Slam Dunk: Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson Talks Entrepreneurship with Target Team

February 26, 2016 - Article reads in
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Laysha Ward and Magic Johnson (to her right) sitting in chairs onstage at the Outer Spaces event.

As both a basketball star and a businessman, Earvin “Magic” Johnson has turned hard work and tenacity into major success. His secret? “I love what I do, and every day I bring the same discipline, passion and fire to my businesses that I brought on the court.”

Johnson was the latest speaker to take the stage as part of our Outer Spaces series of innovation talks at our Minneapolis headquarters. Along with Laysha Ward, Target’s chief corporate social responsibility officer, he shared thoughts about America’s shifting cultural demographic, and what it means for retailers curating business approaches in urban communities. The event was hosted in partnership with Target’s African American Business Council as part of our Black History Month celebration.

Left: Johnson walks to the stage as the audience applauds; Right: Johnson and a fan take a selfie during the Q&A session.

As chairman and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, Johnson is a detail-oriented entrepreneur who worked with partners like Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz and others to learn the ropes.

The best way to start any business venture, Johnson said, is to build trust within the community you serve. “I always go out and meet with the leaders, trendsetters and tastemakers. It’s especially important in urban communities to make sure a business and the products offered are relevant to your consumer. We do focus groups, attend Town Hall meetings and build relationships. Listen to community members, their ideas and their concerns. Let them know we are creating a business to strengthen their community. ‘Over-deliver’ is a key word. The more you build trust, the more support you will have for your brand.”

Johnson poses with Target CEO Brian Cornell and Laysha Ward.

Part of understanding a community, Johnson said, is a deep knowledge of what it wants and needs most. “I learned to do my homework, research what customers want and tweak the business plan. Have the right mix of products. Add personal touches (like music, or seating) that the neighborhood will appreciate. Offer job opportunities for people in the community and have a diverse mix of employees that mirror the community. Encourage new development. Put measures in place to ensure a safe, enjoyable experience. Get those things right and customers will keep coming back.”

Johnson put this wisdom to the ultimate test when he began work on the first Magic Johnson Theater in Los Angeles back in 1994. The theater site was located in an area known as gang territory, and everyone involved was concerned about making it a safe environment.

“I wanted to bring fun family entertainment to the surrounding community, but I needed all parties on board. So I met with the gang leaders, told them we wanted the theater to be a neutral zone that could be safe for them and their families. I helped them understand the benefits—more jobs for the community, a great place to relax, and the convenience of entertainment in the neighborhood. I promised it would be as nice as any they would see in the suburbs. The gang members respected what I was asking and appreciated what I was doing for the community. They wanted job opportunities for themselves, so we hired 10 members from each gang to help us build the theater. Fourteen of them ended up staying on permanently. They were able to support their families and learn new skills.”

“I made rules for the theater too. For example, you couldn’t wear gang colors or hats to the theater. And the community ultimately respected that decision. I even heard from parents that their children and the community felt safer. The theater rules were teaching their children discipline. I felt blessed to be a part of that change in mindset. If I hadn’t grown up in the same environment, it wouldn’t have worked. They wouldn’t have trusted me. That’s why personal experiences are so important. That’s why the message and the messenger are so important. In its first year, the Magic Johnson Crenshaw theater was in the top 10 highest-grossing theaters in the nation. It shows that a business can do good and do well.”

Johnson takes a group shot with members of Target's African American Business Council at their reception.

After the event, Johnson sat down with the AABC members to talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, something the AABC and our other business councils champion for our team every day. “Diversity of thought, ideals and opinions is an important factor in any successful company," he said. "It reflects your customer base and what America has become, so the workforce needs to mirror that too. The business will not only be successful, but will maintain sustainability in a culturally changing world.”

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