Building Credibility and Learning to Trust the Process: An interview with Ryan Smith of Magic Johnson Enterprises

Ryan Smith is Director at Magic Johnson Enterprises, where he helps the 5-time NBA Champion and business phenomenon analyze and select investment opportunities. He’s a Howard and Stanford Graduate School of Business graduate, previously spending time on Wall Street working for Morgan Stanley. Ryan is the prototype of Black Excellence.

In this interview produced by OF10podcast, Will Lucas (OF10podcast host) and Ryan Smith discuss building personal credibility, mentorship, and how working hard and trusting the process opens doors of opportunity.

Note: This portion of the interview is derived from the audio interview heard on the OF10podcast with Will Lucas. To hear the podcast, subscribe in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Will: Being a African American man and having accomplished as much as you have academically and professionally, BBA in Finance from Howard, then onto Stanford Graduate School of Business, do you still view that even with that you have to work twice as hard to get the same result? And maybe is there the sense of, well, he’s with Magic, so there’s going to be an easier road for you?

Ryan: Yeah, I mean truthfully, the last part of what you said ends up being true. But going back to my days at Morgan Stanley, I went from barely knowing anyone who went to an Ivy League institution like Stanford or Notre Dame to being the only person who didn’t. Howard is an amazing institution, but there’s not a critical mass of black people at one particular financial institution so there just wasn’t that common understanding or common ground where you would feel a sense of community. Oftentimes I would say I went to Howard and people were like, “Oh, Harvard, how was that?”, I’m like, ‘nah, Howard in Washington DC’. Within the black community everybody gets it, but in other communities it’s not quite as known or not quite as prevalent. And if it is, its associated with more social or cultural things like Homecoming or because Puff Daddy went there. So between that, and between the weight of representation that comes with being the only, or one of the few minorities around with respect to the workplace environment, whether true or not, you feel the need to work harder. Or, there’s an automatic assumption taken when someone hears that I went to Stanford. There’s a natural credit given that makes the conversation just go faster. Instead of having to prove yourself for a couple of meetings or the first couple of minutes of a meeting, I’m kind of given the assumption my intellect is respectable only because of the school I went to. I wish it were not the case, but it has been proven. The hypothesis that I had has now become like a thesis. It’s proven itself out.

I don’t really encounter issues anymore like that in Magic Johnson Enterprises. We are pretty small shop. What I do is very, very autonomous and then I get the halo effect of Magic, and kind of his track record of having been in the investing business for 20 plus years and most people want to do business with Magic in some respect. So, life is a bit easier than it historically has been.

Will: What particular opportunities opened up for you that put you on the path that you’re on? And, I hate to ask dual-sided questions but, also, for students who want to pursue a similar trajectory, what should they be thinking about and doing?

Ryan: This is one of those things where Steve Jobs talked about everything only makes sense  and connecting the dots only works looking in the rear view mirror. So I kind of think about it from that context. I won the birth lottery in many respects. I was born to truly amazing parents. My dad was in business, my mother was an educator, and so I got the best of both of those worlds. My mother was naturally an educator and forced me to read even though I hated it at the time. It’s something that I love to do now and it’s why I get through a book a week. That’s actually been one of my saving graces. I will admit that I was somewhat lazy until college, but because I read so much I would do well on tests. That made a world of difference from scholarships and things of that sort.

I’m also the youngest of five, two brothers, two sisters. And so when I thought about kind of navigating my way through life, having the group of six people (siblings and parents) to look to, I saw what worked for them, what didn’t work, and was able to avoid some of those mistakes and still made some of those mistakes myself.

The closest sibling in age to me is currently 40 years old. So, from a personality perspective, I always get told that I have an old soul. I’m a little bit more introspective and have always been kind of reflective, which I view as a gift and a curse, I always thought about things very in depth.

I’ve always been relatively open to new experiences, and so like me falling into Wall Street was really like falling into it. You get to Howard, you’re placed on a business team, my business team happened to be adopted by Morgan Stanley and I won team member of the year. Morgan Stanley said, hey, here’s an internship. I took that internship, met the most amazing mentor anyone could ask for by the name of Carla Harris. She literally navigated me through the first five years of my professional life and introduced me to a number of other individuals who are still impactful in my life today.

So to your question about a young person trying to replicate the path, it’s learn as much as you can, be open to new experiences, and what that does is it provides context. You may not have figured out what you’re passionate about or what you want to pursue, but you can start checking things off the list and get greater and greater focus as you try new things. And the more focused you are, the closer you are to getting what you want to accomplish and figuring out what you should pour your very being into.

So, you have to trust the process and that the dots will connect in some fashion at some point for many of us. I can’t say all of us because there are some systemic and structural issues within our country that certainly need to be addressed, and it’s not quite a level playing field yet. But my hope is to give that you give it your best shot and how far you go will hopefully be a function of just how hard you try.

Hear the podcast episode in full here.