in Texas, and through the charter school network they grew. We were having trouble really growing to scale. And so I said, hey, why don’t we become a charter school for them? I like a lot of their same philosophies about being in low-income neighborhoods and getting these kids focused towards college. They had a 100% matriculation rate to college. And I said that’s what I want to do in San Antonio. So I went to them and said, look, I’ll help you raise money, we’ll raise $50 million here in San Antonio. We’ll build 20 new schools. And we’ll keep the same standard. We’ll send everyone to college. Basically, double the number of low-income kids in San Antonio going to college each year. So they agreed. We became their first school in San Antonio now we have 25 schools, 26 schools here in San Antonio and, you know, 12,000 students, 13,000 students here in San Antonio. We have 55,000 students across the network all through Texas and Louisiana. We’re the fastest-growing charter school system in the country now expanding into Tampa and some other places. So IDEA Public Schools has become an incredibly high performing charter school network. And hopefully we’re having a more resounding impact on public education in general. That it is possible to do this, to have the results we’re having in low-income areas – and we get less money than the local public schools, we get 80% of what they get per student. And we’re able to do what we do. So hopefully we can be a voice in how do we build a public education system that can serve all students at a high level. 

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