In the 1970s, I was one of the first African Americans to work on large contract sales in the insurance industry. When I was hired by Provident, they had never had a Black sales representative before, and to my knowledge, neither had any other large health and life insurer. Back in those days, whether it was a boardroom meeting or a large industry conference, I was almost always the only African American in the room wherever I went.
By the early 80s, I was established in my career but there were still plenty of obstacles. One of the most memorable came when we received a request for proposal from a large lumber company in Tullahoma, Tennessee. When the request came in, my superiors at Provident told me, “You can’t do this presentation because the president of the company is the KKK Imperial Wizard for Middle Tennessee.” They urged me to let my white colleague, Bill, handle the account by himself.
“It’s my sale. My case. It came in through my broker. So if we sell the case, who gets paid?” I asked.
“You get paid.”
“No, I don’t get paid for work I don’t do. So I’ll be doing the presentation myself.”
Bill and I drove to Tullahoma and we met with three people there. The broker, the president of the company, and the benefit director for the company. When I walked in, everyone shook my hand—everyone except the company president.
But his disdain didn’t stop there. This man would not even look at me.
We all sat down at a big boardroom table. The broker, the benefit director, and the president sat on one side. Bill and I sat on the other side.
By this point in my career, I had learned some key things about sales presentations, including how to gauge my audience and adapt my pitch. But in this presentation, I was not reading normal business interactions.
As we got going, the president of the company was asking a lot of questions, but he directed all of his questions to Bill. He still was not acknowledging me.
I was the senior member of the team in this situation. So most of the time, Bill could not answer, or he was wise enough to know he shouldn’t answer. That being the case, Bill would politely refer the vast majority of the questions to me.
Patiently and politely, I would answer each question. Never once did I display a hostile attitude of any kind. I never pulled rank or let my ego get in the way by saying things like, “Hey, you really need to talk to me about that.” I did not display frustration or impatience at the man’s lack of respect toward me.
My attitude toward this man was basically, “I’m not going to allow you to hate me.”
I’d taken that attitude many times in my life, and I would continue to do that every time the opportunity presented itself. You might say it has been one of my core principles in regard to the issue of racial equality. No matter how determined a person is to hate me, I can be even more determined to set them free of that hate.
This dance continued almost throughout the full hour-long presentation. Finally, something seemed to break. After about 45 minutes of me skillfully, patiently, and tactfully answering this man’s questions, he finally looked my way and directed a question toward me. Then another. I answered both questions with precision and prowess.
At that point, the benefit director spoke up and said, “I don’t care how good you guys are, if you’re one penny more expensive than the other companies, we won’t be buying anything from you.”
He made it crystal clear that price was going to be the determining factor in their decision. The broker had already told us that price was a high priority item, and I knew that we were priced higher than the competition.
By that point in my career, I had already learned extremely well the principle that price is only an issue in the absence of value. When you convey enough value to a person, price moves down the priority list. Sometimes it moves way down. It can even become a non-issue, if you can convey enough value.
My response to the benefit director was, “I’d like to talk about price at the end of the presentation.”
He said something like, “Well, you’re going to have to cut your price, because it’s too high.”
Politely and patiently, I responded again, “Well, let’s wait until the end to address the issue of price.”
We continued our presentation. From that point on, the president of the company looked me in the eye and directed every single question to me. Once the presentation was concluded and I’d answered every question to his satisfaction, this company president stood up, looked at me and said, “Good job.”
He looked over at the broker and announced, “We’re going to buy from them.”
The issue of price never came up again.
The company president—an active imperial wizard for the KKK—got out of his seat, walked over to me, shook my hand and stated again, “We’re buying from you.”
I can’t say for sure if this man now liked me, but I can tell you that he respected me from that point forward.
Recently, I decided to share my experiences in a new book, One of the First: Lessons I Learned While Overcoming the Challenges of Integration, because I believe there has been a calling on my life to help in this area since the time I was very young. I want to encourage African Americans and other minorities that when we face racism, we do not have to lower ourselves to the level of the person who is practicing hate.
Instead, we can respond with dignity, self-control, and personal and professional excellence. Taking the moral high ground is a very effective method for proving our detractors wrong and seeing positive results. During my lifetime, I have seen quite a few people with deep racist attitudes get set free, sometimes becoming like an entirely new person in the process. Facing prejudice head-on has been uncomfortable and challenging at times, but the rewards have been tremendous.
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About the Author
Ralph Stokes was a key player on the southern football scene during the time of integration, becoming one of the first five African American football players at the University of Alabama. After college, he was a pioneer for integration in the insurance industry and later in the world of golf. He is currently the Director of Partnership Marketing for PGA TOUR Superstore and was recently elected to be the first African American President of the Georgia State Golf Association. Ralph is very passionate about partnering with and supporting different charities across the United States. Ralph lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Debra. They have two daughters and two granddaughters.