Waverly Willis: From “Well-Groomed Dope Fiend” to Bitcoin Barber
A man who went from being an All-American high school football star, to homeless and on drugs in less than a year. Waverly Willis has overcome so much: drug addiction; chronic homelessness, and at one point, running for his life; severe obesity and cancer too... Yet with seemingly limitless resilience and with faith and persistence, today's Up2 guest is a successful entrepreneur, community leader, and family man. And even though lawmakers seek his advice, and media outlets want to tell his story, Waverly never forgets what he's been through and that he's just a regular guy.
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Dave Douglas: Welcome to another episode of Up2. Eight years ago, Up2 started as a live event series showcasing leaders who are as humble as they are successful. The humility piece is extremely important as we identify leaders who can inspire others. We try to focus our interviews on the non business aspects of their lives. And in doing so, have found there was a real thirst to explore their hearts and minds in atypical ways. Our host as always is Adam Kaufman and our guest today is Waverly Willis. Thanks for joining us. We'll be right back.
Adam Kaufman: During the first season of the Up2 podcast, I had several companies and entrepreneurs approached me about potential partnerships, but I'm really selective before choosing to do something like that. One choice we did make happily is to partner with VividFront, a full service digital marketing and website design agency based in Cleveland that works with both local and national brands. They've built their entire client base on referrals, and they've won a lot of awards, including the 2019 Inc. Magazine top 5,000 fastest growing companies, North Coast's top places to work, and several others. They're known for their talent, they're known for their creativity, they're known for their culture, a firm I liked before we agreed to partner together for the show. Checked out vividfront.com or you can email me and I'll introduce you to their dynamic leader, Andrew Spott.
Dave Douglas: Welcome back to the Up2 podcast. Here's your host, Adam Kaufman.
Adam Kaufman: Our guest today has likely overcome more challenges than anyone we've previously had on the Up2 podcast. You're about to hear a story of an inspirational and courageous man with close to unmatched resilience. Waverly Willis is the owner of Urban Kutz, a barber shop, which has on multiple occasions, been named the best barbershop in Cleveland. Waverly is also the founder of The Urban Barber Association, which is a network of barbershops and salons which use their businesses as a vehicle to enlighten and empower their communities with important programs like job training for felons who reenter the marketplace, child literacy programs, and even blood pressure screenings at the barbershop.
Adam Kaufman: Our guest today is also the chairman of the Ohio Barber and Beauty Alliance and is a constant innovator and catalyst bringing more opportunities for those in and around the barber business. Last year, our guest garnered international attention for becoming, get this, the first barber in the world to accept cryptocurrency as a form of payment and thus earning the name, The Bitcoin Barber. Our guest today is a true trendsetter, creating new norms for his industry and building so many bridges between his clients, his community, and society at large. Waverly has accomplished all of this, most impressively, having overcome drug and alcohol addiction, chronic homelessness, morbid obesity, and even cancer. It's just remarkable. He is a husband, a father, a stepfather, a mentor to many and an inspiration to everyone fortunate enough to be in his orbit. Waverly Willis, welcome to the podcast.
Waverly Willis: Wow, I'm like, "Who is this guy talking about?"
Adam Kaufman: It's you.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, I appreciate it. It's great to be here. Nice to see you again, Adam.
Adam Kaufman: What have you been up to?
Waverly Willis: Oh, well, I've been busy, busy, busy coming out of the quarantine, quite naturally you got the barbershop, so it exploded. So my team and I were busy fixing a lot of haircuts.
Adam Kaufman: Please define exploded, like busy-ness?
Waverly Willis: Yes.
Adam Kaufman: Not exploded, because we've also had some fires lately and-
Waverly Willis: No, no, no exploding with business.
Adam Kaufman: Good.
Waverly Willis: Yes, that's all a good explosion.
Adam Kaufman: Okay.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, fixing a lot of outgrown hair and a lot of really bad wife haircuts.
Adam Kaufman: That's true. Everyone around me, and not me, but everyone around me was dealing with their kids or their spouses cutting their hair.
Waverly Willis: Yeah. So that was fun, that was fun. And it's starting to even out now. We're concerned. I'm not going to say worried, but we're concerned because the numbers are going back up and I think people are starting to fall back now. I'm seeing that in the business and I'm just talking to other business owners, a lot of them are really afraid that we might shut down again, man.
Adam Kaufman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I want to get into what it's like to have a retail business during a pandemic in a little bit, but normally I wouldn't ask our guests to do this, but your background is so unique. Could you just do like a Waverly 101 and your story a little bit? Can we spend a few minutes just-
Waverly Willis: Sure, sure, sure.
Adam Kaufman: ... your story maybe from your elementary or high school years and then into college and soon after that?
Waverly Willis: Okay, I grew up in East Cleveland, Ohio, went to Shaw High School. I was a good student. I made pretty good grades, but I lived a dual life. I was a great athlete in high school, I was an All-American in high school football.
Adam Kaufman: An All-American, running back?
Waverly Willis: No, outside linebacker.
Adam Kaufman: Outside linebacker, okay.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, outside linebacker.
Adam Kaufman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Waverly Willis: Defensively outside linebacker.
Adam Kaufman: A Lawrence Taylor type?
Waverly Willis: Exactly. And I also went downstate for wrestling. But I lived the dual life. I was, again, just a typical young kid from the ghetto, a single parent household. Mom couldn't afford everything, and so I was selling crack on the side. And-
Adam Kaufman: In high school?
Waverly Willis: In high school, yeah. I mean, it was just what we all did. I ended up getting a football scholarship to college. I was still selling crack while I was in college still playing college football on a football scholarship. Alcoholism runs in my family on my father's side.
Adam Kaufman: You and I have that in common, I think I've told you before, my father as well.
Waverly Willis: Exactly. And I really didn't drink a whole lot in high school, just at a party or something like that. But when I went to college is when my drinking career started. And like any addiction, you don't know you're addicted until after you're addicted. You know what I mean?
Adam Kaufman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Waverly Willis: And so I quickly became an alcoholic. Now that I look back at it, I wouldn't say it back then, but yeah, I quickly became an alcoholic and I still selling the crack, still playing football, and eventually leading to me dropping out of college, just becoming a full time drug dealer pretty much. And I used to get curious as to why are these people bringing me their mother's wedding ring from three generations and the titles to their cars, I know now addiction, you want more, more, more, more, more.
Adam Kaufman: So you not only sold something like that, you actually used it yourself.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, yeah. That's how I became the drug addict.
Adam Kaufman: When you were in high school and the colleges were recruiting you for playing Division I Football, did they look into things like that back then? I believe they do now, but was it pretty easy to hide this dual life as you call it? Or they didn't care? Or did they turn a blind eye, so to speak?
Waverly Willis: I'm sure they cared, but on paper, I had all the stats in football. And on paper, I was an honor and merit roll student. I didn't miss school. Attitude wise, I was great with my teachers. Everybody loved me.
Adam Kaufman: So they had nothing to suspect?
Waverly Willis: No, there was nothing to suspect. There was no red flags to make them dig into it. I-
Adam Kaufman: Did your mother know, do you think?
Waverly Willis: Actually, I don't think she did. I mean, my friends were respectful friends. We were all doing it, but we played the role really well.
Adam Kaufman: This was the dual life.
Waverly Willis: This was the dual life, exactly.
Adam Kaufman: So you're in college and in the fall of your freshman year, is that when you immediately had problems?
Waverly Willis: That's when the drinking began, and then the partying, and the chasing the girls, and all of that stuff.
Adam Kaufman: You are at 19 at this point?
Waverly Willis: Yeah. But it's more of a demanding schedule in college. It's a bigger league, the coaches are on you, and then you don't have mom to say, "Get up, get up, get up, get up."
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, your independence, right?
Waverly Willis: Yeah. And so if I don't have mom there to say, "Get up, get up, get up." And I came home, maybe the presence of my mother made me come home at night and not drink when I was out and about.
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, a little accountability, even though she didn't know?
Waverly Willis: Yeah. But mom wasn't there, so now I can drink all night. I don't have to go back to my dorm room or I ... And so now you got to be at a class at 7:00 in the morning, three days out the week. And so things started going downhill from there because I didn't have the structure of home.
Adam Kaufman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). How quickly were you out of school? First year, first semester or second semester?
Waverly Willis: It was about two years.
Adam Kaufman: Okay, so you-
Waverly Willis: I haggled and struggled and bumped my head for two years until I just called it quits. In the third year, I paid for my tuition out of pocket.
Adam Kaufman: With drug money?
Waverly Willis: Yeah, I literally walked off the football field and paid cash for my tuition, which was a mistake because I ended up dropping out of school anyway.
Adam Kaufman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you leave school, do you go back home with your mother or did you start living somewhere else?
Waverly Willis: I went to Kent State, so I still lived in Kent, Ohio, and I was a drug dealer. And I was an alcoholic and a drug dealer and a party animal. And the number one Cardinal rule in the world of drug dealing is, don't get high on your own supply, and that's what I did. And so the drug dealer, the high and mighty drug dealer, soon became a drug addict and alcoholic to the point that I did end up moving back home with my mom. And I was a full blown alcoholic and addict. My mom was sick, so I used that as an excuse.
Adam Kaufman: So it was camouflaged under this "my mom is sick" situation?
Waverly Willis: Right, right, right. She has CLPD, so I was, "Went home to take care of my mom," but really I didn't have anywhere to go.
Adam Kaufman: And you continued dealing at that point?
Waverly Willis: No, at that point I was an addict. So it's nothing to deal, I'm just trying to get high at that point. I slept in my mom's basement to the point that finally, my mom passed away and I was homeless for a while. I stayed in one of my godbrothers, his basement with his dog. He had a bunch of kids and I'm grateful that he opened his doors to me. And during that time, I slept on the streets. And when I say, sleeping on the streets for long periods of time, I don't mean I was couch surfing on friends' and family's houses because I didn't burn bridges, I just didn't show up. People literally thought I had died or went to prison because I was in the streets. And I slept on 18th and Superior where you go down in the winter time, you see the steam coming up.
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, that was the warm place to lay down.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, that was the warm place. We put our box on top of the vent and a box on top of us to try to trap that steam, man. I was the guy in front of the Greyhound Station picking up cigarette butts off the ground, I was the guy downtown with the cup in his hand, at the gas station asking, "Can I pump your gas for a dollar?" I was-
Adam Kaufman: And would people say yes?
Waverly Willis: Most-
Adam Kaufman: Was there sympathy or they would try to ignore you or ...
Waverly Willis: Most of the time they would say no. But you played the numbers game, you asked 10 people, two people would say yeah.
Adam Kaufman: Okay.
Waverly Willis: Throughout that whole time now, everything was gone, Adam. But I kept my clippers and liners and I was probably the most well-groomed, dope thing that you had ever seen. And people didn't know it at those times, some of the bus stops had outlets in them. And a person would say, "Hey, man, that's a really nice goatee or a beard you got," and I'll pull out my clippers, "I can take care of you right now."
Adam Kaufman: That's very interesting, [crosstalk 00:12:23] it's like you were born to be a barber, no matter what.
Waverly Willis: Right, right, exactly. So I was trimming people up at the bus stop inside of Greyhound Station, inside of the RTA Station in East Cleveland, or over here on Lorain, off Lorain.
Adam Kaufman: How long of a period of time was this phase of your life where you're homeless, giving people free or inexpensive goatee trims, looking for food and cigarette butts? Are we talking weeks or months or ...
Waverly Willis: That was like '99 through '04.
Adam Kaufman: That was five years.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, yeah.
Adam Kaufman: Wow.
Waverly Willis: I was out there in the wilderness for five years, man.
Adam Kaufman: Was there a low point? My father going through alcoholism and then recovering from it, I learned a lot about low points and people having different rock bottoms. Was there one moment that really you now look back on as your rock bottom that led to your effort to try to get better?
Waverly Willis: Well, I had looked up and found some financial way to go to barber college, but I was still a full blown addict. I literally used to sleep in the bus stop down the street from my barber college and every day we had to wear khakis and a blue shirt and a tie was optional, and I was wrinkled and I was always smelling like yesterday's alcohol, weed, tobacco, whatever. And it was one guy, he was my first sponsor, his name was Odie Burton and he was watching me. And we'd go out back and we would smoke at the time I smoked. He was an alcoholic, so he would call me on and he said, "Man, you should go to these meetings I'm going to," and I used to be like, "I'm not going to no meetings." And-
Adam Kaufman: So he was a recovering alcoholic at that point when you met him?
Waverly Willis: Yes, he was in treatment. And I had gotten myself in a jam, I was in the projects and I had his phone number. And the way I used to get my crack, I was always a large guy, so I used to basically mug or manhandle the young crack dealers, the 13, 14 year olds, take their drugs. And I was inside of a project apartment, and the lady whose apartment was, she came in and she said, "I don't know what you just did or who you hurt to get these drugs, but it is Carlos with people with guns and they described you and they are going to kill you. You got to get outta here." So I called my friend-
Adam Kaufman: Because you didn't have a firearm or a-
Waverly Willis: No.
Adam Kaufman: ... group that protected you or anything?
Waverly Willis: No.
Adam Kaufman: You were solo?
Waverly Willis: Yeah. So I called my friend from barber college who was in recovery and he told me, "I can't come in there, but when I call you back, come running out." And he called me back in about 15 minutes, he said, "Come out there right now." And I came out, I saw the guys that were looking for me, I dove in his back seat and he took me to Y-Haven. And I would have been killed that day. The-
Adam Kaufman: Y-Haven?
Waverly Willis: Yeah, the YMCA.
Adam Kaufman: Okay.
Waverly Willis: I was assessed, I was suicidal at the time, so they sent me to University Hospital just to be checked out mentally. And they said I had mental and emotional problems. So they sent me back to Y-Haven and I was there for two years and one day.
Adam Kaufman: Hmm, you lived there?
Waverly Willis: Yeah, it was a treatment facility. You can live there if you wanted to. It wasn't jail, you can leave anytime you wanted to. But that was my bottom right there, man.
Adam Kaufman: And I know it's not easy when you begin to try to get sober, often we slip. The one day at a time moniker even becomes one hour at a time.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, I went one second, one minute at a time. And it was some very crucial days and time for me. I never had a relapse, thank God.
Adam Kaufman: That's amazing.
Waverly Willis: I just keep in mind what I went through, and still to this day to get here, I'm always going to be a work in progress as we all are, but ... And I know that now I'm being watched and I'm being dependent on not just my family, but literally people that's walking past the shop or people that see me inside of stores. It's really funny. So I know I'm being watched and I know that I'm inspiring people and I accept that.
Adam Kaufman: It's a responsibility, yes.
Waverly Willis: Yeah.
Adam Kaufman: You're prescient because I planned on asking you later, do you ever think about who you're role modeling for? Who else maybe, is looking up to you? Either people who know you or people who just observe your story.
Waverly Willis: I know people that know my story from what I just told you about far as recovery, I know people in the business world, small business owners are looking at me. I'm also an instructor at a barber college and it's amazing when we get a new class of students that come in, some of them know me, or if they don't know me, they know my shop. When they I say, I-
Adam Kaufman: Well, you're definitely a celebrity in your world. I mean, you're a known person.
Waverly Willis: And-
Adam Kaufman: That's why at the beginning, I said, people try to fabricate being an influencer, you actually truly are an Influencer, capital I.
Waverly Willis: And I appreciate that. And I do hear that quite a bit, but I'm a regular guy, man. I'm just accepting the blessings that God continuously gives me as well as the responsibility that comes with those blessings. I wouldn't trade my worst day today for my best day back then.
Adam Kaufman: Mm-hmm (affirmative), powerful. Thank you for that more descriptive opening, really helpful to understand your story. Waverly, describe your business today, regardless of the pandemic, tell us what you do and-
Waverly Willis: This is my elevator speech, Urban Kutz Barbershop is one barbershop in two locations.
Adam Kaufman: It's great. So you run a couple barbershops?
Waverly Willis: I run a couple of barbershops, but more important to me, this is what I tell people, I tell people, "My barbershops are community centers that you can happen to get a haircut at."
Adam Kaufman: Mm-hmm (affirmative), I love that.
Waverly Willis: And that's how I-
Adam Kaufman: And truly is.
Waverly Willis: Right.
Adam Kaufman: I see all that goes on there.
Waverly Willis: And that's how I birthed the Urban Barber Association because people are going to come to barbershops, they've always been gathering places for many, many years. So with that-
Adam Kaufman: Decades.
Waverly Willis: Exactly. Well-
Adam Kaufman: Even more.
Waverly Willis: Yeah. Since the time of the Romans and the Egyptians-
Adam Kaufman: The beginning of hair.
Waverly Willis: Yeah. They were called Roman bathhouses.
Adam Kaufman: A sidebar, I guess it's probably fortunate you and I don't have hair. I mean, we have so much charisma. I mean, it wouldn't be fair.
Waverly Willis: It can not be fair.
Adam Kaufman: I mean, we need to be handicapped a little bit, I guess.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, it keeps us humble.
Adam Kaufman: That's right. Okay, so continue, [crosstalk 00:19:19] you have two barbershops that are major focal points of the respective communities.
Waverly Willis: Right. And when I meet with my students, I always challenge them to say what's going to make your business stand apart. And I tell them about what makes my business stand apart. And there's three different things, Adam, it's professionalism, multiculturalism, and availability.
Adam Kaufman: Hmm, professionalism, multiculturalism, and availability.
Waverly Willis: Right.
Adam Kaufman: What do you mean by available?
Waverly Willis: Availability means both my locations are open seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Adam Kaufman: Oh, I didn't know that. That's tremendous.
Waverly Willis: Right.
Adam Kaufman: And I know you do the fun, like back to school programs-
Waverly Willis: I'll always do the back to school haircut.
Adam Kaufman: ... read a book, we'll give you a free haircut.
Waverly Willis: Yeah.
Adam Kaufman: Amazing.
Waverly Willis: All of that stuff, the blood pressure checks, things of that nature. When I leave here today, actually I'm going to go cut here at One Love Community Church, practicing with our PEP and all that good stuff.
Adam Kaufman: That's tremendous.
Waverly Willis: But it's just in my blood to do that type of thing. And I tell them, "If you really believe in your ... whatever it is you do, give it away." And my students always look like, "I'm going through all of this school and all this mess that you instructors are giving us to be giving it away?" I say, "But the thing is, and if you give it away, people will remember it." And they'll go out and tell 10 people about it. And if the service is good, people will support you.
Adam Kaufman: And you've seen-
Waverly Willis: I've seen it.
Adam Kaufman: ... in your own in your own career?
Waverly Willis: Yeah.
Dave Douglas: You're listening to the Up2 podcast. We'll be right back.
Adam Kaufman: Hello. My name is Adam Kaufman, and I'm thankful you're joining us today on the Up2 podcast. I want to tell you about a group that I'm grateful for, and that is TownHall, Cleveland's most popular restaurant and one that I can say is the only place my wife tells me she can eat every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. TownHall was the first all non-GMO restaurant in the US a few years ago and they're now expanding into Columbus, Ohio soon. I'm also very selective about who we choose to partner with for this podcast and it was with open arms that I embraced the idea of partnering with Bobby George and TownHall. To learn more about what they're up to, you can visit townhallohiocity.com.
Adam Kaufman: One of the aspects of podcasting I enjoy the most is the ability to delve into long form discussions without any interruption, other than a periodic commentary about one of our partners. I'm grateful that Calfee, Ohio based law firm has agreed to partner with us. They have offices throughout Ohio and also in Washington, D.C., in New York, and Indianapolis too. They are a full service firm, every type of legal need. One example I'll share right now because so many of our listeners are entrepreneurs is not too long ago, a friend of mine sold his company to a public corporation. And with that came some restrictions and ramifications on his future employment.
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Dave Douglas: Welcome back to the UP2 podcast with Adam Kaufman. Today's guest, Waverly Willis.
Adam Kaufman: Do you think the neighborhood barber's shop will return to its place now that we are still struggling with COVID?
Waverly Willis: Whoa, before I answer that, let me say this. I probably get on people's nerves because I'm an incredibly optimistic guy.
Adam Kaufman: I love that about you and I am too, we're both glass half full people.
Waverly Willis: Right. When I was in treatment, I should say, we had to meet every day. And one of the treatment facilitators, the RAs, he was a professional and he had been in recovery and all my statements was always positive. And he says, "Waverly, you always look at life ..." He was an older gentleman "... through rose colored lenses." And he's like, "I'm happy you feel that way now, but it's going to wear off." So I went through treatment, I went there two years, went and worked at a barbershop for three years, opened up my shop, but I would always go back to the treatment center and now his name was Larry, he got arrested. So I said, "Larry, I'm still looking through those rose colored lenses." He's like, "Man, I don't know how you doing it, but I guess you are, man."
Adam Kaufman: It's a great quality to have.
Waverly Willis: It works. So I'm a glass is half full type of guy. So I truly wholeheartedly believe that not just the barbershop, but business, we will survive this, people. That's what we do as human beings, we survive.
Adam Kaufman: We're resilient.
Waverly Willis: Well, we're going to be okay. It might take a few years, but we're going to be all right. The economy is going to be okay, some people are going to go out of business, unfortunately, some people are going to lose their lives behind this, but as a society as a whole, we will survive this.
Adam Kaufman: I was going to ask you, if you could to policy makers, what would you recommend they do in terms of you being a small business owner. But now mid question here, I'm realizing you do talk to policy makers, you have the mayor getting haircuts in your shop and running around senators and the governor. So do they ever ask your opinion or do you ever give them a real entrepreneur's view on what needs to be done or not done?
Waverly Willis: Yeah. The mayor and his administration, a few senators, they do tap into me because they know that I'm boots on the ground. And so they do ask for my opinion.
Adam Kaufman: Are you able to shared all like the types of things you recommend to them, whether it's safety measures or when to open or whatever the topic?
Waverly Willis: Everything that you just said, I've helped out on a few committees to safely reopen of barbershops and business in general as far as how the phases should go. The team that was put together for the governor, I helped that out.
Adam Kaufman: If that's not tricky enough, we're also dealing with race relation issues right now on top of that.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, yeah.
Adam Kaufman: How do you think about racial equality in 2020?
Waverly Willis: We definitely have a long way to go, but again, I'm a glass is half full type of guy. We've came a long way. And I put up a post right when the protest/riots was happening, and I was telling them, "Stop with the violence." And then I put up another post on Facebook saying, "Do you think the violence was needed?" This was after the three officers got arrested. And I stood on my platform as, "I don't think that we needed the violence."
Adam Kaufman: Did you get reactions to that comment?
Waverly Willis: Yeah. And one thing that I really like about the culture that I make at Urban Kutz Barbershop is a multicultural shop. Remember, professionalism, multiculturalism-
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, one of your three points.
Waverly Willis: ... and availability. So we have black, white, Asian. We have many cultures, races, and lifestyles that come into the shop. So we foster those hard conversations and they know it's a safe zone, your opinion is your opinion. Believe I've got a lot of Trump's supporters that come in and sometime I'm referring, "Hey, hey, hey," I got to calm people down a little bit.
Adam Kaufman: That's what's fun about a barbershop in a non-pandemic, non-racial strife situation. I used to love going in and hearing whether you're arguing about sports or politics or current events.
Waverly Willis: Right. But as to what's going on now-
Adam Kaufman: These are hotter topics, there's a lot of heat.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, people came in and they challenged me and they said that the violence was necessary in order for those cops, those three officers to get arrested. And they started naming several different cases in the past. And then they came down to Tamir Rice. And he's like, "Tamir Rice literally got murdered down the street from your shop, Wave, in your backyard." And I didn't know the young man, but I could literally walk to the Cudell Rec, I could be there in five minutes from my shop. And they said that officer, while he eventually got fired from the Cleveland Police Department, he's an officer in a different area. His family's doing well, they're fine. And this man lost his life and his mother is still grieving her son's loss and they're still touring around to stop police violence.
Waverly Willis: And they said, "We try peacefully protesting through all the people that we mentioned and nothing had. We talked about it for a week, two weeks, we'd have a memorial ceremony every now and then, let some balloons up, but nothing happened." So they challenged me, they said, "The violence had to happen to let the powers that be known that it's going to keep going on if you don't arrest those officers." So I'm on the fence with it.
Adam Kaufman: Wave, I give you lot of credit for creating that safe space to communicate. If it's truly a welcome place for diverse ideas, which is getting rarer and rarer in America and digitally, I give you a lot of credit. I try to create those safe spaces and it's hard to do because we need to let the people with the strong views share their views, and it takes a lot of diplomacy. And I try to be a better listener and it's hard to bite your tongue sometimes, but I'd give you a lot of credit for creating that environment. It's getting harder and harder to do.
Waverly Willis: What I try to do, Adam, is this, I don't care who it is or what issue it is, whether it's racial, economic, family, whatever, we all have more similarities than there is differences.
Adam Kaufman: Absolutely.
Waverly Willis: I got bills, you got bills. Your wife is smarter than you, my wife is smarter than me.
Adam Kaufman: Definitely.
Waverly Willis: Right, exactly. So it's more similarities with you, me, and an Indian gentlemen across the globe right now, we all have families-
Adam Kaufman: Worries about our kids or our loved ones.
Waverly Willis: Exactly.
Adam Kaufman: Even different faith systems have a lot in common.
Waverly Willis: Right, exactly.
Adam Kaufman: Treat others like you want to be treated.
Waverly Willis: Right, exactly. Right.
Adam Kaufman: How basic is that?
Waverly Willis: Right. We all are men, we all are women, we all have premature balding, we got ... It's more similarity. So it's this one issue that's divisiveness. And I think that we need to embrace the fact that that doesn't make you a bad person because you like this person's policy.
Adam Kaufman: Yes. Hearing you talk about this willingness to hear different points of view and building on similarities, you make it sound so easy. A lot of people don't find it as easy as you do. I wonder where this ease comes from. Do you think maybe it's all that you've had to overcome yourself that you've realized not to sweat the small stuff, so to speak?
Waverly Willis: It definitely comes from that because I've been that guy that got beat up, I've been in the street. I've been the guy that got spit on and cursed at. I've been that guy. I've been on the other side of the fence. I was to do [inaudible 00:31:10].
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, you've had your low periods.
Waverly Willis: Yeah.
Adam Kaufman: What do you think it's going to take for us to get to where we need to be with race relations? It's such a complex topic, but I need to speak about it with you because I love our friendship and I love your view on some of these things.
Waverly Willis: This is what I told one of my clients, he's a white gentleman, "It's easy to stand up for black people when all you got is black people in this room right now. I need you to do it amongst your peer group. You got to call it out." I need someone of another ethnicity to sing my praises when I'm not in the room and vice versa when they get to talking about white people, "Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, no, that's not right."
Adam Kaufman: We need to be advocates for each other.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, we need to be advocates.
Adam Kaufman: I like that. That's a good challenge for me even, so thank you.
Waverly Willis: Yeah.
Adam Kaufman: I really do enjoy our friendship and I feel like you make me a better person. Do you think that there's anyone in your life ... Where does forgiveness in your life exists? Have you had to forgive anybody or have you had to ask anyone close to you to forgive you?
Waverly Willis: Yeah, when I was first in recovery, I had to sit both my daughters down, I had to ask for their forgiveness and I literally told them, "I don't know how to be a father." And I'm asking some seven, eight year old kids this. So we got to feel our way around, I need your help.
Adam Kaufman: This was part of the 12 steps.
Waverly Willis: Well, yeah, actually it was. I mean, at the time it wasn't saying I got to do my step, it was just part of me being a father.
Adam Kaufman: That's tremendous. So you'd want to do that on your own in spite of their youth, to have that heavy conversation,
Waverly Willis: Right. Yeah. So I'm sitting inside of my church at the time with a seven and eight year old, they're slouching the shoulders like, "All right, well start by taking us to get some ice cream."
Adam Kaufman: Right. What time show is over. Exactly.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, let's get the hell out of-
Adam Kaufman: [crosstalk 00:33:15] a seven and eight year old.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, exactly.0
Adam Kaufman: Do you talk about those things now reflecting back on those important periods in your life now-
Waverly Willis: Yeah, yeah.
Adam Kaufman: ... that you're in a different season with your older children?
Waverly Willis: Absolutely, absolutely. I talk to-
Adam Kaufman: I'm sure they're proud of you.
Waverly Willis: Yeah. And my greatest aspiration was for my kids to say, "I'm proud of my father." Everything else is second to that.
Adam Kaufman: Well, I've met thankfully, a couple of your children and I can see in their eyes how proud they are of you.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, yeah.
Adam Kaufman: How many children do you have?
Waverly Willis: Well, biologically, I got two, but I don't believe in step and things of that nature. My wife has three kids and so I got five kids and two nieces and a grandson. So, that's eight.
Adam Kaufman: And it's a pretty busy household at the Willis residence, right?
Waverly Willis: It's always a fun time at the Willis household.
Adam Kaufman: I know a lot of people have influences that help catapult them to new levels of success, whether it's personal or professional success, is there anyone in your life that you can look back to that really helped you either get out of a rut or take it to the next level? I know you mentioned one sponsor at one point in your recovery life, but how about either professionally or even personally, someone you've really been able to lean on?
Waverly Willis: Professionally, I'll say two entities, the Urban League of Greater Cleveland and JumpStart Inc.
Adam Kaufman: Okay, let's start with the Urban League, how did they help you?
Waverly Willis: The Urban League helped me because they showed me how important networking is. And-
Adam Kaufman: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. People say networking now is a bad word, I love networking. It's just a matter of what you do with the networking.
Waverly Willis: Networking to me, in my opinion, is probably the most important thing that I've ever done as far as business, and you know what? And personal. As far as business and personal, networking and-
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, I met my wife through networking, so to speak, not for the purpose of meeting my wife, but through getting to know people and one person leads to the next person.
Waverly Willis: Exactly.
Adam Kaufman: And in our case, it was a Bible study community of Lebanese people and that's how I met my eventual wife. So, that's a form of networking.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, absolutely. Networking professionally and personally has been instrumental for me. So-
Adam Kaufman: And how did JumpStart help you? JumpStart is a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs.
Waverly Willis: Entrepreneurs here in Cleveland and I think they branched out to some other cities in Ohio.
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, and not just tech entrepreneurs, but also retailers like you and even food entrepreneurs.
Waverly Willis: JumpStart, they're the tech heads. So-
Adam Kaufman: The tech heads.
Waverly Willis: ... in my opinion, that's my nickname for them. They really polished me up, they helped me dot my I's and cross my T's, and then business plan, but so did the Urban League, but I go down to both entities and they are a constant resource for me.
Adam Kaufman: Marketing plans or-
Waverly Willis: Marketing.
Adam Kaufman: ... budgets.
Waverly Willis: Budgets, all that good stuff. And so those entities helped me out a lot.
Adam Kaufman: Wait, now that I think about it, you and I met through JumpStart actually.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, we met through JumpStart.
Adam Kaufman: It's in that context we met.
Waverly Willis: Individually, Mayor Jackson. And for the record, Mayor Jackson and I are not like best friends like people think, but the conversations that I have had with Mayor Jackson have been instrumental. What drew me to Mayor Jackson, and his people don't know this, Mayor Jackson is a machinist-
Adam Kaufman: Hmm, I didn't know that.
Waverly Willis: ... at his core. I mean he eventually got his law degree. He went into law school by chance, his wife actually filled out the application for him many years ago. And so he had some very humble beginnings. So Mayor Jackson and Dr. Boutros from Metro.
Adam Kaufman: Well, you introduced me to the Mayor at your wedding. I couldn't believe he was the efficient in your wedding.
Waverly Willis: Yes.
Adam Kaufman: That's impressive.
Waverly Willis: Yes.
Adam Kaufman: And then Dr. Akram Boutros, a good Arab American healthcare leader.
Waverly Willis: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yep.
Adam Kaufman: How has he helped you? You collaborate on some things?
Waverly Willis: Well, Metro Hospital, we've done some things with my blood pressure, my health initiatives at my shop, but that was aside from Dr. Boutros. Dr. Boutros came in and got haircuts a couple of times and we got-
Adam Kaufman: Just by chance, he came in at first?
Waverly Willis: Well, there's more story. It was a really Nice range Rover. One morning, I opened up early, there is a Range Rover sitting outside. I finished my client up, this gentleman walks in. I'm asking him questions, he says, "I work at Metro," and he's keeps just drilling me with questions about Metro Hospital, "How are people viewing Metro Hospital?" And I'm like, "Well, you know what? Now that I think about Metro, it has really come along over the years." And so I stopped and I'm like, "Okay, who are you? What do you do at Metro?" And he paused and hesitated and he said, "I'm the CEO."
Adam Kaufman: Good thing you were complimenting the institution.
Waverly Willis: Right, well, I was being honest. Metro over the years, growing up in Cleveland, Metro did not have the greatest reputation. And so I said, "So let me get this straight, you're the man at Metro." And he hesitated again, he's a really humble guy, which is one of the things I like about him.
Adam Kaufman: He is.
Waverly Willis: He's like, "Yeah, I guess you could say that." And I said, "Well, how did you find me?" And he said, "Well, Mayor Jackson sent me over here."
Adam Kaufman: Oh, perfect. Okay.
Waverly Willis: And so I cut his hair a few more times and I've seen him at a few galas and every now and then I'll request a meeting with him, and he always makes time just to sit down and talk to me for an hour-
Adam Kaufman: Wonderful.
Waverly Willis: ... about life and things of that nature. And it's important to have those conversations with people that are where you want to be in life.
Adam Kaufman: Definitely.
Waverly Willis: Not just business wise, but he's a good person. Mayor Jackson is a good person, whether you like the way he runs Cleveland or not, he's a good person. And that's important to me.
Adam Kaufman: It's definitely important, and it's terrific that Dr. Boutros gives you that time. Do you think about your own legacy? Are you giving time to others as a part of your longterm vision for what you want to be known for?
Waverly Willis: I recently have started thinking about my legacy, but-
Adam Kaufman: I mean, you're still young, don't get me wrong, but I just wonder if someone with your type of influence if that ever comes to mind.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, I think, again, I just recently I started thinking about my legacy and what imprint I want to leave on people when I'm no longer on this earth, but that is not what has been driving me. It's just-
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, I know you're trying to be humble here and not be prideful. David Brooks, one of my favorite thinkers, he writes in the New York Times now, but he gave a Ted Talk maybe two years ago now. And he talked about two documents, your resume and your eulogy. Now, which one are you spending more time working on? And when you think about it that way, if you're working more on your eulogy, that's not a bad thing. That's the-
Waverly Willis: Right, I'm definitely working more on my eulogy.
Adam Kaufman: Right, right. So what types of things do you think people say now or will say in the future about you? Or what do you hope that they say?
Waverly Willis: Well, I just want them to say, "Man, Waverly, that was a good dude." And-
Adam Kaufman: I'm pretty sure that will be said. And you're always stylish, you've got those cool butterfly sunglasses and always dressed up and you're always beating me. I feel good when I work out in the mornings and I wake up and online, you're already done with your workout by the time I'd get going at 6:30 or so.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, and I like to share that with people and I share my honest emotions when I do it like, "I hate being here." You know what I'm saying? Up in the morning.
Adam Kaufman: At the gym.
Waverly Willis: Yeah, at the gym or-
Adam Kaufman: Not here, you love being here at the Up2 podcast.
Waverly Willis: I love being here at the Up2 podcast, of course. But people say, "Man, you like workout here." And honestly, during the quarantine time, I severely fell off like everybody else. And I'm human and that's the most important thing. People's like, "Wave, man, you really got it going on." And look, man, I'll say, "Man, I've got a ton of bills at home, my kids is going crazy, my car is acting up."
Adam Kaufman: My stores aren't open because of COVID.
Waverly Willis: Right. And I just appreciate the warm regards, but I'm a regular person like everyone else, man.
Adam Kaufman: Well, the truth is, the authenticity brings people closer to us. Not the Range Rovers and the-
Waverly Willis: Right, exactly.
Adam Kaufman: ... accomplishments, but rather the challenges. And that's why I wanted to start with your recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction because people can relate to that more than they can with the successes. I have no doubt about that.
Waverly Willis: I always want people to see the human in me, just the regular human being with problems. I'm one of them and they are me, I'm them and they're me.
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, absolutely.
Waverly Willis: And that's that.
Adam Kaufman: What are you most excited about? Looking ahead, Waverly?
Waverly Willis: I'm looking forward to the day that I can hug you. I like smiling, man. And I'm like-
Adam Kaufman: It's contagious around you.
Waverly Willis: I've told you when I was a drug addict on the streets, I was very well groomed. And with these doggone mask on, man, I'm like, "I trim my beard up for you guys today, Adam, but like any other day, I'm walking around looking like grizzly." I'm like, "Forget it," because-
Adam Kaufman: Yeah, no need to.
Waverly Willis: ... I got to wear a mask on anyway. And at the shop, I wear a mask and I wear a plastic shield. So I can't wait to take the mask off and smile at people and hug people and give people some love, man.
Adam Kaufman: What gives you the most hope right now?
Waverly Willis: Like we spoke of earlier, we're resilient. My rose colored lenses, I guess. I don't know how we're going to do it, don't ask me all the technical stuff, I just know that we're going to do it.
Adam Kaufman: Well, your optimism alone is part of how we're going to do it. And I'm just so optimistic about your future seeing the drive you've already showed us and then also your resilience. I have no doubt that great things lie ahead for you.
Waverly Willis: I appreciate that.
Adam Kaufman: You're an influence to many and you make me a better person. So thank you for joining us today, Waverly. It's really been a special conversation.
Waverly Willis: It's always a pleasure anytime I can do anything for you, Adam, please.
Adam Kaufman: Thank you. Boy, Dave, a lot to take in there. I love how Waverly articulates some of these powerful moments in his life and how he's had to overcome them. Some takeaways for us to think about. Number one, is awareness that he's being watched. I thought that was impressive. Accepting the responsibility of being a role model for others. I didn't even have to ask him about that and I often ask people about that. Number two, professionalism, multiculturalism, and availability. These are the key tenants of his business philosophy. Number three, I really respect Waverly's efforts to create a safe environment where everyone can feel comfortable expressing their views on the topics of the day. Frankly, we need more places where all viewpoints are truly welcomed.
Adam Kaufman: Number four, really timely how Waverly spoke of the importance of white Americans to be an advocate for black Americans, even when black Americans are not in the room listening. I hadn't thought about it quite that way, very helpful. And number five is emphasis on the fact that he's just a normal guy with the same concerns and problems and goals as everyone else, in spite of the significant influence Waverly has on others. I thought his humanness really came out when he said that.
Dave Douglas: Hey, Adam. And the other thing that I wanted to quickly mention is, we have so many things in common, we're all going through challenging times, especially right now, and Waverly did a good job to remind us that we have a lot more in common than we have differently.
Adam Kaufman: Absolutely, absolutely. Thank you.
Dave Douglas: Do we have any listener mail today?
Adam Kaufman: We always enjoy getting listener mail and text and email messages. Today, one comes anonymously, Dave, "I listened to your most recent Up2 installment with General Lenderman. And wow, what a podcast that was. Frankly, I could have listened to another hour of her conversation and it fast became one of my favorites. I don't know if General Lenderman is a writer, but I would enjoy reading a book about her experiences and life lessons learned over her time in the service and in her life.
Adam Kaufman: There were so many takeaways and in particular, I found it interesting how her days are better when started with prayer and also her thoughts about listening and how important that is. This is particularly true nowadays with all that's going on in the world. And it makes me think of the quote, 'Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.' What a great life lesson. In any event, well done to both you and more importantly to General Lenderman, I sure do enjoy the podcast."
Dave Douglas: Wow.
Adam Kaufman: That's nice.
Dave Douglas: That was a really fantastic episode, it was really great talking to her.
Adam Kaufman: So please continue to give us your feedback, give us your ideas on topics, on potential speakers or guests, and we will look forward to hearing from you. Up2 is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. A special thanks to our producer and audio engineer, Dave Douglas. I'm your host, Adam Kaufman, and thank you so much for listening to the Up2 podcast.
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