This past Thursday and Friday was the Entrepreneurship@Cornell Celebration (see http://entrepreneurship.cornell.edu/activities/celebration/2011). It was a fabulous event. During the Celebration, the 2011 Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year was honored. Harris Rosen was the honoree (see http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Jan11/CEY2011.html). Mr. Rosen’s life story is truly one of the most inspirational tales I have ever heard. He summed it up with “Do the Right Thing”.
Before I try to tell you Rosen’s story in blog fashion, the saying “Do the Right Thing” has infiltrated my house before though in a different context. I use it with my kids (ages 5 and 9) when trying to get them to treat each other nicely. For example, if the 9 year old has some candy and the 5 year old asks for some, the 9 year has a choice: don’t share or “Do the Right Thing”. If she does the right thing, she now knows the benefits. If she does not, then I usually find some other way or rewarding the 5 year old for his sister’s not stepping up and doing the right thing. Life lesson turned into a family dynamic game.
So, back to Rosen. He grew up in the slums of NYC during WW II. Very poor and his parents never graduated from high school. One day when he was about 9 or 10, Rosen and his brother were playing in the street when a tour bus stopped. Looking at the Rosen boys, one well-to-do lady said to her friend, “so, that is how they live.” Rosen went home and asked his mom what the lady’s words meant, and she explained. She further explained that the only way out of the slum was education. From that point on, Rosen and his brother took school seriously. Both graduated from high school and Harris was accepted into Cornell (in the School of Hotel Administration). After college, he worked a few jobs, served some military time and eventually ended up at Disney. In 1974 he was fired from Disney for challenging his bosses and that year purchased his first hotel (a Quality Inn) in Florida.
I am leaving some details out. He built his hotel properties to multiple resorts with over 6,000 beds. He has never levered a property and so has a competitive advantage during economic down cycles. In the early 1990s, Rosen had an epiphany, and realized that it was time to start giving back. Note that by this time he had already started to provide all his employees (over 2,000) with full health care coverage (I believe completely self insured) with a maximum out of pocket expense for any employee of $1,000 ($500 for each of the 2 first years). Rosen’s hotels have incredibly low employee turn over. I should mention that he does not allow any of his employees to smoke. Drug tests are used to detect nicotine, and any offender is given 6 months of treatment (employee’s choice of treatment) to quit. Rosen has only lost 2 employees to the no smoking rule.
The epiphany materialized itself by Rosen “adopting” a section of Orlando, FL called Tangelo Park in the early 1990s. TP was a run down, drug infested section of town. Rosen literally went to the town governing body and offered free day care for all kids prior to kindergarten and then free tuition at any Florida state college for anyone from Tangelo Park graduating from high school. Since then, the high school graduation rate for Tangelo Park has gone to 100%. No, that is not a typo.
This is Mr. Rosen’s way of, to use his words, “Doing the Right Thing”. His message was simple: the more you have the more you need to give back.
Mr. Rosen told his story via a moderated discussion with a former Cornell president on Thursday afternoon. The audience of about 600 was completely enraptured. There were inspired tears and huge ovations. It was truly awesome to hear his story first hand. Rosen is so humble that he is actually very uncomfortable in front of large audiences. This made the presentation even more heart felt.
Do the Right Thing.