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Dave Steward is not your typical billionaire tech-company founder. His company is based in St. Louis, not San Jose. He brings his deep faith into the workplace. Earlier this year, he wrote Leadership by the Good Book, with a foreword by Bishop T.D. Jakes, about applying biblical principles to a business setting. He’s a salesman, not a technologist—he was once FedEx’s salesperson of the year.
And Steward, 69, is the rare Black chairman in an industry that has struggled with diversity, particularly at senior levels. His privately owned $12 billion company, World Wide Technology (WWT), is thriving in the current COVID-19 environment, helping a broad range of corporations select and install complex computer systems and other digital infrastructure. With more than 5,600 employees and offices around the globe, the company is the largest Black-owned business in America. Steward recently joined TIME for a video conversation on the impact of COVID on his business, why he has chosen to keep WWT private and how his father inspired his entrepreneurial zeal.
(This interview with World Wide Technology chairman Dave Steward has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
It’s become a truism that the pandemic has accelerated the shift to digitalization by five years. What areas are you seeing have stepped up demand?
Cyberattacks have gone up over 100%, so our security practice has skyrocketed. From federal, state and local, to utilities, to health care, every sector has been just hammered with cyberattacks.
So the bad guys are pivoting to digital too?
It’s just off the charts.
So are you adding head count to your cybersecurity team?
We’re adding employees across the full spectrum of our business, from networks to architecture to engineering. You name it, we’re adding openings. Right now, I think we have 700 openings. We can’t find the right people fast enough.
Your slogan is “Experience Silicon Valley in St. Louis.” Do you have any issues recruiting top tech talent to live in St. Louis?
No, we haven’t because we’re consistently ranked as one of the best places to work by Fortune and Glassdoor. I will challenge anyone to find a health care plan that we have and benefits plan that we have in place, where we cover the spouse and everybody in the entire family at minimal cost to the employee. And we haven’t increased that cost in 10 years, longer than that, 15 years. But also I think that culture matters, and we have a set of core values that we all believe in and we feel are vitally important and very inclusive.
Why haven’t you gone public?
The question is, Why would we? The only shareholder that we’re concerned about is me. And my whole goal and objective is not all about the money, it’s about how we serve our clients better than anybody else. How do we continue to improve, how do we invest in a way that’s long term, that 50 years from now, not a quarter from now. Investors in the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ or anywhere else, they’re not very patient.
So have you turned away a lot of investment bankers over the years? How do you rebuff them?
As I think about investment bankers, I think about them from the standpoint, How can we make you better as an investment bank? And when you see new technology that you think is something really good, how can we help you make it even more valuable and take the risk out of it?
I heard you were a good salesman! So when you are pitched for an IPO, you turn it around into a sales call for your company?
It’s a great opportunity.
Let’s talk about the origin story for your company. Your first business involved stitching together technology to audit freight bills. Was there a moment when you saw how the advent of computing power was going to transform American business?
One day I asked, “What business am I in? Am I in the business of auditing freight bills on railroads? Or am I in the business of using technology in a new and innovative way?” That was the lightbulb moment. I decided that I want to be a part of the technological revolution. So in 1990, I started this company called World Wide Technology with five people and 4,000 square feet.
Was that before or after Al Gore invented the Internet?
That was before he created the Internet.
Today it’s a $12 billion company, but in your book, you describe some dark days early on, when there was an embezzlement.
I don’t put it that way. Some money was reallocated.
Reallocated into a personal pocket?
Yeah, a personal pocket.
Was the company at risk? Was it a significant amount of the capital at that time?
Yes, it was. I had my car repossessed from the company parking lot. I had to go out there and get my briefcase out of the car like nothing happened.
While growing up in Clinton, Mo., I understand that you got a lot of your entrepreneurial drive from your father.
Entrepreneurial zeal from my father, and such encouragement from my mother.
You describe your father as quite an accomplished jack-of-all-trades.
He was, out of necessity. He was a master mechanic, he was a bartender, he was a hunter, he was a security guard. You name it. He cleaned offices; he had a janitorial service. Because of racism, because of bigotry, because of segregation and all those things … He was the first entrepreneur I ever saw. So I wanted to be like my dad. And my mom was the epitome of optimism and encouragement, and always encouraging us that we were special.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in 1951. I graduated from high school in ’69. So you think about during that period of time, Brown v. Board of Education, I’m going into the first grade and they’re saying we’re gonna integrate the school system, and the Ku Klux Klan said no way that’s going to happen. And so my dad had to patrol the town all night to ensure that his five children had the time to go to school safely. He put himself really at risk. But I think they probably were more afraid of him because he was 6 ft. 4 in. and 240 lb., with a mean attitude.
What was your household like?
We didn’t have an indoor bathroom until I was 8 or 9. We had a dip bucket with water in it, and we had a slop bucket. It was a chore for me to take it out every day. I didn’t know that we were so poor until later on in life.
Did you face much discrimination growing up in Clinton?
There was adversity and challenges. It was a very, very difficult time. The one movie theater we couldn’t go to, the other one we had to sit in the balcony. We couldn’t go roller-skating. We couldn’t also go to the swimming pool.
Is there one event that sticks in your craw?
I was 8 years old, and they said I couldn’t join the Boy Scouts. And my mother had to tell me.
What was that conversation like?
In order to get through that, you have to have blinders on. I remember this, we cried together. [Steward teared up recalling the incident.]
I have the Silver Buffalo Award, which is the highest honor that you can get with the Boy Scouts. Now you think about the hurt and pain of that, and the power of forgiveness and all of that, and I could have easily been bitter about that my entire life. So that’s what my parents taught me, the power of forgiveness. And here we are, I think 700 people in the world have the Silver Buffalo Award.
How is the country doing today in terms of race relations?
We have our problems, but we live in the greatest country in the history of the world. It used to be where you could not get past that caste system. It used to be that we had to live on the other side of the tracks But there’s an obligation as well for us, persons of color, not to allow that to be a distraction. There are unique gifts that we bring to America and bring to the relationships and the growing and developing and understanding and a common ground. We have something in common. We all love this country, and we all have something to contribute in a unique way. Innovation doesn’t happen without a person of color or a diversity of thought being at the table in order to challenge the status quo.
BOOK: My Bible.
APP: I’m always looking at new Scripture and getting the deep meaning of that Scripture. There’s a number of pastors that I read their materials.
EXERCISE: I’m on this regimen of getting up every morning and doing some stretches and doing some exercise. I used to do 100 consecutive push-ups every morning. That started hurting my shoulder, so I’ve cut that down to only 30. After lunch, I’ve got this routine. I walk kind of fast; I’ve got these hills that I do for about 25 minutes.