Non-Traditional Education Drives Entrepreneur To Unexpected Heights

While we can get ever-closer to our celebrity crushes through our palm-sized window to the world, we remain in perpetual ‘neutral’ gear, trying to convert their ideas of life into our everyday experiences. The task can feel monumental when comparing the visuals of a viral post to the more mundane existence of middle American life. It represents the downside of the glitz and glamour of a pixelated reality.

The challenges remain the same for all generations. To be somebody that feels connected to the people and circumstances that enter their lives. Even though we have learned about our species’ ‘why,’ from more external sources than we can count, in the process, we might have sanitized the one experience that fundamentally triggers our attention—internal motivation.

While motivation can come from external sources, the intrinsic form has a more lasting learning effect. Intrinsic motivation is the spontaneous tendency to seek out novelty, challenges, explore, and learn through the process, according to The National Library of Medicine research by Ryan and Deci. “Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual,” says Jessica Saxena of BetterHelp, rather than external incentives.

Few embody intrinsic qualities as keenly as JeVon McCormick, author, keynote speaker, and president and CEO of Scribe Media. He is an exemplar of an American dream achieved through non-traditional educational paths.

McCormick strongly dislikes being referred to as anything motivational but wishes instead to inspire by showing what is possible. His book, I Got There: How a Mixed-Race Kid Overcame Racism, Poverty, and Abuse to Arrive at the American Dream, is a tell-all tale of lifting oneself to success through personal belief. McCormick carries that same vision and internal drive expressed in his book to help others get their authorship off the ground at Scribe Media.

To date, Scribe Media has worked with over 1900 authors, including members of The Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Nassim Taleb, and David Goggins (whose blockbuster book Can’t Hurt Me has sold over 2 million copies). Austin Business Journal named McCormick a Best CEO of Austin distinction, and just recently, Ernst and Young awarded him Entrepreneur of the Year honors.

This reporter had the pleasure of interviewing McCormick with the added benefit of gaining inspiration during the process. He is a man who not only overcame harsh beginnings but recognizes a responsibility in sharing and giving back so others can learn from his experiences.

Rod Berger: You are very public about your history during a time when so many want to have the ‘perfect’ story. When did the light bulb go off for you that sharing was necessary?

JeVon McCormick: For about 45 years, I was much like the rest of the public. I did not want you to know that my dad was a pimp with 23 kids, my mom was an orphan, didn’t know where my last name came from, and suffered abuse. Who’s going to hire, date, or even marry that guy?

I decided to write my first book as a legacy piece for my four kids because there was no history of origin with my last name and lineage.

After the book went public, I quickly learned that we all have a story. We all have fractured pasts, having made mistakes in multiple forms. I enjoy that people can read about my background and recognize that you don’t have to come from the perfect suburban setting to find success.

Berger: I imagine that not everyone who has experienced fractured pasts would have intrinsically gathered their talents together to find success. You run a successful publishing company, and were named the best CEO in Austin, TX. What separates you from others trying to make it?

McCormick: I cannot speak on others, but I will say that I know life comes down to choices and seeing what’s possible.

At age 10, I remember my dad unintentionally driving me through River Oaks in Houston, Texas, an ultra-exclusive neighborhood with $25 million homes. He didn’t say a word, but I personally saw ‘possibility.’ Unfortunately, kids grow up in similar circumstances and never even accidentally learn about options.

We’ve weaponized the word privilege, especially white privilege. But the fact is, I had the incredible privilege in the difficult way I grew up. There are things that I know about this country that most people are never going to experience. And that’s a privilege.

With my privilege of experience comes a deep responsibility to go back and show what’s possible. No one tells these kids they can be an entrepreneur; many only believe that being a rapper, athlete, or drug dealer is the way out. Entrepreneurship is a possibility.

Asking Questions

Berger: Many young people today struggle to understand education’s role in their career path. What can you share about your avenues and pathways that uniquely helped accelerate business growth?

McCormick: I’m very direct and always ask questions. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dedek, said, “There are no dumb questions.” I took that to heart and haven’t stopped asking questions ever since.

A lot of my background is fragmented in my mixed race. At age eight, I remember a woman spitting in my mom’s face saying she was an ‘expletive lover.’ When you realize that there will be black people who don’t like you because you’re half white and white people who don’t like you because you’re half black, at that point, you never hesitate to ask questions. That experience supercharged my understanding that in life, and in business, you can’t always impress everyone – you have to stand by your own convictions.

Asking questions is valued in our company. Everyone’s worked somewhere in corporate America where you can get fired for asking too many questions. When onboarding with us, I let people know they can get fired for not asking enough questions. If you make a mistake because you were too embarrassed to speak up and worried about perception, then this isn’t the right place for you.

Berger: Is there a particular personal accomplishment that puts a smile on your face?

McCormick: One particular story from my past with my mom is a moment that now comes full circle and makes me smile. The mailman delivered a Christmas card to the wrong place, and it arrived at our apartment. It was a family picture of a mom, dad, and three kids, all dressed in the same sweaters standing in front of their Christmas tree.

I asked my mom if I could keep the card because it looked peaceful, loving, happy, and joyous. Every following Christmas, we would put the card out as a decoration. I remember wanting to have a family Christmas card one day. Now, every year we send out a Christmas card. It puts a smile on my face.

Educating Leaders

Berger: Can you talk about your leadership style in business and what works from your perspective, background, and experience?

McCormick: I refer to the historic Henry Ford trial where the government accused him of not being fit to run a corporation of his size, considering he only had an eighth-grade education. I’m paraphrasing, but after endless grilling, he said, “I assure you, for every question that I can’t answer, there are people who work for me that know the answer.”

I don’t need to know everything. I surround myself with people who know so much. My leadership style comes in three pieces: Never be the smartest person in the room. Surround the whole company with people far smarter than me. And then surround myself with people smarter than me.

You often see ‘playbook leaders,’ people who grew up with the playbook in hand. They went to the right schools, received degrees, promotions, etc. They grew up inside the playbook. As a result, they often feel and believe they have to know all the answers or risk being exposed or pressured by a prescriptive populous.

You called it out earlier, I was named the best CEO in Austin, and Ernst and Young named me an Entrepreneur of the Year. Yet when I receive awards, I quickly mention that I’m only as good as the great people I serve and support. They execute all the work.

You can have the greatest vision and plan, but if you don’t have great people to execute the work, it’s worth nothing.

Belief Over Hope

Berger: What are you hoping to accomplish moving forward in the future?

McCormick: I say this with the utmost respect, but you said, “What am I hoping to accomplish?” When I was a kid, I eliminated three words from my vocabulary: hope, wish and luck.

I’ll tell you how that came to be. When I would hope that my dad would come to pick me up, he never showed up. When I would hope there was something to eat in the refrigerator when I got home at night, there was nothing there. So I stopped hoping. I replaced hope with belief because, for me, belief forces execution.

If you just drive through a nice neighborhood and hope you will have a house one day, it will not produce anything. But if I believe I can have that house and execute to get that house, I replace hope with belief.

When it comes to ‘wish,’ I mean, that’s a disgusting four-letter word. It might be the worst. I can sit here and wish all day long and not produce anything.

I have four children: eight, seven, five, and three. You don’t dare make a wish when we have birthday parties and put the cake on the table at the McCormick house. You make a goal. When you blow out the candles, you make a goal out loud. None of this; keep your wish to yourself. You say it out loud, and it forces execution.

Luck, come on. People say, “Oh, you had such an unlucky childhood.” But, no, I had a very lucky childhood because the experiences I had shaped my perspective and drive.

Berger: Would you say you’re content and satisfied with where you have arrived in life?

McCormick: I wake up each morning; I’m healthy with a wonderful wife and four healthy children. I’ve received awards that I would have never imagined receiving.

But most importantly, I realize I have a deep responsibility to show others what’s possible. I don’t want to be an influencer. There is no obligation but rather a responsibility. There is a difference.

When I travel to speak and keynote, I will not walk on the stage if someone introduces me as a motivational speaker. People know this in advance. I am not here to motivate anyone. If you want motivation, see Tony Robbins or somebody else.

For me, motivation resembles heroin addicts where I grew up. You get high, and then you need another hit. That’s what motivation means to me. You go to the conference; you’re motivated. But a week later, you need some more motivation at another event.

I’m not a circus clown and don’t want to motivate you. I’m here to show you what’s possible and inspire you. Other than that, I don’t want to show up.

The education and corporate sectors have been thrust into scenarios unlike any in our collective lifetimes; working 9 to 5, in-person, and being under the control of others is over. The tenets of our economy have morphed into a human economy rooted in story. These stories explain ‘why’ one either chooses a traditional education path or diverts down a non-traditional experience laden with non-prescriptive lessons that go far beyond the boundaries of a classroom.

JeVon McCormick went by ‘JT’ because he didn’t think others would accept the cultural undertones of his first name. Then the world tilted on its axis, discussions abounded about George Floyd and JT decided to represent the change he felt bubbling up inside himself.

Now JeVon unabashedly shares his story and name, knowing that the truth inspires not only his audiences but the little boy inside that still marvels at the impact his third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dedek, had on an understandably pressurized young man.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.


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