Success without the college education

November 6, 2011

Even though I only have a high school diploma, I recognize the value of a college degree — it goes a long way. But as the owner of five-year-old limousine and shuttle service with tens of millions of dollars in government contracts, I have found that common sense and street smarts are the keys.

The knowledge I acquired to run the business came the hard way: I worked for 13 ½ years as a carpenter in the D.C. Department of Public Works and for nearly 10 years as a bus and train operator and a trainer at Metro.

While at Metro, a lot of passengers commented on my professionalism — how well groomed and courteous I was — and asked me when was I going to start my business. I always dreamed about going into business, but I procrastinated.

Then one day at a church men’s conference the speaker challenged us to consider our legacy: If you were to die to today, how would you want to be remembered? What would you want someone to say at your eulogy? And what impact would you have left in the community?

After leaving the conference I sat down with my fiancé and she said, “Successful people don’t talk about what they’re going to do — they just do it.”

So I got busy. I went to about 20 companies to get pointers on how I could start a limousine and shuttle service. They shared with me several do’s and don’ts: Develop policies and procedures. Get the necessary permits and insurance. Do background checks on job applicants and companies that you want to partner with. Don’t hire anyone who doesn’t share your vision. Don’t have sloppy paperwork.

The lack of a college degree did not hinder the success of the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — and it hasn’t hurt me. For many people, college only prolongs their destiny. I think in some cases people overeducate themselves, they become book smart but don’t have common sense.

In the streets you learn a code of conduct — how to treat others, how to earn respect. Similarly, there’s an ethics code in business. Your word is your bond. If your word is nothing, you’re nothing. You live and die by that. I get referrals because people know who I am and what I stand for.

For me, learning in the field at Metro has been a great education. First-hand experience in the trenches, getting my hands dirty and seeing what goes on behind the scenes, has been more valuable than sitting in the classroom.

I learned how to set up schedules, how to write up people for discipline problems, how to follow policies. And I learned about routing — how to navigate through the region when traffic is heavy. We’re implementing in our company what I learned at Metro.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying a college education is useless in running a business. I’ve surrounded myself in my business with people who are smarter than me. My fiancé, who is president of the company, has a college degree. Our accountant, administrator, project managers and contractor all have college degrees. Having people with degrees has taken my company further.

But it was the street smarts, not the book smarts that made the biggest difference in our growth. Studying our competitors’ weaknesses — like I learned to do when I played football in high school — helped us position the business to win several lucrative government contracts.

Darnell Lee is chief executive of W&T Travel Services in Camp Springs.

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