Paying It Forward

James T. Mobley

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This series is brought to you by United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

I was sitting in my dorm room as a junior on SMU’s football team.

From an early age, I always excelled on the football field, but I knew that was only going to take me so far in life.

My mind would hold up far longer than my body would.

I was contemplating life after college when I noticed a magazine that had an advertisement for IBM.

The gentleman in the magazine was wearing a suit, and I decided right then and there that I wanted to look as professional and accomplished as he did.

I threw together my resume and the best clothes I had, and I showed up to IBM and told them I want to work there.

A few weeks later, they called and offered me an internship.

When I think of excellence – specifically Black excellence – I think back on that moment that catapulted me to where I am today.

For me, Black excellence is twofold.

Not only is it achieving and performing at a high level despite the obstacles and challenges we face as Black men and women, but it’s making the most of the opportunities we receive.

With over 30 years in the technology industry, and the opportunity to be a corporate executive for several prominent companies across the country, I promised myself early on that if I ever found myself in a position of influence, I’d pay it forward.

And I’d do things the right way to pave the way for the next generation who look like me and are seeking the same opportunities I was able to accomplish and achieve.

Importance of education

Academic achievement has always been a high priority for me.

I credit that to my hero — my mom — who always preached the importance of getting my homework done and studying as hard as I could.

I carried that into high school, where I took part in the National Honor Society, graduated third in my class, and just had a broad understanding that education would take me far in life.

That’s one of the main reasons why I went to SMU.

In fact, academics were probably even more important to me than football, just because I knew my career as a football player had a much lower ceiling.

Combine that with the close proximity of Dallas to my hometown in East Texas, and Coach Ron Meyer being an incredibly difficult man to say no to, and it was settled.

In retrospect, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life.

Preparing me for life

Growing up and eating around the dinner table, it’s not like we talked about business concepts or anything of that nature, so I had quite a bit of learning and catching up to do during my time at SMU.

My professors were engaging, and I took advantage of almost every academic resource I could when I wasn’t playing football.

I can proudly say that SMU fully lived up to its reputation of being an outstanding academic institution, and I was prepared to enter life with a wealth of newfound knowledge.

I mentioned before how the IBM advertisement in the magazine got my foot in the door in the technology field, so I spent a significant portion of my career in that industry.

I then entered the world of venture capital and had the privilege of being the CEO of three early-stage companies – two of which were acquired by corporations in Silicon Valley.

Most recently, I was with Cisco Systems where I led multiple global organizations. I was honored to be the highest ranking black executive and one of the first black senior vice presidents in Engineering. I retired to focus on caring for my mother.

For all the success I was fortunate enough to achieve in my career, it starts with the high-quality education I received at SMU combined with the ability to work with phenomenally talented people along the way.

Going back again to my junior year and showing up on a whim to the doorsteps of IBM, I was a kid that was eager to learn and make the most of any opportunity I was given.

I’ve taken that approach with me throughout the entirety of my career, and that drive for learning and high achievement has fueled me every step of the way.

My professors were engaging, and I took advantage of almost every academic resource I could when I wasn't playing football. I can proudly say that SMU fully lived up to its reputation of being an outstanding academic institution, and I was prepared to enter life with a wealth of newfound knowledge.

Being a multiplier

Someone once asked me how I determine the success in my career. For me, it’s not about climbing the ladder or all the levels I was able to achieve.

It’s about looking back at all of those individuals I was able to mentor and provide guidance to, and watch them succeed and prosper in their roles.

That’s how I determine ‘success’ in my career.

It’s about being a multiplier.

Many folks who have worked with me over the course of my career will attest to the fact that I always made time for those that sought advice or mentorship – especially for Black men and women who were struggling for opportunity.

Being able to teach and guide has always been in the back of my mind. When I was in a position to help others and lead them on a path to some of the same opportunities I was able to take part in, it became the biggest blessing of my career.

Leaving an impact

Since SMU had such a tremendous impact on my life and career, it’s an honor for me to give back to my alma mater as much as I can.

One event I look forward to is the Black Excellence brunch hosted by SMU later this month. I was invited to be one of the panelists at the brunch, and I look forward to sharing that panel with some brilliant people in my fellow alumni.

Events like this are so impactful because it gives student-athletes the chance to see that they can accomplish anything they set out to do, despite the hardships along the way.

I’m living proof of that, and so are the other panelists.

One of the main messages I want to convey is that any obstacles that get in our way are a chance for us to learn.

Not to quit.

Hardship is not a foreign concept to Black men and women, but I promise the rewards are more than worth the struggles and limited opportunities we face on an everyday basis.

I hope my knowledge and experience leave a lasting impression on these young student-athletes. More importantly, I hope they have the chance to come back to SMU down the road and are able to share their experiences in achieving excellence in their respective fields.

After all, paying it forward and being an influence in other people’s lives is what it’s all about.

The 2023 SMU Black Excellence Brunch is in the Miller Boulevard Ballroom on Sunday, February 19 at 11 a.m. The panelists are Rickey Bolden ’87, Alisha Filmore ’13, James T. Mobley ’81 and Everett Ray ’21. 

For more information or to register, click here.