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    Louis Carr Is Paying It Forward

    Some scoffed when Black Entertainment Television debuted in 1980, filling much of its 24-hour schedule with music videos, sitcom reruns, and the occasional original production.

    But BET grew from those humble beginnings; it sold to Viacom in 2001 for $3 billion. Today, the network is the No. 1 cable network for African Americans with its original series and specials including some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and influencers.

    It is not only the No. 1 network for African Americans but also a Top 20 network for all adults ages 18-49, securing its deep influence on Black culture.

    The brand has expanded its reach with a digital footprint of more than 50 million consumers on a monthly basis and serves a critically important Black women segment with BET Her. Eight years ago, it also jumped into the live events space with the BET Experience held in Los Angeles, touching over 173,000 people across a three-day event. In 2019, it expanded into the streaming business with BET+, currently reaching 1.5 million subscribers.

    Louis Carr has been at the center of the action for 35 of BET’s 41 years. As the network’s President of Media Sales, he has generated billions of dollars from major corporations and brands seeking to reach African American consumers. He’s been honored as one of the most influential African Americans in the cable television industry for the last eight years.

    Professionally, Carr has earned a reputation as a visionary, thought leader, and paradigm builder who not only sees a big picture but knows how to build a road map to achieve it.

    Less public but still true, personally, through his longtime efforts Carr is devoted to making sure others get a chance to achieve the kind of success he has enjoyed. He has raised people’s life goals with motivational speeches, opened doors through his own internship program and hired more African Americans in the media business than any other executive. Essentially, Carr has quietly extended a hand to countless others.

    Having risen from humble beginnings, he recognizes that while natural talent and commitment to excellence have played a part in his achievements, he likely wouldn’t have come as far as he has without the encouragement and helping hands of others along the way.

    “I’m working to pay a debt that I know can never be paid off to those who helped me get to where I am today,” he says.

    Now, he is taking those efforts to the next level with WayMaker, a new umbrella initiative designed to seek out and support individuals on their journey to success, sharing with them insights and encouragement from subject-matter experts across all kinds of sectors, from business and education to entertainment and entrepreneurship.

    Through this more public endeavor he hopes to recruit others to share their wisdom and their resources. “We need lots of waymakers because one can’t serve everybody,” Carr says. “Two can’t serve everybody; we need a community of waymakers. Especially in a time like today, when so many people have suffered multiple losses, those of us with the experience and knowledge have a duty to be waymakers for others.”

    The power of encouragement

    Growing up in a tough West Side Chicago neighborhood, Carr received encouragement from a trusted source.

    “My mother always told me I was special,” he recalls with a smile. “I didn’t always believe her because mothers are biased. They should be.”

    It wasn’t all pats on the back though. As a single mom raising a Black boy in a rough part of town, his mother balanced generous praise with demands that he discipline himself and work hard. “Only by pushing yourself will you reach your full potential,” she regularly reminded him.

    Years later, Carr hasn’t stopped pushing himself. If you do a Zoom call with him, you can see the word GROWTH spelled out six feet tall on his NYC office window. It’s a message about more than mere revenue growth.

    “When you pursue growth, it’s like a battery that energizes your whole life.”

    LOUIS CARR

    “I’m committed to learning,” he says. “Continually growing. Continually improving. When you pursue growth, it’s like a battery that energizes your whole life.”

    The common messages of discipline and growth continued to surface not just at home, in the classroom or on the track. Even when he left his little-known, all-Black middle school for the prestigious and nearly all-white Lane Tech College Prep High School, those same principles rode with him during the commute across town.

    Carr played on Lane Tech’s football team until he broke his arm, switching to track. Discipline and hard work earned him the anchor leg spot in the Fearsome Foursome, the school’s four-man relay team, during his sophomore, junior, and senior years.

    One afternoon at practice, coach Barney McCall singled him out for some straight talk, telling the young athlete that he was failing to live up to his potential. “Louis, make a decision,” McCall said. “Are you going to be just good? Or are you going to be great?”

    Something changed in Carr that day. Fired up by that challenge, he determined to dig deeper and reach higher. In 1974, the Fearsome Foursome would break a high school national record for the indoor mile relay that stood for almost a quarter of a century, clocking 3:19:5.

    Learning from giants

    Not knowing many people who had gone to college, Carr figured he would join other African Americans in working for employers that required uniforms, such as the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). But a track scholarship won him a full ride at Drake University, a Des Moines, Iowa school.

    Graduating with a degree in journalism, he started his media career at Ebony, part of a stable of magazines created by Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company, whose founder, John H. Johnson, would be the first of three Black-media moguls to take an interest in Carr and further his career.

    Johnson personally interviewed Carr, and while he didn’t appreciate his flashy red shoes or the broken button on his white shirt, he hired him immediately to sell advertising space for Ebony.

    Not only did Johnson introduce Carr to the lucrative world of media sales, but he also generously shared his personal and business contacts. Such information sharing is important to Carr, who has practiced and preached it ever since.

    In his 2016 book, Dirty Little Secrets, he notes: “Information has value, which is the reason many people are disinclined to share. They selflessly protect their experiences and paths to success and have no desire to offer you the advantage.”

    Johnson would later fire Carr over what Carr calls an unfortunate episode of “immature communication,” but he learned from his humiliation, landing on his feet at Black Enterprise, a magazine created in 1970 by Earl Graves, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who sought to inspire and empower African American business people.

    Bob Johnson (no relation to John H. Johnson) was the ultimate Black media mogul to hire Carr and challenge him to flourish. Carr joined BET in 1986, and the win-win relationship has been so profitable that he’s still there today, more than three decades later.

    Media man

    Carr has brought in more advertising dollars targeting African American consumers than any other person or company in history. He thrives on collaborating with America’s top corporate executives to create brand identities that connect with viewers, even during tumultuous times.

    “Our viewers don’t expect brands to cure COVID-19 or end racial inequality,” he acknowledges. But viewers do expect brands to do three things, he says:

    • Recognize the serious issues that African Americans face.
    • Understand how these problems are affecting people’s lives.
    • Care enough to want to do something to help.

    In addition to his naming as one of the most influential African Americans in the cable industry numerous times, Carr’s honors have included awards from the International Radio and Television Society (IRTS) and the American Advertising Federation (AAF).

    Not all of Carr’s achievements have been applauded, but he has hired more African American executives than anyone else in the industry—while also having the most diverse sales team (hence his Diversity Award from the Hyatt Corporation).

    “That’s the secret sauce,” he says. “No business has ever suffered by increasing its diversity and inclusion; in fact, it’s just the opposite. They have all thrived.”

    Carr’s commitment to giving people a break doesn’t mean he gives them a pass. He owns that he is a challenging boss, though many of his team members have been with him for years. He describes his leadership style as a mix of old school (discipline, process, focus, and faith values) and new school (visionary, paradigm-building, and strategic).

    “I am not doing my job if I’m not showing you how great you can be.”

    Much of his personnel management style comes straight from his track days. “It’s my job to help you be your best,” he says. “I am not doing my job if I’m not showing you how great you can be. I want people who work for me to be great because being great has a whole lot of benefits.”

    For the most part, people recognize that while they might not like the way he pushes them, it’s for their greatness. “Most people respect that. They say, ‘This guy believes in me more than I believe in myself.'”

    Paying back his debt

    Carr seeks to share his experience and knowledge by serving on several boards, including that of his alma mater Drake University, the United States Track and Field Foundation, the Video Advertising Bureau, and Chicago State University. Past board memberships include the Ad Council, Boys Hope Girls Hope, the International Radio and Television Society, and the American Advertising Federation.

    The motivation for it all—his foundation, his mentoring, his philanthropic work, and his other service—is paying back by paying it forward.

    “I’m trying to pay my debt to all the neighbors, coaches, professors, and employers who believed in me, who saw something in me before I saw it in myself, who took a risk on me,” he says.

    In addition to mentors and encouragers, Carr cites another major influence: Diane, his wife of 35 years. “Every year, she’s the wife of the year,” he says. “She wants me to be great. She’s been my super-supporter, and her support has been essential to my success. When you are happy in your marriage or relationship, it carries over into other relationships.”

    Now, Carr is scaling up his efforts to mentor and help others through his WayMaker initiative, under the banner, “Grow your life and change the world.”

    This new, multiplatform initiative will offer inspiration, education, encouragement, and advice through masterclasses, conferences, online training, podcasts, books, study guides, and the new WayMaker Journal.

    “I want people to learn from others who have gone before them and who can point the way,” he says.

    Carr has a sense of urgency about helping people of color make their way into the media industry. Racial climates impact job searching processes, so he paves the way so it can be easier and fair for qualified candidates. The wisdom, guidance, and hands-on experience he provides can be life-changing as he opens doors to lifelong careers.

    “I feel this debt as a weight and an obligation,” he says. “I’m working to pay the debt down. But I know it can never be fully paid. Like the Mastercard ad, It’s priceless.”

    Carr believes the most effective waymakers are proactive, not reactive. They seek out and pursue people.

    “We have to look for these opportunities and not just be available when people reach out and say, ‘I need help,’ or, ‘Can you give me some advice?’ ‘To this day, I can remember, vividly, just about every single person that helped me. I didn’t ask for help. They simply offered it. I think waymakers should do the same.”

    And he challenges nearly everyone he meets to follow his example. “Are you a waymaker?” he regularly asks people. “If so, who are you making a way for?”

    Bringing ‘Your Best Self’

    A student of style, Carr knows that image is important in his role as one of America’s top Black entertainment executives.

    He credits some of his awareness of the importance of appearance to his grandmother. “She always matched her shoes and purse, wore long gloves, and kept her hair nicely done,” he recalls. “She was treated with respect wherever she went.”

    Some days, Carr confines himself to traditional business attire. Other days, he lets his fashion flag fly. And now that he has replaced incessant travel with Zoom meetings, he applies his fashion sense to that medium.

    Regardless of the setting, he says, the goal should always be to “bring your best self.”

    Tapping into WayMaker Wisdom

    From podcasts and online events to blogs and other materials, WayMaker resources are available at waymakerjournal.com. There you will also find more information about Louis Carr’s other helping-hand initiatives.

    SUPPORTING

    Founded in 2003, The Louis Carr Internship Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that “pays back” the kindness so many people have shown him over his career. The foundation provides paid internships for students of color who want to work in the media industry. Nearly 200 students have participated, with 50 launching careers in the marketing and media industries as a result.

    GATHERING

    The Blueprint Men’s Summit was founded in 2017 to bring together some of Black America’s high-profile thought leaders to share wisdom in the areas of finance, health, careers, relationships, and entrepreneurship. For the first time ever, women were invited to the online 2020 live summit, which featured basketball legend Dwayne Wade, faith leader T. D. Jakes, and lawyer Ben Crump, who led the legal team for George Floyd’s family.

    SPEAKING

    Carr is a popular speaker at business conferences and colleges, inspiring people to develop new perspectives, reinvent themselves, build a vision for success, and overcome adversity.

    Steve Rabey has written more than 2,000 articles and authored/co-authored 50 books on religion, spirituality, and culture. He has served as an instructor at the U. S. Air Force Academy and Fuller and Denver seminaries. He lives in Colorado.

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