Ron Brown Way

April 30, 2013


In: Doing Good

Ron Brown Way

I can’t let April go by without remembering someone who was a major influence in my life.  For the last 17 years, I remember April 3, 1996 as if it was yesterday.  That’s the day when the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 other people – 11 Commerce employees, many of whom were close friends – died in a tragic plane crash near Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I still remember what I was doing on that day.  I was in my office at the Small Business Administration talking on the phone to my friend, Dan McLaughlin, who had spoken earlier that day to Lawry Payne, one of the 34 people who died in that tragic plane crash.  Dan, Lawry and I worked closely together at the Commerce Department when we served in the Clinton Administration.  Lawry was one of a kind.  He was smart, ambitious, kind and incredibly talented.  While Dan and I were talking on the phone, we both heard a breaking story about a plane crash in Croatia.  We quickly ended our conversation and headed to the closest TV. 

I quickly hailed a cab and headed over to the Commerce Department.  My dear friend and former boss, Lauri Fitz-Pegado, was in Vietnam leading a trade mission where she received the horrific news. I sprinted down the hallway to the office of her assistant and dear friend, Pilar Martinez, to talk with Lauri on the phone.  She was sobbing uncontrollably. That’s when I lost it.  The rest of that day and the following days are a total blur.

A few days later, many of us made the dreaded journey to Andrews Air Force Base to watch 34 caskets be taken off the gigantic and cavernous military planes.  I was numb watching every moment.  The entire experience was surreal.

As I reflect on what happened 17 years ago this month, I think about the incredible impact Ron Brown made on my life. I would not be who I am today if it weren’t for knowing Ron Brown, learning from Ron Brown and the enormous knowledge and opportunities I gained from working with Ron Brown.  Yes, it was indeed a privilege to work for Ron Brown during those years – and I never took it for granted.  I still remember my first trip doing ‘policy advance’ for the late Secretary at the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Seattle. It was like I had won the lottery when I represented the late Secretary and the United States of America at a major international conference.  That was the first of many incredible opportunities I had to promote U.S. exports abroad, advocate for free trade and help U.S. businesses – small and big – become a powerful force to create jobs and accelerate wealth and prosperity around the world.

As I write this blog, I’m looking at a letter I wrote to the late Secretary which I framed and hangs proudly in my office. When I left the Commerce Department in 1995 to accept a major role at the Small Business Administration where I led the international division for nearly 5 years, I personally gave my letter of resignation to the late Secretary.  He gave the letter back to me with a personal note, “Congrats, RB.” You see, he hooked me up with the job at SBA because he knew I would love it and would excel at it – as much as he didn’t want to see me leave the Commerce Department.  But that was what Ron Brown was about – helping people find new and better opportunities.

Doing good – that was what Ron Brown was all about.  He was all about finding new opportunities, helping those who needed an extra boost and forging relationships with business leaders who weren’t traditionally ‘at the table.’  During his phenomenal career, Ron Brown pioneered a new focus on exports and the “Big Emerging Markets” that helped boost the U.S. economy and led to one of the largest periods of economic growth in our country’s history.

What perhaps made the biggest impact on me was his ability to connect with people of all colors, races, and ethnicities. He was a natural. He always made people feel comfortable and welcome.  His embrace was warm.  His impact was lasting.  He will never be forgotten.

Two weeks ago, I met some ‘old’ friends for lunch at the Commerce Department.  It was a real treat to catch up with some remarkable women I worked with 20 years ago.  After I parked my car and walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Commerce Department, I looked up and saw the street sign, “Ron Brown Way.”  A tear came to my eye.  I couldn’t help but think about the day two years ago when I saw that sign unveiled at the 15th anniversary of Ron Brown’s death.  It was pretty amazing to see a street sign in our nation’s capital be dedicated to a man I knew – and for whom I continue to honor as a member of the Advisory Board of the Ron Brown Scholar Program.

But on that particular day, looking up at that street sign had a special meaning.  Twenty years ago, I made a similar walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street to start my first day at the Commerce Department. I stopped for a second and tried to recreate the feeling I had on that day. I shook my head and began remembering those special moments, the special people I met and the special opportunities I would have never had if it weren’t for Ron Brown.

President Obama honored the memory of Ron Brown on April 3, 2013. “His [Ron Brown’s] legacy is embedded in the sustained commitment of successive administrations from both parties to assist American companies in expanding their global reach, both small businesses and large corporations..Ron Brown embodied the values and the ideals, that sense of possibility, that is at the heart of the American story.”

The Ron Brown Way.



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