Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

Published on January 26, 2015

Bauer alumnus and head of Make-A-Wish America challenges students to follow their passions as they choose careers

Make-A-Wish America President and CEO David Williams (MBA '92) spoke with Bauer students and the Houston community on Jan. 22 during the first Inspiring Minds speaker series event.

Make-A-Wish America President and CEO David Williams (MBA ’92) spoke with Bauer students and the Houston community on Jan. 22 during the first Inspiring Minds speaker series event.

You might not expect one of Bauer College’s most successful alumni to open a lecture series by talking about failure.

But David Williams, president and CEO of Make-A-Wish America, believes “fear of failure” often stands in the way of success.

Speaking to a full house at the University of Houston C. T. Bauer College of Business on Jan. 22, Williams (MBA’ 92) inaugurated the college’s “Inspiring Minds” lecture series with a set of challenging and provocative questions for students.

“The first question that I would pose to you is ‘What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?’” he posited. “Because a lot of times that fear of failure will prevent you from doing something.”

Williams’ second question for the group: “What would you do when you fail? Because the reality is you will fail.”

The non-profit executive — who earned his MBA while serving as executive director of the Houston Food Bank, an organization that was on the verge of collapse when he arrived in the 1980s — told the audience: “Failure is a part to life. Unfortunately, a lot of times when we are young, we either don’t experience failure, or when we do, we are so devastated by it that we just don’t pick ourselves up and try it again. We just quit.”

Since failure is inevitable, Williams said, what’s important is how your respond. “It’s not what you are going to do when you fail, but what you will do after it?” he said.

On a rainy Houston day, Williams visited the college for the first time since finishing the executive MBA program 23 years ago.

Dressed in a crisp dark-gray business suit set off by a striped tie, Williams led a lively, engaging and inspiring discussion.

After 13 years in Houston, the non-profit leader said he left the city in the mid-’90s for Americus, Ga., where he was chief operating officer of Habitat for Humanity International.

In 2005, he joined the national office of Make-A-Wish, based in Phoenix, where he is charged with fund-raising and setting policy. One of America’s most beloved charities, Make-A-Wish, which recently celebrated its 35 anniversary, grants the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses. To date, it has granted more than 250,000 wishes.

The “Inspiring Minds” event opened with a moving tribute to the Make-A-Wish mission. The audience watched an ESPN video on Charlie Pena, a 12-year-old kid who suffers from sickle-cell anemia. Charlie’s dream was to be a coach for the Philadelphia Eagles for a day. Make-A-Wish made it happen.

The foundation began in 1980 when 7-year-old Chris Greicius realized his dream of being a law enforcement officer.

After the video presentation, Bauer Dean Latha Ramchand introduced Chris’ mother, Linda Pauling, and Tom Austin, the U.S. Customs Officer who helped make the boy’s wish a reality. “Mr. Austin is a Texan, so we are doubly proud of that,” Ramchand said.

And then she turned to Williams, telling students: “He started his professional career as an accountant, and look where he’s come.”

After graduating from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, Williams came to Houston in the early ’80s to work as an accountant for Shell Oil Company, where he met his wife. “She just happened to be my supervisor, and I was trying to get a good review,” he said, drawing laughs.

“The thing that we both knew was that I was not a very good accountant,” he said. “And there was a reason I wasn’t a very good accountant: I didn’t have a passion for it. I didn’t love it.”

The turning point for Williams was when he became executive director of the Houston Food Bank, where he had been a volunteer. He was 24 years old, and green with inexperience.

“You could write a book about what I did not know about running any kind of organization, let alone a food bank,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about hunger in Houston. I didn’t know anything about the food industry, about warehousing, about distribution, about managing people, about reporting to a board. I mean, none of it. And yet it was the easiest decision I ever had to make.”

Yet in reality, he said, he could have easily failed.

“In the short eight months that the Food Bank had been around, they had managed to run out of food, run out of money, get shut down by the City of Houston health department, get kicked out of the national food bank association. There was nowhere to go but up!”

Though the Houston Food Bank had many failures along the way, he said, today it is the nation’s largest food bank.

After getting that non-profit on solid financial ground, Williams began to look for other challenges. That’s when he found Bauer.

During a finance course covering currency fluctuations, Williams remembers telling a classmate that he would never use the information. “It was about six years later, as we were sending money from the United States to the 100 countries in which Habitat operated around the world, that all the sudden I cared about currency fluctuations,” he said.

Williams believes he would not have been interviewed for the Habitat job were it not for his Bauer MBA.

“I was absolutely not qualified for that position. I didn’t know anything about community development. I had never even been outside the country. Let alone to be the chief operating officer of an organization that, at that time, was in 48 countries around the world.”

Once again, Williams found himself in a spot where he could have failed.

But during his Habitat interview, he was faced with a question that would prove to shape his life philosophy.

Millard Fuller, the charismatic founder of Habitat, told him: “David, we’ve got a phrase down here in the South: What melts your butter?”

Williams was stymied. He asked Fuller what he meant. “What gets you excited?” the Alabama native explained. “What gets you out of bed with a skip in your step? What do you feel passionate about? What melts your butter?”

As much as Habitat melted Williams’ butter, it was also tough. The wildly visionary Fuller grew the organization from 48 countries to 100. “He thought we should have be in 200,” Williams says.

But the phrase — “What melts your butter?” — stuck with him.

And that was his third question for Bauer students. “What is that you feel passion about? What is it that you think you are good at? Because I would tell you, if you are good at something, I believe the money will take care of itself.”

Before the hour-long “Inspiring Minds” event at Cemo Hall’s Stubblefield Auditorium, Williams held a “fireside chat” with eight Bauer students and spent time with the college’s board, faculty members and staff. At the end of his talk, he took questions.

Among the things he revealed in his answers:

  • His first mentor was his grandfather, a milkman. His grandfather taught him how to listen.
  • The short-term goal of Make-A-Wish is to “grant the wish of every eligible child.” That would require the organization to double its budget, from $300 million to $600 million, to grant the wishes of 28,000 kids.
  • He values job candidates’ experience, and how they got their college degree, as much as the degree itself.
  • He gets excited about promoting from within his organization. These days, that’s what melts his butter.
  • If he could give his younger self a piece of advice, it would be: “Stop worrying about tomorrow.” Failure is going to happen. What matters is how you react.

By Wendell Brock

Inspiring Minds Lecture Series: David Williams

President and CEO of Make-A-Wish America David Williams (MBA ’92) kicked off the first ever Inspiring Minds lecture series event on on Jan. 22 where he encouraged students to base their career aspirations on passion rather than money.