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I Believe that Entrepreneurship Saved My Life

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Impact Leadership

“When I was 11 years old, my father came home from work and told our entire family that a routine medical exam revealed that cancer was ravaging his body, and that he was given only six weeks to live.” These were the first words from Rick Sapio as he held the attention of everyone in the room for the opening ceremony of the Stagen Leadership Academy’s Integral Leadership Program (ILP). “We had already lost my brother to leukemia right after I was born. And the strain, the grief, the anguish of all this robbed my mother of her sanity.” His baritone voice filled the room with a strange warmth. “The truth is that when my father did pass, I had already lost both of my parents, and at quite a young age.”

The foam cover on the microphone sat more than a foot away from Rick’s face as he stood at the podium, regal in his suit and crisp red tie. Despite the gravity of what he spoke, he didn’t do so with sadness. He was comfortable with his words, as if this story was an old friend he visited on special occasions, particularly whenever he needed inspiration or wanted to motivate others. And, as a four-time graduate of the ILP and the founder of more than 20 companies, Rick knew a lot about motivation.

“North Jersey in the 1970s was a rough place to be. The mafia, gangs, prostitution, drugs—we had every bit of that, being so close to New York City. If any of you have seen Martin Scorsese’s film Mean Streets, you have a sense of what my childhood was like at times. It may sound like a tough childhood, but I’ll tell you, as I look back on it now, it was truly a gift. So much got thrown at me when I was young, which meant that I learned to handle stress better than my peers.”

The room was eerily silent, and Rick stood steadily at the podium, making eye contact with several audience members and nodding before continuing.

 

“There’s a reason why I tell this story, and it has everything to do with purpose. What I’ve come to know is that doing things with purpose is also known as leadership.”

 

“I had never seen my father take action the way he did when he knew he was going to die. He was never so motivated, so driven. He focused on teaching me everything he could about business because he knew that his time left was short, and that I was the one who would have to be strong for the family.”

Rick was so poised that in the moments between sentences when he paused for a breath or for effect, he resembled a statue. “And he didn’t waste any time. The day after he shared the news of his impending death, Dad took me to the small car dealership that he owned, and for the next several months, I received the best crash course in business I could have ever wanted. I wasn’t there as an observer—as the owner’s son who is going to sit and watch; I was in the weeds. I was involved in every aspect of that business, top to bottom. It was tough, considering the circumstances, but entrepreneurship saved my life. Had it not been for this—meaning, for the most epic tragedy that could befall an 11-year-old boy—I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

Rick’s voice was measured and his tone practiced, and given the audience was mostly entrepreneurs and small business owners, that meant he placed a certain emphasis on the impact of business in his story … but there was no denying how this early challenge directed his life so completely. “As you all know, entrepreneurship is about taking responsibility for outcomes, and it’s a natural state for human beings. But society and bureaucracy train it out of many of us.” He drew in a breath and gestured with his right hand, his Italian heritage peeking through in this moment of gesticulation. “Whether or not you’re a risk-taker depends on many factors. My father’s illness, his decision to have me focus on learning business, and his tireless mentorship in his final days—they all made me who I am and ultimately brought me here, to the Stagen Leadership Academy.” He let a small smile touch his face as he asked, “How many of you are going through the ILP for the first time?”

 

Nearly every hand in the room went up.

“Lots of first-timers,” he nodded, surveying the audience. “I am proud to say that I’ve been through this ILP three times before and was part of the inaugural class. My first time through, I think I absorbed about ten percent of the content, it was so rich. Personally, I think Rand should have people go through the program several times,” he said, nodding toward the back of the room where Rand stood, watching. “I tell you this because I don’t want you to think that I’m up here speaking to you because I’m the expert; in fact, it’s just the opposite. I still have so much to learn.”

Like many of the leaders in that room, he was a CEO—in his case, of Mutual Capital Alliance, Inc.—a role he has held since 1994. While the Academy had asked him to speak because he was a true veteran of the ILP, it was also because of his long-standing relationship with Rand Stagen. Having been friends with Rand since 1995, Rick had helped Rand lay out the program at its inception. And yet, even with that under his belt and the subsequent four trips through the ILP, Rick gave this short talk as more of a rallying cry for his fellow journeyers than a formal proclamation.

“I’ve always loved having mentors. One of the many wise mentors I’ve had in my life told me that if you walk across a river in the same spot more than once, it’s a different river. I want to offer that to you. Your perspectives, your insights, your questions are going to help guide each and every one of you together through this process. You can all be both students and teachers at the same time.”

He let that last statement hang in the air for a few seconds. Then, he took half a step back from the lectern as he got ready to close his speech.

“I’ll leave you with something the priest at my father’s memorial service said that has stayed with me all these years. For context, I didn’t pay much attention when this priest would talk most of the time, but this was powerful enough to break through to my young, stubborn self. He said that in life, you have a choice: you can either be a horse or you can be a rider. Whatever you choose, life will be the other thing. If you choose to be the horse, life will become the rider, and it will take you wherever it wants you to go. But if you choose to become the rider, then life becomes the horse and you can take it wherever you want it to go. From that moment on, I resolved to be the rider. I would decide the direction I took my life in, and I’m not afraid of risk. But I still know that I have a lot to learn. So let’s mount our horses and ride together.”