Robert F. Smith’s shared insights on the digital economy and the best advice he wished he’d received as a young entrepreneur during his virtual talk with the Afro American Newspaper’s Rev. Dr. Frances Toni Draper at the 12th annual Black Business Matters Expo on February 18, 2021.
The AFRO hosted the free event as an opportunity for Black community members to share their unique perspectives during an unprecedented time according to AFRO Executive Director Lenora Howze. “This expo aligns with our mission to educate and empower the community with information and resources to help them succeed,” Howze said. The mission was aligned with Smith’s ongoing advocacy for educational and business infrastructure to empower and uplift the Black community.
Late in the interview, Smith said, “I’m always thinking, what’s your highest and best use?” True to his word, the philanthropist was generous with his accumulated knowledge.
Draper, a former president of the AFRO which was founded by her great grandfather in 1892, fielded a number of questions to Smith, the first of which was about what Smith’s advice would be to children who want to be like him: a tech entrepreneur.
Robert F. Smith’s Advice About Bridging the Digital Divide
Smith’s first piece of advice was to get digital: “Become computer literate,” he insisted. At first, Smith’s advice might sound like something you’ve heard before. Computers have been an office staple for over 50 years, and we are almost four decades deep in digital natives. But, what Smith is talking about isn’t surfing the web, word processing or even how to use the latest social app. It’s about broader digital learning.
Digital literacy according to the American Library Association is, “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”
Understanding the new “digital interface” is becoming essential. According to Smith, it will “dictate the way we engage with each other, the way businesses engage together and the way that communities and frankly countries are going to engage.”
What Smith refers to is the next step in interconnectivity where finance and industry are creating a digital infrastructure of platforms and applications. Which means students today will need to understand that interface or risk getting left behind. According to Smith, tomorrow’s entrepreneurs will need to figure out what unique products and services solutions they can develop to offer the evolving digital marketplace.
What’s the Best Advice for an Entrepreneur Just Starting Out?
Draper asked Smith about the best advice he’d ever received and what was the advice he’d wished he’d received at the start of his entrepreneurial journey.
“I think the most important piece of advice I got early on was: become an expert in my craft,” Smith said. “Be studied and learned about what it is that is the business that you are in and how it is that you can create a unique, sustainable advantage in the market that you participate in.”
You should focus on maintaining your business’ product superiority or execution excellence, according to Smith. Whatever your business, be it product service, service delivery or customer service relationships. Whatever business you are in, figure out what your unique value is or what it could be.
The advice Smith wished he’d had as he started out stemmed from a lack of human capital or an understanding of how the world of business and finance work from the perspective of lawyers and accountants. He called it “a kitchen cabinet of advisors” over the long term from whom you can gain “perspective about things you should do or not do as you think about moving forward in your task as an entrepreneur.”
Smith offered that mutual aid in the form of advice from successful Black accountants to Black business start-ups would be beneficial to both parties. That relationship can be more useful than simply passing business cards. It’s about finding and cultivating alliances with those who have the skills you lack, according to Smith.
Watch Smith’s Other Talks on Business and Entrepreneurship
Smith frequently shares his advice and talks about his experiences with experts in the field. Watch some of his past talks on YouTube.