Businessman, Investor and Philanthropist Shares Entrepreneurial Success with Students

Guest speaker Kenneth Langone, Sr. was welcomed to campus to share his insights, experiences and advice with students Wednesday, Oct. 11. Whitman Advisory Council (WAC) member and former Syracuse University Trustee Michael J. Falcone ’57, accompanied Langone to campus for his visit.

Langone is an American billionaire businessman, investor and philanthropist, best known for organizing financing for the founders of The Home Depot. He was recently recognized for pledging $100 million in funding towards a $450 million program to make tuition free for NYU School of Medicine students.

Bestseller Memoir

Professor of marketing practice, Sue Smith, facilitated what she described as a “fireside chat, without the fire” discussion. Smith opened up the chat by sharing a little about Langone’s book, “I Love Capitalism! An American Story.” 

Smith shares that when reading Langone’s memoir she walked away believing the perspective “If I can do it, you can do it.” And Ken quipped back quickly, “Yes, with lots of hard work!”

The New York Times bestseller shares a compelling story of how a poor boy from Long Island became one of America’s most successful businessmen. In his memoir, he tells the story of his unlikely rise and controversial career. It’s also a passionate defense of the American Dream – of preserving a country in which any hungry “kid” can reach the maximum potential of his or her talents and work ethics.

Langone discussed how he came to write the book, from the conversations with Michael Orbis, as well as Irwin Marszalek in 2015. He had met with Marszalek’s team a few times and didn’t truly believe he had a story to share.

In 2016, he called up Marszalek and agreed to write the book. He shared, “I’ll do it, but it has to be a story as much about this country as it is about me. Because I can only do what I did in America.”

Langone shared with students how every morning when he gets dressed, he puts on his American flag lapel pin and looks up to the ceiling to thank his grandparents for coming to America.

Education and Experiential Learning

Langone grew up with an entrepreneurial drive. Since the age of 8, he was selling wreaths door-to-door. In high school, he had a job at a butcher shop, right next door to a liquor store. 

The owner of the liquor store offered to pay him to take the used cardboard boxes. Langone found out that he could sell the scraps for $2 to $3 a week, so he told the owner he would take the boxes off his hands each week. After many weeks went by, Langone found out that the store owner was saving $1 a week to give to him for college. 

While studying liberal arts at Bucknell University, he was close to flunking out. He shared with the audience that he struggled to get an education, “I was getting an F in every course I took. I could barely spell, forget about writing a sentence.”

Langone’s economics professor saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself and helped him continue his education. 

Langone shares, “I’m not self-made. I had the blessings of a wonderful family. I had the blessings of unconditional love. I had the blessings of teachers who saw something.”

The Home Depot

Langone partnered with Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus to start Home Depot in 1978. The company’s mission was to provide a store for do-it-yourself (DIY) home improvements and to create a company that would keep values like respect among all people, excellent customer service and giving back to communities alive.

Today there are 500,000 employees, spanning over 2,300 locations. Home Depot prides itself on programs like Ken’s Krew, which enables individuals with cognitive disabilities to successfully enter the workforce by providing access to good jobs and professional training and support to prepare for and sustain employment. Other programs focus on veterans, youth at risk, affordable housing and the environment. 

Smith asked Langone what it is like looking back at where it all started. He shared, “The numbers speak for themselves. It gives me great satisfaction for one reason; I can remember when my father was a plumber and was out of work. To know that I’m part of an effort to help people have better lives with career path opportunities gives me pride.”

Langone continued to share stories about Home Depot employees that he has met over the years. One woman was pregnant at 16, had a second child at 19 and was living with her parents. Her parents helped her raise her children so she could get a job and start a career. Twenty-four years later, she’s a store manager, paid both her parents’ and her mortgage off, and educated her two daughters. “Only in America,” he said.

Advice to Students

With years of experience as a businessman, investor and philanthropist, Langone leaves students with some important advice. The most important thing is to love what you do. He shared, “You’re going to leave here and go out into your career. If you don’t like your job, quit; because you will fail.”

Langone also advised students of the three most powerful things in the world: A kind word, a thoughtful gesture, and passion and enthusiasm for what you’re doing. 

He continued, “If I could pay to go to work. I would have paid to go to work. I loved it from the day I started. I’m 84 and I go to work every single day.”

As an entrepreneur, he shared, “If you have a great idea and can show value, go for it. If you can build people who can work with you and not for you, there is no telling what you’re going to accomplish.”

The last piece of advice Langone leaves students with is that you can always be better and improve. Your life journey should be to be even better tomorrow than you are today.

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Kimmy Kimball