#DoingWellByDoingGood: Marcelo Claure, CEO of Sprint Corporation, on leading the largest corporate initiative in history to end the digital divide

Marcelo Claure, CEO of Sprint Corporation

It’s not every day you meet someone in Belgium who connects you to his Bolivian cousin living in Kansas running a Fortune 500 that also happens to be one of America’s largest telecommunications providers- Sprint Corporation. To my surprise, that’s exactly what happened !

Marcelo Claure is not your average CEO. A Bolivian immigrant who didn’t learn English until the ninth grade, Marcelo’s first dab into mobile phone management came as he was delivering mobile phones to clients from the trunk of his car. His perseverance and incredible work ethic eventually led him to found Brightstar Corporation, which grew into the largest Latino-owned corporation in the United States ! Given his current position, it’s obvious that his ambitions didn’t fall short there.

I’ve gotten to know Marcelo well over the last year; We instantly clicked. He shares our vision to use success for doing good and helping people in need. Under his leadership, Sprint launched the 1Million Project. This initiative will bring internet access and mobile devices to 1 million low-income, U.S. high school students around the nation that are currently barred from the educational opportunities that come with such technology. For me, he is a role model to those of us seeking a way to use our skills and successes to help others. I am so happy to call him my friend !

Marcelo, you and your family lived in Miami for many years before moving to Kansas City for you to become the CEO of Sprint Corporation. I imagine it was a huge adjustment! How was your transition into the community? Why was it important for you to get involved in a local nonprofit like the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault?

My transition was really very easy. My family and I felt warmly welcomed and embraced by the communities of Sprint and Kansas City from day one, and that made the transition process so much easier. Everyone was so open and went out of their way to help us and provide any assistance or guidance we might need. I made getting involved in local nonprofits a priority right from the start for several reasons. First, because I believe in giving back to society regardless of where you are in your career or in life. Also, this is an excellent way to meet and get to know the people in the greater Kansas City area and the issues that motivate them. And, most important, I chose MOCSA (Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault) as my first philanthropic effort because the physical, psychological and social consequences of sexual violence are so devastating. I wanted to do whatever I could to contribute to preventing sexual violence and to helping improve the lives of those affected by sexual abuse and assault. MOCSA offers a wide variety of programs and initiatives, including a 24-hour Crisis Line, assistance and support for victims who wish to report these incidents and long-term counseling.

You’re one of the founding members of One Laptop Per Child, a nonprofit providing laptops to underprivileged youth in developing countries. President Obama has expressed the importance of this program in addressing fundamental deficiencies in education worldwide. Do you agree?

Absolutely. OLPC’s mission is to “empower the world’s poorest children through education.” They fulfill their mission by providing connected laptops to children in poor communities. One Laptop’s hardware, content and software are specifically designed for collaborative communication and engagement. By using their laptops every day in school and to complete their schoolwork, children become more engaged in the learning process and improve their ability to learn and retain information. It’s important to keep in mind that the material children are being taught in schools today is changing. As textbooks become outdated, connected computers are more critical than ever for students to obtain information. Today, approximately 2 million children and teachers participate in OLPC initiatives in Latin America, with another 500,000 in Africa and the rest of the world. Some of the countries where OLPC is active include Uruguay (the first country in the world to provide every elementary school child with a laptop), Peru (the largest deployment, involving more than 8,300 schools), Argentina, Mexico, Rwanda, Gaza, Afghanistan, Haiti, Ethiopia and Mongolia, among others.

How do you think access to this technology will lift kids out of poverty?

Access to this technology is pivotal in lifting children out of poverty. As the connected economy becomes more prevalent, children in poor communities, without computers, digital skills or access to the internet will be at a real disadvantage. On the contrary, if you provide a connected laptop to a child in a poor community in rural Haiti, for example, all of a sudden that child now has online access to the same information as children going to school in affluent cities around the world as well as the opportunity to develop digital skills. Bringing technology and connectivity to poor communities translates into bringing opportunity and resources for children to reach their potential.

After selling Brightstar, you had a new undertaking: rebuild and revamp Sprint. You kick-started your approach by helping freshen up the work culture, often responding to customer complaints through Twitter and rewarding hard work by hosting outings and events. Was this a simple way of giving back to your employees? What are some other methods you hope to incorporate in the future?

When Masa Son, who is the founder of SoftBank and Sprint’s chairman, asked me to be CEO, I told him he should find somebody else. In my heart, I always will be an entrepreneur and not the leader of a large American corporation. But Masa said that’s exactly why he wanted me to do the job. Sprint had once been a great brand, but it hadn’t been moving quickly enough, aggressively enough or taking enough of the right calculated risks to succeed in such a hypercompetitive industry. I agreed to take on the challenge and immediately started working to inject an entrepreneurial spirit into Sprint. To me, that means we had to act with a sense of urgency in launching new plans and services instead of planning for months and trying to make everything perfect. We had to work as an aligned team. So I closed all of the big offices of the top executives and brought everybody together in a much more open space where we can collaborate. I also always try to lead by setting the example. We want to provide every one of our customers an amazing experience, so that has meant ensuring they get help when they reach out on Twitter and regularly visiting our stores where I can hear firsthand from our front-line team members and our customers.

Your mobile venture Brightstar grew into the largest Latino-owned Corporation in the United States! It essentially started by walking into a Boston mobile store as a customer and walking out the owner. Tell me about your experience as a sudden entrepreneur. What are some of the difficulties you faced?

Ever since I was a young man in Bolivia, I knew I was wired to be an entrepreneur. I created a business reselling frequent flyer miles even while I was a college student. When I graduated I began looking for a way truly to get my start as an entrepreneur. I had a lot of ideas and was willing to work hard, but I was unproven and unknown. It was a challenge at first to win the trust of those I depended on to be successful: customers, device manufacturers, and the bankers and investors I needed to fund the business. But I was able to earn their trust and respect by demonstrating a commitment to work harder and deliver better service than any of our competitors. Our business grew and, as it did, I earned the confidence of my partners and built long-term relationships that have been key to my success throughout my career.

Given your Bolivian background and wide success as a Latino, what advice would you give to young Latinos aspiring to join you at the top of their professions?

First and foremost, never forget your roots and where you came from. This is part of who you are, and maintaining a strong connection to your roots will help keep you grounded throughout life. The remaining lessons apply whether you are Latino or not. I believe in living life with passion, faith and perseverance. For me, passion is the engine that propels me forward no matter how challenging the road ahead may be. It’s that fire within us that both consumes us and renews us. There is no success in business or in life without passion, so before anything else, find your passion. While passion is very important, we can’t forget faith. In my mind, faith is about visualizing where we want to be and believing we’re already there, against all odds. Too often we are afraid of taking bold steps, afraid of failing and of what people will think. There will always be people who tell you why things can’t be done. My advice: Don’t listen to them! Believe in yourself and be willing to try new things. Finally, persevere no matter what — unwavering perseverance simply never gives up. Never. Period.

You immigrated to the United States from one of Latin America’s poorest countries, spoke basic English and had little money. You essentially created your wealth from scratch, making you the epitome of the American dream. Do you think the dream is still alive?

Of course, the dream is alive and well and will continue to be, in my opinion. My personal story is a testament to this. The U.S. is still the greatest country in the world where anyone who is focused, disciplined and willing to work hard can achieve anything they set their mind to. The American dream requires hard work, good decisions and a bit of good luck.

You’re a pretty big soccer fan! Who do you think is the greatest player of all time?

This is a difficult question as there are talented and amazing players in all generations and around the world. Some names that come to mind are Pele, Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo, among others.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?

I’ve learned so many that it is hard to narrow it down to one. Over the years, the greatest lessons have been:

The importance of dreaming BIG. Right after college, I bought my first business, “Cellular Solutions,” by chance and with no money or plan. I remember thinking, “If I can buy a business with no money, surely the sky’s the limit from now on!”

1. The importance of a relentless work ethic. This one is plain and simple — just work harder than everyone else.

2. The importance of staying humble. It’s important to stay grounded and humble no matter what life throws at you. You will need people, and staying humble will help you cement good relationships.

3. The importance of taking what I like to call calculated risks. Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” This has enabled me to move forward in meaningful and significant ways in my life.

4. The importance of never taking “no” for an answer. This one is key. You will come across many mediocre people in life who will tell you why things can’t be done. Don’t listen to them! Had I listened to all the naysayers when I wanted to start Brightstar, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Finally, do you think that by doing good, you’re more successful?

Without a doubt. Success is not just about your bottom line but also about the positive impact you have on people’s lives and on society. We have a moral obligation and a responsibility to help others, regardless of where we are in life, rich or poor, young or old. Giving back is the right thing to do, and it also makes good business sense. I believe corporate success and the well-being of society are inter-dependent. We have to lead by example and encourage others to follow and engage. On a personal level, we should engage in our communities because in addition to doing good, we will experience personal growth, satisfaction and well-being. I’m proud of all my Partners at Sprint who are joining together to launch our 1Million Project, a new initiative to provide free devices and free wireless service to 1 million disadvantaged high school students. It’s the largest corporate initiative in U.S. history to bridge the digital divide and help close the “Homework Gap” for students who lack internet access at home. Solving society’s biggest problems requires collaboration among government, nonprofits and businesses like ours. My hope is that more businesses will join our effort to help young people in the United States reach their full potential.