At the age of 23, Reggie Love decided to forego the high salaries and signing bonuses many of his fellow Duke University graduates earned at companies like Goldman Sachs in order to take a job with then−Senator Barack Obama. He started in the mail room and eventually became Assistant to the President, after Obama won the 2008 presidential election.
Wharton management professor Samir Nurmohamed recently interviewed Love about his new book, Power Forward: My Presidential Education, when he visited campus as a guest lecturer in the Authors@Wharton series.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Samir Nurmohamed: I heard about your book when it was featured in USA Today. After reading the book, I came away thinking that you are such a sponge, whether you are around Coach K [Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski], who is the winningest coach in college basketball history, President Barack Obama or any other leader. You just seem to suck up knowledge and reflect on your experiences. Where did that ability come from?
Love: That’s a great question. I always say that I was a younger brother growing up. My brother, Richard, is four years older than me. I always learned that if I didn’t want to get a spanking or if I didn’t want to get grounded, [I should] do the things that he didn’t do. So, that’s really where it started.
I just was fortunate enough to have spent so much time with two guys who took the time to mentor me. In so many scenarios, you can work with people who aren’t necessarily invested in the development of the people that are around them…. Coach K is the epitome of what collegiate athletics should represent: how he grows young men into men, into productive members of the community, whether or not that’s basketball players or analysts or lawyers or hedge fund managers. If you look at the pedigree of professions of people who have come from Coach K’s tutelage, it is pretty impressive.
“When you’re young, you’ve got to have a healthy appetite for risk.”
The President, as well. That’s really an amazing attribute that he has. Sometimes you work for guys in politics, and they try to figure out how to convince their staff to stay as long as possible. But in the scenario working for him, even when I left, I think he even said to me, “Look, I think you’re going to go on to do great things and, any support that I can give you in your development, I’m there for you.”
I’m just lucky that people have been willing to put inputs and mentorship into me versus vice versa.
Nurmohamed: One thing that really stood out in the book was your decision to go work for then−Senator Barack Obama before he became the national icon that he is, of course, today. When we think about our students here at Wharton especially, they have these really established paths in front of them. It really stood out to me that you chose this unconventional route. Did you ever doubt that decision? If you ever did, what did you say to yourself to ensure that you were on the right path and you really believed in it?
Love: There are a couple funny sayings. The first one is — my college football coach used to tell me this — you’re going to make the wrong play often, but if you make the wrong play at full speed, that’s better than making the right play going 50%. That’s a very telling element because we spend so much time trying to get everything exactly right. It’s like, “I want every piece of data that I can get before I decide to make a decision. Until I get all of those data sets out there I’m not going to take a decision.”
It’s like the running back who runs into the wrong hole. If he’s running full speed, even if it’s the wrong hole, sometimes he pops out. But if he’s running in the right hole and he’s running half speed, he gets a concussion. When I made the decision to go work for then−Senator Obama, there were a couple of things that were going on for me.
One, I said to myself, “Look, I’m 23. Hopefully, my runway is relatively long.” If I make the wrong decision today, I’ve got a lot more time in order to correct that wrong decision, versus doing something that’s a little risky or has less downside, for a significant amount of time in which you come out of it and you haven’t had a bad experience but you haven’t gotten away from the mean. When you’re young, you’ve got to have a healthy appetite for risk. I don’t think it was a huge risk in the sense that my decisions were between going to work at Goldman Sachs and going to work for a guy whose name no one could pronounce.
“When you look at race … I don’t think that there’s a silver bullet…. As a culture and as a community, we just need to have open hearts and open minds as we continue to grow….”
I really thought both the jobs were going to be a win for me because either I would go into finance and learn and have an opportunity to have a great earning potential or I would go work for someone who I really admired and respected and someone who I thought I could grow and learn from as well.
The other piece of it, too, is that I wasn’t 100% sure that I was ready to stop playing sports. I’d spent a lot of time playing football. I thought I would always be a professional athlete. I thought that was the end zone for me. When that didn’t happen or when I realized that that wasn’t necessarily the best use of my time, I was sad about it. I wasn’t super, super happy that I’d been training and playing for a decade and a half and that it was going to come to an end. But I think it was definitely the right decision.
Nurmohamed: I want to touch on the subject of race because it’s something that comes up in the book. Your book revealed that there are those in the African-American community who were some of Obama’s harshest critics, especially early on in the campaign. You said that they saw him as not black enough. And it really struck me. To you, what does not black enough mean for those climbing the corporate ladder today? What kind of information did you get from the President that people in the African-American community or other minorities can use to think about that experience and figure out how to travail some of those challenges that they face?
Love: [The chapter in my book on this] says all layups aren’t easy. That is the example I use mainly because the premise behind it is that you don’t want to take the thing that’s in front of you for granted, right? But as a culture and as a society, race is something that’s so very, very prevalent, and it varies from politics to corporate settings to sports, to growing up as a young African-American in the South. It’s something that is a delicate issue.
As an African-American, I feel like I have more opportunity today than my parents and grandparents ever had. Did I ever feel like I had every single opportunity available to me? No. Not so much. The biggest thing that I try to do, which may be wrong or may be right, is that I try to spend less time focusing on the things that I don’t have and more time focusing on the opportunities and things that are in front of me.
Sometimes, that’s hard to do because I remember growing up. I went to a small private school, Providence Day. I remember the tuition was $16,000 a year. I was like, “Who can afford this?” My parents were very middle class, and they didn’t have a Lexus or a Mercedes or a big house or any of those things. It would have been very easy for me to say, “Look, this isn’t fair.” Or, “I want what they have.” At the same time, there were people who lived in the neighborhood that I lived in who had half of what we had.
When you look at race as a whole — and race can be substituted with gender, with sexuality, with socio-economics — I don’t think that there’s a silver bullet. There’s no cure-all for the different ways that we’re viewed. As a culture and as a community, we just need to have open hearts and open minds as we continue to grow. Everyone out there has a story to be told, has value to be added — whether or not it’s a business — to the creative process, to the University, to an organization. If we continue to try to do that, we grow as a country.
“When I played at Duke … I feel like I got just as much value having been a role player there as the guys who were superstars….”
Nurmohamed: What is one lesson that you want readers to take away from your book and your experiences?
Love: When I played at Duke, I was a utility player. Everyone thinks I was the star because I was a captain for the Duke basketball team. I was a captain as a senior, but when I was a freshman, I was a walk-on. I never thought I was going to get on the court. There is value to be had in the small things. Every scenario that you’re in is not going to always be exactly how you envision it or exactly what you want it to be.
When I played at Duke, I would have much rather been like JJ Redick or Shane Battier and National Player of the Year and Leading Scorer, but I never was. But I feel like I got just as much value having been a role player there as the guys who were superstars. [I felt] the same way when I worked on the campaign and in the White House. I was never a chief of staff or legislative director, but I feel I learned just as much and had just as significant experience … as a Personal Aide, and not the guy who’s writing the legislation or deciding who was going to go in to kill bin Laden or any of those things.
Sometimes there’s a lot of value to be had in things that don’t necessarily seem as sexy and as cool as you may want them to be.