Over the years, I have had the pleasure to collaborate on a number of memoirs which highlight the lives of men and women who have attained a significant result in their work life.
Why would somebody want to write a business memoir?
People write business memoirs for some of the same reasons people write any other kind of memoir.
Develop Vivid Characters
- Are the characters your memoir going to bore—rather than impress—your readers?
- Are you at a loss—“Help! What can I do!”—about how to make the people in your memoir more interesting?
- Are you embarrassed by the “stick” characters you have presented? “She really was a complex person, but I don’t know how to show her that way.”
People want to honor the world from which they sprang.
- Sylvester Myers, a black man from West Virginia, wrote From Coal Fields to Oilfields and Beyond because he wanted to give witness to how a black man came from modest background to achieve significant results in the business world. He was especially concerned with demonstrating to young black men that there were models to follow to enter into the middle class.
- Some of the same was true for Willie E. Lowther whose memoir The Journey of My Life was written by his wife using oral testimony from Mrs. Lowther. Their goal in writing this memoir was to demonstrate how black people in Harlem were able to create viable and prosperous businesses.
- In The Legend of Barjo Restaurant, Josephine McAllister Stone—with the help of Emily Foster, her protégée—recorded how a girl from a small Maine town who married young and was left a widow at 24 with a child to support was able to parlay her innate emotional strength, her intelligence and a lot of hard work into the ownership of several restaurants and many dozens of apartments. In the end, Mrs. Stone became a wealthy woman. The similarities between Mrs. Stone and Mr. Lowther were uncanny. Both of their memoirs insisted on how staying open the extra hour and opening their business venues a bit earlier can lead to phenomenal results.
- Robert Verreault wrote Business Boy to Business Man as a legacy to his children and grandchildren and to the many people who knew him in his native Lewiston, Maine. Mr. Verreault used his mechanical skills to launch a machine shop in his hometown. Eventually the machine shop became large enough for him to hire professionals to run it. In 1981, Mr. Verreault was named Maine businessman of the year.
Business memoirs spring from a context
These four memoirs detail the cultures from which they sprang. Mr. Verreault grew up in a Franco-American community in the 1920s and 1930s. Mr. Lowther, born in 1909, grew up in an African-American community in North Carolina in the second and third decades of the past century. Josephine’s Stone was a contemporary of Mr. Lowther. Mr. Myers, born in 1932, is slightly younger. Interestingly, these four business owners both were proud of their cultures and also saw them frequently to be impediments to the work they undertook.
But the personal details are not all that these business people sought to memorialize. These are books full of insights on how to achieve success in business. They contain interesting similarities:
- Hard work that included long hours and a commitment to customer service. Mr. Lowther would keep his shop open and extra hour to service a customer who wanted a haircut but could not come during business hours.
- Choosing a business endeavor at which they could succeed. Mr. Verreault, for instance, had an uncanny ability to make things work. “I can do stuff with my hands that other people can’t.” At one point, he was called in to salvage a machine that had been taken apart and could not be put back together again. Loose parts cluttered the floor around the body of the machine. It took Mr. Verreault three days to reassemble the machine from the mess he found
. As he said, “I became ‘St. Robert’ for many of my customers.”
- An unwillingness to quit. Joe’s Stone went through times of economic difficulties, a divorce and widowhood, and lawsuits to finally prevail.
- The ability to seize opportunities. Mr. Myers began his work life at the launch of Affirmative Action. He understood the opportunity available to him and took advantage of it.
These four books that I offer as examples of business memoirs are only some of the business memoirs that I have written. Every experience has revealed many similarities in these very disparate people. Mr. Myers and Mr. Verreault were able to ride a cusp of changing times. Mrs. Stone and Mr. Lowther were able to take humble enterprises—a barbershop and a restaurant—and—overtime—parlay them into second venues and additional businesses.
These business owners were examples of the turtle winning out over the hare.
What happens to these business memoirs?
Hastie Lowther was interviewed on radio, appeared on TV, did presentations to clubs, bookstores and classrooms. Her book was a platform to speak about and to the African-American community.
Emily Foster was very active in promoting the book she co-authored with Jo Stone, The Legend of Barjo Restaurant. Among her outreach efforts, she sponsored a well-attended launch party and was unfailing in speaking before any group that would have her—whether a school class or a business luncheon or a university class. For a while, she did a brisk mail-order business as people who had known Jo Stone—or their children and grandchildren—and her many restaurant customers wanted to get their hands on a copy of The Legend of Barjo Restaurant.
Sylvester Myers’ From Coal Fields to Oil Fields and Beyond was a popular item in African-American studies programs and in schools and universities. In addition, the book was handed out to many clients of his business. Robert Verreault’s Business Boy to Business Man also was distributed to colleagues and clients and is available on Amazon—as are all the books here.
A statue of one’s self in city park
Everyone who writes a memoir is looking to some extent to create a metaphorical “statue in city park” to himself or herself and to those circumstances that shaped his or her life. These people were achievers. Far from being braggadocio, all of the books that I presented serve as an example to younger people to follow.
The books have had various trajectories. Depending on the energy of the author or co-writer, books sold more or less. None entered the memoir world to make money from their writing. One thing is certain: these four books brought great satisfaction to their writers.
In a subsequent article, I will write about the process of creating such a book. I look forward to sharing this with you.
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