Growing up the son of a single mother in a Pittsburgh public housing complex, Keith Key didn’t think much about who owned the buildings in his community.
But as an adult he began to question why property owners in predominantly black neighborhoods never looked like him.
“All the buildings — office buildings, apartment communities — we don’t typically own them,” he told an audience of about 400 people at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center. “We may live in them, we may pay rent, but there’s someone who owns those, and I said, ‘Wow! Why couldn’t that be me?’’’
Now Key is a major real estate developer who has done over $1.5 billion worth of development across the country. He told his story Tuesday at the third annual Bob Wright Symposium on Business Empowerment.
The daylong event is the brainchild of Bob Wright of Columbus, who served in the Reagan administration and in 2007 sold the defense contracting company he founded to Honeywell International for a reported $230 million. He was chairman of the commission charged with planning the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September of 2016 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“Each time I go to a new city, I find there’s no one typically like me in those cities,” said Key, CEO of Keith B. Key Enterprises and the Omni Management Group. “Even in major metropolitan cities, where you would think there would be a lot of us, there’s just a few of us. There’s maybe 15 to 20 of us in the country that could do over a $100 million deal. And that’s a very unique thing, because in this business it’s all about access to capital.”
Byron Pitts, chief national correspondent for ABC News, moderated the symposium for the third year in a row, interviewing a variety of successful black entrepreneurs in a fireside chat setting. As speakers shared their life stories, they stressed the importance of resilience, hard work, honesty, integrity, wisdom and faith in their business dealings.
Lois Bullock, a Carver High School graduate, was another speaker at the event. She is founder and head of schools for Energized for Excellence Academy, a charter school in Houston, Texas, that’s considered one of the best in the country, according to Pitts.
Bullock said her school has a 100 percent graduation rate, compared to the national averages of 83 percent for all children and 76 percent for black children, as well as 75 percent for children in Georgia, and 73 percent for children in Texas.
Bullock, who graduated from high school 50 years ago, credited Carver High with her success.
“That’s where I was first exposed to the love of learning,” she said. “The teachers there demanded excellence. The students rose to the occasion.”
State Rep. Calvin Smyre greeted the audience after lunch, thanking Wright and all the speakers for the contributions to the community.
“Bob, on behalf of all of us here in Columbus, we want to thank you for your foresight and the insight of putting something of this magnitude together,” he said, “because to me it’s a process by which we all are trying to do better in our own way. And I just want to publicly congratulate you and all the members of the committee that brought this program to fruition. And I look forward to the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh Bob Wright Symposium.”
The group also heard from Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and Columbus Chamber of Commerce President Brian Anderson.
Judy Smith, the real-life inspiration for the hit TV show “Scandal,” was among the guest speakers, along with Judge Glenda Hatchett, of television fame, and Eddie Compass IV, co-founder and CEO of Next Generation Marine.
Other speakers included Anthony Welters, executive chairman of the BlackIvy Group LLC; Damien Dwin, co-founder and managing partner of Brightwood Capital Advisors; Eric Bailey, president and CEO of Bailey Wealth Advisors; Veronica Biggins, managing partner at Diversified Search and chair of the Board of Directors Practice; and Cavanaugh Mims, a Kendrick High School graduate and president of the Visionary Solutions & VS Group.
Key, a former Ohio State University football player, said he stopped playing football his second year college because of multiple injuries. He worked as a janitor before graduating with a bachelor’s in economics and entering the banking industry. He said he later returned to his neighborhood and built a housing development with computers and wireless connection in every unit.
Key shared the stage with Biggins, who previously served as assistant to the president of the United States and director of Presidential Personnel under President Bill Clinton.
Biggins, a graduate of Spelman College, grew up in Greensboro, N.C. Her father was a college professor and a tennis pro who played a role in Arthur Ashe’s success; her mother was a history teacher. The family lived in Indonesia when Biggins was in elementary school, and her parents always stressed saving money and giving to charity.
“They reared us with expectations and with giving back,” she said, “and that the society is only as good as the society that you contribute to — that you cannot complain about anything unless you state first what you intend to do to make it better.”