AT&T Michigan President David C. Lewis, Sr. has been a trailblazer in his career, working hard to break down barriers and achieve his goals, making sure other black leaders know they can do the same too. During Black History Month, Lewis reflected on some of the lessons he has learned in his life and career and lessons he hopes others learn too.
Q: What does Black History Month mean to you?
A: Black History Month is important to me because the people I have researched and followed have made me the man I am today. Academically, W.E.B. Du Bois means a lot to me. He had a talent and a theory that those who have the ability and are educated, should take on the responsibility to help the less fortunate.
Then there’s Booker T. Washington, who focused on self-help in schooling. He talked about owning your own shop, creating your own opportunity by creating jobs from the inside out. Other leaders of influence are Carter G. Woodson, Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X and of course Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My most recent role models are President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama because they have shown me what leadership and love are all about.
Black history month means taking the time to read and educate yourself on those who sacrificed their lives so that we could be here today. Is racism gone? No, of course not. It’s just in a different form but now we find ourselves in a position where we have the freedom to do whatever we want. And we all take it for granted. So many people today take it for granted because they don’t know what it was like. So Black History Month means taking the time to understand your past; because if you don’t, you’re doomed to repeat it.
Q: How did your upbringing shape you as a leader?
A: Being a person of color in any industry, it’s important to know where you came from. I grew up in a single-parent household, was raised by my mother and grandmother and got to see what hard work and sacrifice looked like from day one. I grew up in an all-black, rough neighborhood. It was a tough environment, and without a father, in my life, I had to quickly figure out who I was and what I needed to do to make it.
At a young age, I realized that I could go one of two ways: the way of gang bangers and drug dealers where I could have ended up dead or in jail or taken another direction. I saw so many people in my neighborhood and community making the wrong choice and they paid for it.
Growing up, I realized that I had to be different, unique, and had to work even harder. I also learned to communicate in different environments because my family attended a predominantly white church where my mother was the lead alto in the choir. I was the only black kid in the entire church and managed by my eighth-grade year to be the president of our youth group. I saw two worlds just about every day and that helped me know to be proud of who I was but also understand that there’s a bigger space than just your race and your community and I think I was the better for that.
Q: How did your career experiences shape you as a black leader at AT&T and in your community?
A: During my last semester of college (Ball State University), I was a Senate intern for two African American State Senators and was able to see two different styles of leadership. One of my senators was more grassroots and didn’t like to be in the office that often. The other Senator was also grassroots but was more structured, so I got both experiences which was great. The one who was less structured wanted me in the community with him. So for weekends at a time, I got to see him engage with members of the community that were homeless and struggling. I got a real understanding of how blessed I am.
That’s why I take it very personal in everything that I do. I’m not just representing my company or myself, I’m representing my race, the generation before me, that sacrificed their lives so that I could have this opportunity. I’m also representing the generation behind me that is in that same crowd and all they see are young blacks that play basketball, football, rap or sell drugs. No offense to the aforementioned professionals (except the drug dealers), because what they do is amazing and needs to be praised.
I say all the time that I am honored and privileged to be the President of AT&T Michigan as a person of color but I am obligated to do something with it; because if I don’t try to reach out to someone who didn’t have the same influence that I did when I was younger, who knows where they will end up? That’s why I take my success and journey very serious because I want someone behind me to see what I’ve been able to accomplish and say that they want to be better than me. Not just as good, but better.
Q: What role does mentorship play in helping people be successful?
A: Mentorship should be a priority for everyone. I knew at a younger age, growing up in a single-parent household that you have to ask people for help because if you just sit around, you won’t learn. For me, right out of college, I knew that I had to, no matter where I was, find a way to communicate with younger people.
I mentor people in the community, I mentor other business professionals that are in high-ranking positions. I don’t go a week without a mentoring conversation with a younger individual. If I am not able to share the wisdom that was bestowed upon me from people who shared theirs with me, then I’m not doing my job.
Mentoring is paramount in every environment and if you’re in a successful position in any trade, job or career, and you’re not trying to make life better for those behind you, then what are you really doing and what will be your legacy? My legacy will be reaching back while moving forward. Every step up I go, I want to make sure there’s someone who I’m able to pull up behind me, so mentoring is critical and essential in the success of any community.
Q: Why do you think having African American leadership is important?
A: This country can’t thrive without African American leadership. All leadership is important but there has to be a concerted effort to focus on leading our own. I mainly focus on mentoring people of color because we relate. African American engagement is paramount in ensuring that we are influencing within in their own race and community. In order for us to say “Black Lives Matter”, there has to be people of color in their lives to show them why they matter.
Q: Why is it important for AT&T to have a large community presence in Detroit through the Believe Detroit Initiative?
A: I’m big on corporate responsibility and any company worth their weight has to have some sort of responsibility to the community in which their people can live, work and raise their families. It is paramount for companies the size of AT&T to make sure that they’re doing something to give back. I’m proud to say that I work for a company that does just that. AT&T has been synonymous with the City of Detroit through our Foundation and Corporate giving for many years.
Recently, I was able to introduce the city to our Believe Detroit initiative. Believe Detroit is focused on homelessness, self-sustainability, and education. We want to make sure that those who don’t have a leg up can get one. We don’t give hand-outs, we give hand-ups. And that’s been really critical, not just to the organizations that we’ve worked with but for the impact we’ve made externally and internally. AT&T has always strived to not be a pebble in an ocean but a boulder in a pond. It’s all about making a big splash.
It’s amazing to see employees calling, emailing, and saying “when’s the next event?” Every company has employee engagement pieces, but what’s made us unique is how we made this an employee initiative. It has planted seeds that I truly believe years from now will continue to bear fruit.
Believe Detroit is about giving back and using our time, talent, and treasures to make an impact in areas where we live, work and raise their families.
Q: What’s your message to other leaders in Michigan?
A: We have to do a better job of coming together and seeing what we can do as leaders to make way for the next generation. As President of AT&T Michigan, I am doing everything I can within the confines of my influence to make a difference. But we’ve got business owners, CEOs, attorneys, doctors, elected officials, and members of the clergy who are very successful and can make an even larger impact.
Let’s spread our resources around and work with Detroit schools to see if we can talk to them about the next level. There needs to be more accountability in putting ourselves in positions where we’re in front of people, young people, that need to see us for no other reason than to know that they can reach out heights, if not higher. I challenge all those who are successful, call me, let’s talk and discuss how we can continue to work together because if we can’t build our legacy for the future then those who sacrificed their lives for us did it for nothing.