“Life’s experiences can be both good and bad. How YOU handle them is what matters most.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Smith.
After his decade-long acclaimed playing days with the NBA, Charles Smith, MBA has positioned himself at the intersection of Sports, Business, Events and Technology. Relative to the NBA, itself, Smith produced and executed exhibition games featuring over 40 retired NBA players against local teams throughout Asia and South America. He subsequently curated intimate deals on three continents across nearly a dozen countries including the U.S., China, Hong Kong, Argentina, Australia, Qatar, Colombia, Barbados, Taiwan, Indonesia and Macau.
Smith also first engaged with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) as Team Representative and then as First Vice President, a position specifically created for him by the NBPA in 1992. There, he launched the NBPA Foundation, a non-profit to create meaningful change through the support of both charitable organizations and retired players in need.
Now as Chairman of the Pro Basketball Alumni Association, Smith speaks to professional leaders on topics including industry growth and structure, financial disciplines and thought-provoking business solutions. He effectively navigates business concepts and strategically uses sports analogies to motivate his audiences toward positive professional success.
His hard work and sports background has helped him to become a highly sought-after speaker. The PBAA is a non-profit organization that provides charitable, financial and educational opportunities to its members and word-wide neighbors by using basketball as a bridge for cultural exchange. Through his work, Smith has helped the PBAA become a recognized sports entity amongst athletes.
Later under his leadership as the Executive Director of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), the organization was restructured in order to better attend to the welfare of former players through the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), which offered career mentorship, as well as personal and financial counseling. His innovative
leadership also led to the creation of Legends Care, a foundation that specifically addressed ways to positively impact communities and youth through basketball worldwide.
His experience led to his continuing interest in further assisting retired players in their transition to the business world. To that end, Smith produced and executed exhibition games featuring over 40 retired NBA players against local teams throughout Asia and South America. Later Smith curated intimate conferences for athletes, businesses and Family Offices at iconic NYC venues, including Nasdaq and NYSE, during which non-traditional business-athlete partnerships were formed.
A successful entrepreneur, Smith is highly esteemed for his business insight and recognized for his varied experiences in Sports, Marketing and Technology. A groundbreaking innovator of customizable applications and pioneer in the late 90s technology industry, Smith was founder and CEO of New Media Technology Corp. There, he developed the patent System and Method for Computer-Assisted Manual and Automatic Logging of Time-Based Media. Major League Baseball (MLB) was an anchor client and today Hewlett Packard, North Plains and Stats Inc. are licensees.
Smith’s background uniquely prepared him to gain years of corporate experience by running a division at a major corporation. As the Head of New Business Opportunities for Midas Exchange, another division of WPP/GroupM, a position held prior to MediaCom. There, Smith focused on corporate trade through the restoration of value to companies’ underperforming assets and excess inventory in exchange for their media spend.
A former 1988 (Seoul, Korea) U.S. Olympian, Smith’s additional honors include “30 Under Thirty” by Urban Profile Magazine and “Top 40 under 40 Entrepreneurs” in the state of New Jersey by NJ Biz Magazine. Smith is a
graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, a participant in an Executive Entrepreneurs program at Stanford University and has taught entrepreneurial classes at the Learning Annex in New York City.
Today, Smith is a Certified Master Facilitator for global leadership development and training powerhouse Fierce Conversations, Inc. With a client roster rife with preeminent global brands like Apple, T.Rowe Price, Coca Cola, HBO and Turner Broadcasting Systems, Fierce has partnered with Smith to drive specially-designed training programs that not only help athletes better transition into Corporate America, but also help businesses understand and leverage pro-sports team mentalities and teamwork dynamics to build a high performing groups and organizations at large.
In addition to working with athletes, themselves, via programs and exercises helping them better understand how to be successful business professionals and leaders, Smith is concurrently developing one-of-a-kind Fierce Conversations initiatives to help corporate executives at companies understand what great teamwork looks like — and how those best practices can be implemented into result-oriented action. By blending conversation techniques from successful sports and executive teams, these programs serve to enhance the overall growth and development of a company and drive results. This includes deep dives into “what it really means” to develop a high performing team, how to create the rhythmic movement of a unit and strategies for fostering the kind of connectivity amongst unit members that is required to achieve greatness.
Smith’s prolific, impressive and decidedly uncommon post-NBA business success has many parallels with his athletic career. While playing in the league, Smith was a versatile and highly adept player allowing him to play all three front court positions. Even today, this aptitude for turning the tide to his (or his client’s) advantage and shifting momentum is helping his and other companies differentiate themselves from the competition, grow at a quicker clip and outpace the opposition.
Relative to his own ongoing quest for success, Smith certainly doesn’t rest on his credentials gleaned on the basketball court. Rather, he’s fruitfully transformed from being a highly venerated team player on the hardwood to being a top-growth power player businessman helping other pro athletes and executives achieve just the same.
For its part, corporate training innovation is nothing new for Fierce. Ever revolutionizing within their industry, the company recently launched its interactive microlearning 3D simulation technology helping executives and employees master uncomfortable workplace conversations. This groundbreaking immersive virtual training program instructs participants on how to effectively address and resolve critical and angst-inducing issues via interactive real-world scenarios — all in just 15 minutes or less. With CEO Ed Beltran at the helm, Fierce Conversations has trained conversationalists from blue-chip companies to non-profit organizations around the world.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete?
It was my competitive nature and my high school coach that inspired me to pursue a career as a high-level professional athlete. The foundation started with a competitive seed that grew within me as a child. I was usually taller than kids my age, so I ended up hanging around boys 2–3 years older and I did not handle losing well. I found ways to win and it did not matter what I played. Later, it was my high school coach, Charles Bentley, that harnessed my competitive edge and pushed me to develop my basketball skills through a consistent training regimen that I did not like nor wanted to do. It is the maturing of that foundation that still serves me well today.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I believe God has always placed the right people in my life at the right times, even if it were for a season. Their names in chronological order are my parents, Dorothy and Charles, Bill Baierl, Charles Grantham, Lisa Johnson, Billy Hunter, Dr. Khalid Al-Mansour, Percy Sutton, Dr. David Ireland, Vince Conte, Kathy Kladopoulos and Satch Sanders. Each of these people impacted my life. Dr. Ireland and Satch Sanders provided me tools I did not have that I didn’t know I needed. I was able to trust these men. I was comfortable sharing my darkest thoughts and feelings and, in return, received wise counsel. Dr. Ireland taught me that the greatest leaders understood the importance of serving others. My heart began to soften. I developed a sense of empathy and I served as an usher at Christ Church.
Satch, a well-educated former pro basketball player that failed and achieved in his entrepreneurial endeavors — as well as worked in corporate for the NBA — could relate to all my experiences. Satch and I have spoken at least once a week since 2010.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
The most interesting mistakes I’ve made throughout my sports career were allowing others to control my narrative. I would either handle things myself — I was not mature enough — or not speak up. But instead, my ego was about just moving on to the next thing. I was loyal to a fault. I believed what people told me and I gave everyone the benefit of doubt. A few situations that come to mind with teams and organizations: I left things unclear and allowed people to say whatever they wanted. I felt I didn’t owe anyone an explanation and I took the high road by not speaking up. That was wrong. The first of these types of experiences I can recall was when I signed my first NBA contract. The summer Olympics had just ended and it was time to report to training camp for the LA Clippers. On the same day of my first practice, I needed to sign my contract prior to attending.
My agent, David Falk, called me at my apartment and I took a car service to the Trident building in Los Angeles. He met me downstairs and we took an elevator together to the top floor and entered the Law Offices of Allen Rothenberg. I walked into a room and shook hands with Andy Roser, Elgin, Baylor, Allen Rothenberg and Donald Sterling. I signed my name maybe a dozen times. Then my agent walked with me to a taxi so I could get to practice on time. David says to me, “Hey, you’re a millionaire now, why aren’t you smiling?” I responded, “I’ve never been a millionaire, so I don’t know what it’s like and I don’t know what you did. I just signed my name on some papers.” I left and immediately jump into a different mindset and never addressed my thoughts or feelings.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
I maintained a mental balance that was pretty simple for me because my spiritual journey was always greater. I have trained my best to perform at my best. My best was always good enough for me if I can honestly look at myself in the mirror believing I pushed myself to do my best.
Let’s say it’s Game 7 in the playoffs; a situation I faced several times.
1. Although the stakes are higher, I still continued to do all the things I normally did to prepare for regular season games. Anything new may cause stress.
2. I maintained a mental balance by remembering this is the same game I played when I was a kid. Things like my spiritual journey and real-life hardships were always greater than the game.
3. Acknowledging and affirming to myself that I have trained my best to perform at my best. Then go execute.
4. I refrained from reading the media articles or watching sports shows because I didn’t want to pollute my mind with things that could cause stress or take me off my mental balance. I was blessed having played basketball at the highest level. I didn’t pollute my mind reading the media articles or watching sports shows. Stress and pressure reside in the real world. I have grown up in the real world and never forgot what that is like. I have traveled and seen real struggles in other cultures. I’ve seen things I can’t unsee. I’ve experienced and did things that I can’t change. The only things that did change were my education and my rent. Basketball was always a game.
Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful businessperson?
From how I met Dr. Al-Mansour until the day he passed was a suspense/drama movie that contained laughter. Although he is no longer here, his relationships are still a part in my life. We met at a health club when I lived in San Antonio. I went up to him and introduced myself because he appeared feeble, but on the contrary, he was very strong and had a lot of endurance.
We got to know each other over time, but he never told me what he did regarding work. One summer evening around 8 p.m., Dr. Mansour calls me and with a very soft, calming tone, he says, “I’m taking a business trip tomorrow, leaving at 6:15 a.m. It’s flight XX leaving out of gate XX. You are welcomed. Have a good evening.” The phone line disconnects. The flight is to Mexico! I didn’t sleep through the night, so I got up early and got to the gate on time. He’s sitting there reading some papers. I said, “Good morning.” He looks up at me and says, “You arrived.” Then goes back to reading his papers. He didn’t talk to me again until we were exiting the airport. There were four black SUV’s waiting and we were guided to the second to last. We go in the vehicle and the only thing he said to me was this is a business trip and we are not eating lunch. I just want you to observe. I said, “OK.” We arrive at a soy factory. He has his meetings; we walk the plant and later that evening we go to the owner’s home. He tells the owner, “Please select a restaurant of your choice and invite all your family members to dinner at my expense.” About 40–50 family members show up and Dr. Mansour positions me to sit across from him to his right of this very long table setting. He has the owner and his wife to the right of him and the owner’s parents to the left of him. I continued to observe. The next morning, he has a meeting to close the deal and he never spoke a word of English, all Spanish. I was as shocked as everyone else. He closes the deal and, in our ride back to the airport, he finally speaks to me, “What did you learn young scholar?” During this one experience with Dr. Al-Mansour, he tested my integrity and my resolve, my willingness to persevere and gave me the reason why I needed to continue my education. He tested my ego and selfishness. He cared and poured into me until he knew I realized that basketball was just the start of me recognizing my true gifts. Then he pulled back and went from being my mentor to my advisor. On this trip, he was buying the factory for Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now?
Today, I’m focused on working to impact other people’s lives with the knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the years. I’m working with Fierce Inc. Fierce uses artificial intelligence in 3D simulation modules to create scenarios for corporations to increase their bottom line through effective communication. It’s those difficult and hard conversations regarding culture, racism, microaggressions, confrontation, etc… By not having these conversations, companies are less efficient, they are losing money and creating toxic environments. These effective communications are the missing link within the team, especially with international players, homegrown athletes, coaches and management and community relations. There can be definable differences between wins and losses. This is the difference between having great team chemistry or not. As much as Fierce has utilized technology to impact corporations, they will have just as much success, if not more, in the sports industry. The information and knowledge for me to become a master facilitator has changed the relationships in my life for the better. I see and experience a noticeable changed because of how I approach situations and bring emotion into my communication style.
Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about what you mean?
My professional athlete experience was about 20–30 percent of the skills I acquired to become a better entrepreneur. Early in my entrepreneurial career, I basically purchased my job title, came up with a great company name, influenced some people to be a part of my dream and we all went to work. I had my brand name that opened doors for opportunities and that is called business development. I was able to utilize the media to get articles written about my business and that was called marketing. I communicated well enough to pitch to potential customers and that was called sales. I was easily willing to work 10–15 hours a day and did that when it was needed. You can’t teach that and it was called a hard work ethic. This is my 20–30 percent experience. Cutthroat executives smiled in my face, talked about sports during our meetings and took advantage of my inexperience.
I failed miserably at my first two attempts at entrepreneurship and lost a lot of money in the process. I think I had the costliest education on the planet. I was close to going broke due to my youthful errors. But the knowledge I gained from all my experiences and failures is also priceless today. I learned things at a young age that I could not have learned in my undergraduate studies or the pursuit of my MBA.
We must understand that becoming an entrepreneur and working as a C-Level executive for a corporation are vastly different in skill sets, the approach and the mindset. I’ve used my own money to start businesses to later find I didn’t have to do it on my own. Once I learned how to write an executive summary, business plan and private placement memorandum, I raised $4.5 million for a business I owned and began using my experience to help and serve others.
Ok. Here is the main question of our interview. Entrepreneurs and professional athletes share a common “hustle culture.” What would you advise a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career? What advice would you give?
To all the aspiring and current professional athletes that want to be entrepreneurs, have someone use your brand to make money jointly or aspire to work for a corporation. You can absolutely achieve success the way you’d like. The DNA that got you into the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL or whatever sport you play, don’t disrupt that while you’re playing. Make as much money as you can while you are in the game. If less than one percent of high school players make it to play professional sports, then less than .5 percent make as much money after retirement compared to the money they made while they played. Gather facts for yourself. Be leery of anyone that advises you to stay away or talk to someone. Be leery of someone who works for you that does not treat your friends the same way they treat you. While you are playing, find one or two people that are skilled and that you can trust to accomplish things you’d like to do during your career. If your blessed, you’ll have 10 good summer breaks during your career. Use them wisely by understanding your finances and educate yourself. Remember, there are some common threads amongst people who became the best in the world at what they did.
Lastly, never look down on any former pro athlete. There is a wealth of knowledge they have that you don’t have, whether they are deemed successful in your eyes or not. I’ve learned just as much from former NBA players starting out by saying, “I didn’t make as much as you, but if I can do it all over again,
I would do XYZ.”
You are, by all accounts, a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve studied the Blue Zones around the world. I’m about preserving and saving lives through eating healthier, drinking more water and exercising. I volunteer at a food bank and I teach an online core exercise class Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 7:00–8:00 a.m. Food and water are our future. According to the CDC or the Center for Disease Control, six out of 10 people in America have a chronic disease. Most Americans are sick. I stepped up my lifestyle by getting heart exams, exercising my respiratory system, maintaining a normal blood pressure and still trying to get more sleep at night. I share all my experiences about living a healthier lifestyle with my friends and family. I’ve put on Healthy Lifestyle Conferences in New York City.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Hydroponics, where the food is grown with pure water and is sustainable because it use 95 percent less water. I want to help communities by providing the resources to living healthier lifestyles. People think it costs a lot of money to eat healthy. You can get the daily nutrients the body needs with simple substitutions in your refrigerator and pantry. My sister and other family members discuss different options and have changed their diets. You don’t have to shop at expensive grocery stores to eat healthy. In 2017, a total of 1.7 million people died from five diseases that are mostly preventable, Heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, stroke and Alzheimer. The health in America should already be declared a state of emergency. America was fifth in life expectancy, but now some reports have us at 35th and others as low as 49th. I am expanding my horizon in health and wellness beyond organic. It’s about freshness and pure water.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Why does that resonate with you so much?
This is my own life lesson quote: “Life’s experiences can be both good and bad. How YOU handle them is what matters most.” Based on the experiences I have had, I’ve received advice from people on how to deal with situations and, at times, I was directly told what to say. When everything is all said and done, I am the one that really has to handle the situation. It’s best for me to make an informed decision and handle it the way I’m most comfortable.
I’m the one that has to either explain or live with it. None of the people that gave the advice or told me directly what needs to be said will have to deal with anything further. Just me. So, I had better make it work for me.This goes for everyone.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them.
My four sons are the biggest names in the world. I want to have private breakfast and lunches with them until the day I die. We all speak every Sunday from 7–8 p.m. because they are in different parts of the country. We learn so much from each other. I enjoy answering their questions and the time spent is invaluable. They educate me regarding their generation and how they think versus how I think about certain things. I remember I was sad one Sunday when no one answered. Christian and Chandler had to work and Chaz and Chayce were both traveling. I forgot that two of them told me in advance that they wouldn’t be on and the other two had reasons after the fact, but they apologized. I love my sons with all my heart. If I had a scheduled time with them and a big named person needed the same time slot, I graciously apologize and maintain the time with my sons. There is really no one on the planet that could replace an opportunity with any of my sons.