Lessons From an Iconic American Everyday Entrepreneur Who Overcame Challenges In Life and Business
Wally was born in Tallahassee, Florida on Wednesday July 1, 1936. For the first twelve years of his life, Wally grew up in the segregated south, and was the only child in an impoverished family in which his parents did not get along very well. When his parents finally divorced, Wally was sent to Manhattan to live with his aunt who resided in Harlem at that time. Life was hard growing up in a broken home as a young man. While he was separated from his parents, and his Aunt Della lacked financial means, she did provide Wally with a home, and stability. One of the few joyous childhood experiences Wally recalled having, was making homemade cookies with his aunt from time to time. As he tracked through high school, Wally eventually dropped out of school to join the Air Force for four years (1954–1957 — Hickam Air Force Base). During that time, he earned his GED, and was honorably discharged from the military in 1957. Wally returned to New York City, went back to college to become a secretary. He worked in the stock room at Saks Fifth Avenue department store, and eventually he landed a job in 1962 in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency, the nation’s longest running talent agency. Wally was hard working, diligent, driven, and persistent. After some time, he worked his way up to become the first black talent scout in the United States. Determined to land a big act, and prove his worth, he discovered a singing duo from Queens, NY, and signed Simon and Garfunkel to represent them through the William Morris Agency. From there, he went on to also work with Marvin Gaye, and countless other artists.
You might think at this point, that is an interesting story of someone who came from nothing, overcame significant life challenges, served the nation, and attained success. But the story was just beginning.
Over time, Wally began to think that he no longer needed to work for an agency and elected to start his own talent agency. In 1967, he left William Morris, moved out to California, took his clients with him, which by then had grown to Simon & Garfunkel, The Supremes, Marvin Gay, Sam Cooke and more. Reflecting on his childhood with Aunt Della, he recalled how her home baked cookies created a sense of family within their home, so he decided to replicate that environment for his clients by baking chocolate chip cookies (based on his Aunt Della’s recipe) and bringing them into the office. The clients loved the cookies and kept encouraging Wally to open a store. He resisted for many reasons, one of which being he lacked experience in operating a retail business and did not have sufficient financial resources.
Wally was clearly good at finding and nurturing talent, but without the formal structure of a business entity like William Morris, he quickly began to realize he was not properly equipped with the requisite knowledge to run and execute a talent agency, and he rapidly began to fall into debt. Finally, in 1975 with a $25,000 investment from Marvin Gaye and Helen Reddy (‘I am woman” fame), Wally Amos took action and opened his first “Famous Amos” store in Hollywood. The store brand grew rapidly, and within seven years (1982), was generating $12 million in revenue (approximately $35 million in today’s dollars). The stores proved so popular that the “Famous Amos” brand ultimately expanded to develop a new distribution channel, selling cookies in supermarkets, a model that would later be replicated by other food specialty chains such as Baskin-Robbins, T.G.I. Fridays, and Starbucks.
By 1984 sales had begun to slow and Amos was forced to sell portions of the business. Amos sold a 51% interest to Bass Brothers Enterprises to rescue the business from financial disaster. That year the company had lost $300,000 as revenues slipped to $10 million, and cash flow challenges emerged. Investors got involved to try to stop the downward spiral, but according to Amos, “they took more of an equity stake each time and did not stay long enough to get the company back on track.” By 1988, Wally was unable to get the business back on track, and without a controlling interest was forced to sell the business for $3 million. Since that time, the entrepreneurial spirit has persisted with Wally Amos who has launched several businesses, including a muffin brand — Uncle Wally’s Muffin Co., has written 10 books, and dedicated his life to various adult literacy projects.
“The affable Amos recalled in Parade that he had numerous obstacles to overcome on his long road to success. Growing up poor in the segregated South, he faced adult responsibilities at an early age. Still, Amos said, he had confidence that he could make his way in the world. “You have to focus on what you can do,” he said. “There are people who convince themselves that they can’t do anything with their lives because of what’s happened to them — and they’re right. They cannot. But the reason is that they’ve told themselves they can’t” (https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/business-leaders/wally-amos )
Amos is a classic example of a person that developed an entrepreneurial mindset and refused to allow actual, and self-imposed limits to hamper his ability to succeed. His entrepreneurial journey is filled with serendipity, action, and learning by doing. While cookies, and his iconic “Famous Amos” Panama hat and shirt (now in the Smithsonian Museum) made Wally famous, Amos has often said that fame is overrated, and has developed his own take on what is most important to him: “I want to be known as a guy who cared about people. A guy who loved people and loved life.”
Creating the Wally Amos’s of Tomorrow
Today, one shining example of nurturing local everyday entrepreneurs like Wally Amos, is taking place at our nations community colleges like Hillsborough Community College’s (HCC)Institute for Interdisciplinary Innovation — The InLab@HCC. Two years ago, through the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE), a membership organization comprised of hundreds of community colleges and historically black colleges and universities, the InLab@HCC was fortunate to be selected as one of four community colleges in the United States to receive a $250,000 matching grant to standup a small business seed fund for everyday entrepreneurs. Started by two philanthropists (Chip and Stuart Weismiller) as an experiment in 2018, the Everyday Entrepreneur Venture Fund (EEVF) has grown significantly since its inception, both in terms of community impact as well as overall size. Of the four schools that received the original funding, nearly 60 businesses (and counting) have started, generating significant aggregate revenue, and countless new jobs. To date, the InLab’ s EEVF alone, has funded 15 businesses, and recently the InLab@HCC has been working with the NACCE and the Weismillers to develop phase II and III for the EEVF on a national scale. The fund is a social impact fund that offers students that complete an entrepreneurship academic program to apply for up to funding. If awarded, the funding is distributed in the form of either a grant, interest free loan, or below market interest bearing loan.
This type of work being done through community college entrepreneurship education is helping to reduce economic inequality, which has been severely magnified by COVID-19. By offering aspiring everyday entrepreneurs with applied entrepreneurial educational programs and tools, business funding opportunities, and in depth mentoring, we are seeing underserved populations gain access to the free enterprise system, and this is helping to level the playing field of opportunity for all.