Dell Computer Corporation
September 27, 2004
TYRONE D. TABORN
Chief Executive Officer
Career Communications Group
I want to thank Dell's Vice Presidents Lynn Tyson, Thurmond Woodard, Frank Miller, Kim Goodman, the B.R.I.D.G.E., and the Dell family for extending this invitation to me today.
First of all, I want to take a moment of silence to acknowledge the contributions of our men and women overseas and of their families. They are our brothers and sisters. Our sons and daughters. Our grandchildren. They are the firewall between freedom and a world out of control.
You here at Dell should also be proud. Because of your products you help to bridge the gap between our soldiers and their families. Your computers allow that lonely warrior an opportunity to e-mail back home; those same computers assist our General Officers and their staffs in planning. So you here at Dell have a reason to be proud as well.
This morning I’m going to spend some time talking about how to pursue excellence.
Coming here to Dell, of all places, to speak about excellence, is, well, like taking sand to the beach.
Nonetheless, I’m going to explore several points: "What is excellence?"; how to achieve it as individuals and within organizations; and, finally, why the successful execution of this pursuit of excellence will be the single, overarching issue affecting our quality of life and our role as the world’s only superpower.
What is excellence? How do we define it? I really have struggled with this question for years. Too often, when we discuss excellence, we measure it by a simple scale and the visible rewards that come with excellence. Is the excellence personified by Michael Dell and the employee stakeholders of Dell more significant than that of the middle school math teacher who displays absolute devotion and passion in developing the minds of young people?
Is Oprah Winfrey’s success at mastering excellence any different than that of the master carpenter who created her set or the associate producer who spends countless hours planning her shows?
Of course not. Everyone here would agree that excellence can, and must, manifest itself in everything we do, large and small, routine and complex, pleasurable and not so pleasurable.
Excellence is a never-ending process, and absolute excellence is not attainable in this world. Far too many of our fellow citizens will never succeed in achieving any significant measure of excellence because of the reasons I will discuss shortly.
So back to this definition of the process of achieving excellence. Excellence, I have come to believe, is seeing and striving for the unexpected or extraordinary, looking for what isn’t there, what isn’t obvious.
The other side of the coin in defining excellence is value. In the end, does this process of excellence contribute to the quality of society? Is it relevant to the way we live, work, and play?
Using these two criteria, achievement of the extraordinary and relevancy, as bookends in defining the process of achieving excellence, we now understand better some of the paradigm-shifting events of history. The creation of the printing press, which fundamentally changed the world and ensured enlightenment and the rise of Western civilization; the discovery of antibiotics; and, of course, the mass consumption of the computer and Web-based technologies.
When you look seriously at these world-shaking events and many others, one thing becomes clear: The outcomes we enjoy today for the most part were not the result of single individuals' seeking fame and fortune. Rather, the outcomes were a result of a process that included history and existing bodies of work, as well as opportunity and access.
Don't misunderstand. When I say that achievement of excellent is a process, I am not decoupling it from the work and positive traits of individuals. You cannot have one without the other. In fact, I believe this need to excel is part of our genetic makeup. Without it, our species could not survive and grow.
Again, when we look at many of the players in these paradigm-shifting events, it becomes clear that a key driver for them was a validation of their existence and that of the human race. Through their efforts and contributions, they found a uniqueness that clearly gave meaning to their lives. We call this passion, vision, and drive. It’s the thing that makes men and women get on a giant firecracker and soar into space. It is what keeps scientists in labs devoting their entire lives looking for the unknown. And, in a way, it is what made courageous women and men force terrorists to crash a plane into a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
The individual traits that allow us to pursue excellence also ensure that in some way we will create a legacy that lives long after we are gone.
Ben Mays, the esteemed president of Morehouse College, wrote, "It must be borne in mind that the tragedy in life does not lie in not reaching your goal; the tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It is not a disaster not to able to capture your ideals, but it is a disaster to have no ideals to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars. But it is a disaster to have no stars to reach for."
These traits — passion, vision, devotion — are key factors in achieving excellence. These are the factors that bind an Oprah Winfrey and her producers, Michael Dell and that inner-city math teacher.
Another example is right in this room. Dell’s own Leroy Jones. Leroy once said to me: "I've often felt God allowed us to discover PCs so I could have a job. I love doing this so much."
Most of you know about the incredible contributions of IBM's Mark Dean, Ph.D. to the development of the modern personal computer. Dr. Dean, an African American, holds three of the original patents on the IBM PC. Without his inventions, it is unlikely the world would have experienced the tremendous technological spurt and resulting economic growth of the last 20 years. Yet, Mark Dean was not alone. His work opened the door for other Blacks such as Leroy Jones.
Leroy’s role in developing the personal computer was not as high profile as the design of the circuit board or the computer's bus system. Still, as he also admits, it doesn't matter how great the mousetrap, it is of little consequence for society if you can't mass-produce it or legally sell it. That was the issue facing a startup company called Gateway Technologies, Inc. in July 1982.
In stepped Leroy Jones. Gateway Technologies turned to this young man, who was only five years out of historically Black Howard University's School of Engineering, to address two critical issues: mass production of a PC that would be 100 percent compatible with the IBM PC and assurance that the IBM-compatible would meet legal requirements imposed by global regulatory agencies.
Jones was responsible for doing all of this in 1982, at the birth of the Computer Revolution, just 13 months after Bill Gates and Paul Allen had started Microsoft Corporation. Role models? In setting up this new company's test engineering department, Leroy Jones would be establishing standards that still guide us 20 years later. By the way, Gateway Technologies became Campaq Computers, and later a part of HP.
This brings me to my second point: Pursuit of excellence individually and as an organizations. I will touch briefly on the individual and spend the bulk of my time on organizations.
Leroy didn’t just wake up one day and say to himself, "I want to be part of the greatest social and economic revolution of 20th century." The process of excellence that brought him here today started before he was even born. But let’s just start with recent history: Getting an engineering degree. Blacks make up less than 4 percent of the engineers in the United States. For far too many minority and nonminority youth, engineering is not seen as a prestigious or likely occupation. More than a half-million minority students graduate from high school each year, but only 32,000 of them complete the necessary science and math courses to be considered for entry into engineering school. Of that number, only 21,000 are fully qualified for admission.
What does this mean? Clearly, the odds are against Blacks' achieving success in the greatest economic sector of our time because the number of them prepared to be part of the process is so small.
The single overarching factor in individual pursuit of excellence is being prepared. But preparation is difficult to come by without motivation. What made Leroy continue on the pathway to engineering when half a million other students dropped out? It was motivation. It was a passion for the subject matter. We all don’t have to be engineers. And that is not my point.
Lynn Tyson, one of your Vice Presidents, and everyone in this had some degree of this, or else you won’t be here. But far too many minority youth never find that passion, purpose, and motivation, and, thus, they are never in the position to opt into the process of pursuing excellence.
This has tremendous consequences for our nation and its industry. I believe that having a growing segment of our society that is unprepared to compete and contribute makes us a nation at risk.
Pursuing excellence is not optional for an organization, it is survival. Organizations that are successful in attracting the best talent — the people with the traits that keep them in the pursuit of excellence — and that are able to retain them, will thrive far into the 21st century and beyond.
What can organizations do to pursue excellence? I already mentioned hiring the best. That mean diversity, in its every form, must be embraced. My good friend, John Slaughter, Ph.D., president of NACME, tells this story: One day Joe, Dave, and Bob were hiking in a wilderness area when they came upon a large, raging river. They needed to get to the other side but had no idea how to do so. Joe prayed to God, saying, "Please, God, give me the strength to cross this river. Poof. God gave him big arms and strong legs, and he was able to swim across the river in two hours. Seeing this, Dave prayed to God, saying, "Please, God, give me the strength and tools to cross this river. Poof. God gave him a rowboat, and he was able to row across the river in about an hour. Bob saw how this worked out with the other two, so he prayed to God, "Please, God, give me the strength and the tools and the intelligence to cross this river. Poof. God turned him into a woman. She looked at the map, hiked upstream a couple of hundred yards, and walked across the bridge.
What have been the opportunity costs of not having an inclusive society in the pursuit of excellence? It has been only 40 years since the Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act were passed. These federal laws were enacted to end the 100-year resistance to full political, civil, and social equality for Blacks. It was also 40 years ago that we enacted the Immigration Act of 1965, which marked the disappearance from federal law of efforts to control the future ethnic and racial character of the U.S. population by race-based limits on immigration.
What medical cures have gone undiscovered? What technology breakthroughs have we missed, all because of our slowness to embrace inclusiveness?
Diversity has to go beyond hiring of people. It has to include developing them, promoting them, and being supportive of issues that matter. I know Dell has been supportive of two programs my company hosts. One is the National Black Family Technology Awareness Week, an important global effort to promote computer ownership and Internet access to the world's unplugged communities. Another is the National Women of Color Technology Awards Conference, the nation’s only multicultural event that addresses career issues for women of color. While these events are not the only thing you do, in an important way it sends a message to consumers, your stakeholders, and your employees that Dell cares about issues important to them.
Our nation's workplaces can’t be revolving doors for our most talented women and minorities. Internal mentoring and coaching programs have paid great dividends to companies that have adopted them. At one technology company, gifted minority scientists are identified early and paired with seasoned scientists. The point is to make them feel valued, to get them into the core operations as soon as possible.
My third and final point is that there are great negative consequences for society and industry of not being inclusive in the process of achieving success. Technology has changed the world in so many ways. Our boundaries are dissipating. Our nation's economy and our ability to do business are heavily dependent upon technology.
The world has changed in another way. According to another one of my dearest friends, IBM’s Ted Childs, “We are now competing with countries that have invested better in their educational systems and have yielded a better outcome of talented people.” And as Dr. Slaughter observes, this is happening at a point in history when the number of engineering graduates is at one of its lowest levels of the past 20 years. This is also occurring at a time when the demand for persons prepared to provide the skills needed by America’s high-technology industries has never been higher. It is not guaranteed that we will be dominant in overseas markets. In fact, there are real questions about whether we can our maintain market share in key areas right here in the United States. If we want see the future, all we have to do is look at today. Innovation and the pursuit of excellence by our global competitors have already harm our position in key areas of consumer electronics, aerospace, and the automotive industries.
We may not be able to look to immigrants to help fill this talent gap. Immigration policy since 9/11 has curtailed the number of scientists, Ph.D. students, and researchers entering the country. Go to any university, and you will hear exactly this.
As our global competitors gain greater market leadership, another thing is occurring. Those countries' standards of living are improving at such a pace that their best and brightest don’t consider America as the best place to live anymore. We couldn’t get them even if our immigration policies were to go back to normal.
If we don’t have the people trained to participate in industry today, we won’t be prepared to unleash the energy to win in the marketplace.
Right now, for too many of our policy makers and business leaders, this seems like an academic discussion. It is not, and the signs are everywhere. Moving forward, America is not out of the race. But we must make education a national priority. We must show our children role models and do a better job of getting them involved in the process of achieving excellence. All of us have a role and obligation in ensuring this.
Pursuing excellence means preparing ourselves and our organizations by obtaining skills and reengineering our institutions to nurture all of our citizens. Achieving excellence will rest largely on a new mindset and inclusiveness. And, finally, we can’t win in the marketplace if we allow barriers to continue to impede development of any child who has a dream.
Thank you for what you do. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. May we always be on the side of God.