Robert Blackwell Jr. Personal Interview
John Page: We are here today with Robert Blackwell Jr. who is President of the Electronic Knowledge Interchange here in Chicagoland. And Robert, thank you for joining us.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Thank you.
John Page: So I understand that you started being an entrepreneur at a very early age, tell me about that?
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Well, when I was 8 years old and I noticed that all my friends would go out for lunch to buy candy at the candy store, a lot of times they would come late, get in trouble and back then you know teachers would actually hit you with paddles. So I said, what I thought is I would go after school, I would buy candy and see if I could sell it to them during school. They used to have these long sticks of gum called Bub’s Daddy long time ago.
John Page: Okay.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: And so I would go to the store and I buy it for a nickel and I would come school and sell it for dime and I was doing pretty well.
John Page: Pretty good market thereto.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Yeah I really liked just the feeling of being in control of my own destiny so I did that and then when I moved to, that was I did that in Kansas in Wichita, Kansas where I grew up. And then I moved to Chicago in 1973 when I was 12 and I brought this little business to my junior high school and people were buying so much gum, they stopped buying ice-cream so I cut a deal with the Principal to sell my gum and his ice cream. So you now I always liked to see if I could get people to pay me for solving some problem that they had.
John Page: And so from that early entrepreneur age you have done a lot in your career so far. Tell me a little bit about the other steps that have gotten you to EKI?
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Well, I am lucky, my father worked for IBM for a long time and so I was lucky enough to get internship at IBM and so I was here for a couple of years and then I left. And when I was 21 and started at technology consulting company, when I was at IBM I think I was the first person in Chicago they put in-charge of their Personal Computer.
John Page: Okay, when they weren’t quite sure it was going to work.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Yeah I think it wasn’t until like 2000 that they thought it was really going to be a business. So I left IBM and I started this computer consulting company around PCs. And I did a really well enough to take care of me and a few friends of mine but like a lot of 21 year old I knew more about technology than business, but I kind of did okay and then I was in some other businesses, I was a trader for a long time, I used to write apps for trading models and I was a technical analyst so I did that for a while and I traded for myself. And then I ended up funding a small company and ended up having to take it over because I had recommended this person to a number of people that I knew, he didn’t do so well so I had to take it over. So I then got back into the technology business and I started writing financial models for large companies.
John Page: Okay.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: In 1992, my father retired from IBM, we started Blackwell Consulting together then in 1995 I sold my half of the company. And then I went into real estate, I decided I was going to buy a house and I was going to buy a house on the south side of Chicago, really for two reasons, one is that you know I think I have been luckier than a person with my IQ deserves to be in life so I said I wanted to really move into a black neighborhoods so that I could see if I could help young African American men in particular. So I did that and ended up really looking at the neighborhood and thought what I should do is to create an economic incentive for other people to move into the neighborhoods so I got into the real estate business and I created a company called Urban Fishing Development.
John Page: And that helped to revitalize that neighborhood?
Robert Blackwell Jr.: I think it played a role in it. So we got some economic integration in the neighborhood and Martin Luther King High School when I moved there in 1994 was the worst high school in the state, now it’s a charter school has neighborhood has done much better.
John Page: That’s going to make you feel great.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Well, at least I think it was one part that we played and I was also just pretty lucky at that time. Somebody told me about the neighborhood and I was actually able to buy a house for $67,000 and put a couple of $100,000 into it and so you know I did okay, I think we had a positive impact.
John Page: People make their luck. Tell me, I know that in addition to the technology side there is another part of you the table tennis guru, right?
John Page: Well, we have a table tennis company called Killerspin and I really started this in 2002 and in 2000 EKI the technology company had been, we were a couple of years old and we had never done any business in the public sector before. And I remember that period where everybody you had they wanted anybody in order to work, they wanted backrubs in stock options and I would give speeches to the people who worked at the company on why it was important that we made money. And you know they said why are you always talking about making money because I said, companies who don’t make money do bad things to their people and you will see that in a not to distant future.
John Page: Absolutely, the bubble was coming, right.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: And I was lucky enough to be, I was a trader in 1987 so I have seen the whole, I would call this rational exuberant so I think that is what Federal Reserve Chief called it, but that’s part of human nature, people get excited and rush into industries and then you get bubbles. So I was really concerned about that. So Lois Weisberg who was the head of cultural affairs at that time had this thing called the Ping-Pong Festival. So I thought it was really an opportunity for us to get some relationships in the city. So we sponsored it and she asked me to be the chairman of that event. And whenever there were tables out there, there were just lines of people to play. So I did some research and found that table tennis is actually number #1 participation sport in the world, it’s the national sport of China. And most Americans associate table tennis with good times with their family and friends. It’s what I called my safe time with my father when he was yelling, bit me about lying about how I was doing in school or something like that, but you know table tennis it’s a great sport and we see that the business is really helping people solve both health and what we call health and wealth problems. It’s really establishing emotional connections, it’s a great brain sport and also it’s really good for connecting especially to China which is the number #2 economy in the world, they are the most valuable tourist in the world and it’s their national sports, the most popular sport on television. So for us we have been able to use this niche and I think in business you need a niche and a compelling value proposition for your customers. So we have been able to turn that into a pretty good business.
John Page: That’s great, I mean that’s an unexpected plus, right?
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Yeah and I think it’s, you know as I always say this God has blessed me and I am really more lucky than a person of my IQ deserves to be, I mean great parents and great wife and –.
John Page: And your dad is sort of a legend right everybody in Chicago knows?
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Yeah my father, he is a great guy, everybody knows my father and he is a great salesman and he is really great person. So he has really helped a lot of people in their careers and given a lot of young people guidance and including me and he is probably nicer to them than me sometimes.
John Page: Well the Acorn doesn’t fall far from that tree so.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: I don’t know, you know my father is really an exceptional man so I am really lucky so is my mother. So I started off –.
John Page: You started off on a good side, that’s great. Well Robert I appreciate you being here today with us, thank you for spending time with us on CEO IntroNet. Interesting you know interesting starting point, selling candy to your peers and bringing it all the way to where it is, I can’t wait to see what the next 5 years has in store for you.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Well, thanks very much.
John Page: Thank you Robert, Robert Blackwell Jr. President of the Electronic Knowledge Interchange here in Chicagoland. Thanks Robert.
Robert Blackwell Jr.: Thank you.