From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

A Hardworking Man’s Hand

A dream doesn’t become a reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.

Colin L. Powell

When I was eight years old, I started UNEEC (Urban Neighborhood Economic Enterprise Club), an investment club designed to help kids in the neighborhood turn our ideas and hobbies into bona fide businesses. We didn’t have much—we lived in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, the kind with more trash than trees and where people are so poor, hurt and frustrated that they begin to hurt themselves and others. I dreamed at night of getting my momma out of this place. I decided that, even if I had to work day and night, I would do whatever it took—my momma wouldn’t grow old waiting to get out of this neighborhood. I had a dream to make it out one day, and I knew that all a kid needed, even an inner-city kid, was a dream.

I had been selling products door to door since I was four. I’d accompanied my mother to business meetings since I was five. At six, I made my own business cards that said, “Farrah Gray, Future 21st Century CEO.” By eight, I knew that it takes hard work to create a business, but I didn’t yet know quite how much hard work.

My first job as leader of UNEEC was to find a place to meet. I spent days calling just about every hotel in Chicago before a local Ramada Inn owner gave us a small room to meet in every Saturday for two hours, with free pizza and soda. We were on our way—now all I needed was to find us all a ride.

All the members lived in the same neighborhood, but most of our parents didn’t own cars. Mostly they used public transportation. I let my fingers do the walking in the phone book to find a taxicab company that could help us out with the free rides to and from the Ramada Inn. Nobody would help; lots of people laughed at me. It was a great lesson in business, because I was learning never to give up.

Then someone suggested the airport shuttles, which were even better than taxis because you could fit all eleven or twelve of us kids in one van. After a lot of rejections, I finally reached an owner-driver who listened to my story very attentively. He recognized my age from my voice; I recognized his general age range because his voice and speech were similar to my “old school” relatives.

“Little fella,” he said, “I’ll see what I can do. Let me speak to a parent because I want to come and meet you.”

My mother gave me the okay and I gave him the address, but I reminded him that our club meeting was for young people not old people. He told me that, “Old people can teach you a thing or two, but that’s all right. Always speak your mind. You don’t waste folks’ time and they won’t waste yours.”

An hour later, I was dressed in my Sunday best and waiting outside my apartment for his van to drive up. People in my neighborhood rarely called airport shuttles unless they had to travel to fly out for a funeral, so I knew I wouldn’t have a hard time spotting my welcomed visitor. Soon a yellow and brown passenger van came slowly down my street as if it were driving in a school zone. I met the driver as soon as his door opened.

“I’m Mr. Perry, the owner of this company,” he said. He held out his hand. My eyes bugged out of my head from the pain when that gentle giant closed his hand around mine. He apologized for his strong shuttle-bus driver handshake grip.

“Little fella,” he said. “There are two types of firm handshakes— the white collar handshake and the hardworking man’s handshake. You’re gonna have to have both to make it in this world with the competition that is out there now. None of the big boys are going to give you shelf space.” He seemed to like the way I was listening to his advice. After a few minutes of discussion, he agreed to personally pick up the members of UNEEC every Saturday morning and return us home after the meeting.

“I wish my boys had listened to me when they were younger,” he said with a sad look on his face. “We could have a fleet of vans by now.” Then he asked me, “Farrah, can this old man sit in to see what goes on with your club?”

I remembered what he said earlier about older people knowing a thing or two. “Sure, Mr. Perry,” I said. “You can come and speak to us about your life as a businessman.”

“Little fella,” he said, “you may scare off your club members if you tell them about something they don’t know anything about.”

“What’s that, sir?”

Mr. Perry said, in a tone as strong as his handshake, “Hard work.”

Mr. Perry received a pick-up call on his walkie-talkie. He said he’d be back Saturday morning to pick the club members up, then opened the driver’s side door and hopped in with lightning speed. I thought to myself, He moves fast, just like my grandmother. Old people moving faster than young kids—wow! I was impressed!

UNEEC’s first meeting was a great success; the second week I invited Mr. Perry to speak. No one was surprised to see him since he picked all of us up, but we were surprised to see two grown men in the back of the room.

When Mr. Perry stood up to speak, he needed no introduction. “I’ve been working hard all my life,” he began, “and I like what I see in you all. Since I was your age I’ve been working. I’ve been my own boss since I moved away from home in Baltimore and caught a train, living like a hobo until I arrived here in Chicago.” We hung on his every word. Mr. Perry was not reading from a book but telling us the amazing experiences in his own life. He touched our minds and hearts with his triumphs over trials and tribulations, and how he reared himself up to be a good man, a good father and a hardworking business person.

There wasn’t a dry eye, including the two men in the back of the room, who turned out to be Mr. Perry’s grown sons. They told me their father had asked them to come and hear the stories of his life, because he had always worked so hard that he never had time to tell them before. Now, at last, they finally understood their father and what he had gone through to give them a better life. That day, Mr. Perry was no longer an airport shuttle driver; he was no longer just a dad to these two men. Mr. Perry became our hero; he became our possibility. Mr. Perry became our way out of the ghetto. His story of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, integrity, and a strong handshake moved each one of us to the point of tears and inspired us. We never saw him the same from that day forward; we knew his ride to the Ramada was really a ride to our dreams come true. The only person not crying was Mr. Perry. He closed by humbly thanking us for the opportunity to speak publicly before an audience for the first time in his life.

With his first handshake, Mr. Perry had reached down and pulled me up. His words lifted me to an even higher plane. His strength made me strong. I knew that with an example like Mr. Perry in my life, I couldn’t go wrong.

Some would be amazed that I made my first million by the age of fourteen and that now, at the age of nineteen, I am the majority owner and publisher of InnerCity magazine in partnership with the oldest African-American owned media conglomerate in America. Yes, some would be amazed, but I’m not. After all, I learned to do three things very well in my young life: work really, really hard, know when I’m being blessed with a lesson and how to maintain a strong and confident handshake.

Farrah Gray

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