The Apprenticeâ€™s Kwame Jackson Turns real estate Entrepreneur
The surprise TV hit of this past spring was, undoubtedly, the NBC reality series The Apprentice which went into its new season recently. Each week, everybody I know eagerly tuned-in with baited breath to see which contestant would get booted off the job search show by Donald Trump and his trusted brain trust.
Over the course of the season, colorful characters like the treacherous Omarosa, hell-on-wheels Heidi, farm boy Troy, brainy Amy and psycho Sam became so recognizable, for better or worse, that you almost felt like you knew them personally. And as the pool dwindled down to a precious few, a clear crowd favorite emerged in 29 year-old Kwame Jackson. Mild-mannered Jackson, a handsome, Harvard MBA hailing from Washington, D.C., endeared himself to America via an unassuming combination of class and grace. For instance, he credited his late mother, Marilyn, who died of cancer when he was only 15, with being the role model who instilled him with a serious work ethic and who inspired him to dream big dreams. So, when he lost to Bill on the season finale, the brother became the most beloved runner-up since Halle Berry came in second in the 1986 Miss USA Beauty Pageant. Riding the wave of his sudden fame, Kwame was slated to be a judge in the Miss Universe pageant, but was bumped for allegedly fraternizing with the babes. Recently, he announced that he had taken a page out of the Trump playbook by entering into a $3.8 billion-dollar real estate deal. The plans call for his company, Legacy Development Partners, to turn a 500-acre parcel of Prince Georges County, Maryland into a commercial and residential community tentatively called Rosewood. Named as a tribute to the upscale, African-American Florida community destroyed during a riot by racist whites in 1923, Jackson explains that, "one of the most important lessons I learned from Donald Trump is that real estate can be one of the most successful vehicles for the production of wealth. This project is about creating a lasting legacy of African-American entrepreneurialism on a grand scale, with a focus on ownership." I found the real-life Jackson to be surprisingly-serious and narrowly-focused, though this makes sense for a man facing all the challenges involved in creating, from scratch, a town with homes, restaurants, businesses, a hospital and a performing arts center, and expected to provide about 32,000 jobs.
KW: The first question I have to ask is why did you pick Omarosa to be on your team for the finale?
KJ: " Is this an article about Omarosa? That's not really what I want to talk about. I picked her because I never had any issues with her, I was one of the few people in the suite that she got along with, and I had no reason to believe that she would do what she actually did."
KW: Would you rather not talk about the show?
KJ: "I don't mind talking about the show. I realize that's why people know me, but I want to be clear that I'm not like some of the other contestants who are happy to talk about every episode."
KW: Were you prepared for the celebrity that flowed from being on The Apprentice?
KJ: "I don't think there is any preparation that you can have for that. I'm flattered and humbled by it, but I'm not focused on being a celebrity, I'm a businessman who's using celebrity as a form of business capital."
KW: Did you have a game strategy?
KJ: "To be myself, be accountable, and to conduct myself with dignity. And to act like I had home training, like we say in The South."
KW: Are you still in contact with your buddy on the show? What was his name, Clay?
KJ: "Troy. Clay was from American Idol."
KW: Sorry, Troy.
KJ: "Yes I am. And I'm in touch with a lot of people from the show."
KW: What was it like being in the Board Room with Trump?
KJ: "I was kind of nervous the first two or three times, but I spent the most time in the board room of anybody on the show. So, for me, it just became standard operating procedure. I focused on being accountable, looking Mr. Trump in the eye, not having fear, and telling the story of what actually happened. If I did, I said that I did good, and if I did bad, I said I did bad. I was always logical about why I made my decisions. I didn't try to create excuses, false stories or blame other people, because In the end, it was up to him, and I wanted to be able to hold my head high."
KW: Were the reports of you hitting on contestants at the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant true?
KJ: "That was inaccurate. I attended the pageant as a judge, one of the delegates recognized me from The Apprentice the day before the competition, and I said, 'Hello.' The security people freaked out, it was deemed interacting with the delegates and, therefore, I had to be dismissed. Where I come from, if someone says 'Hello' it's only polite to say 'Hello' back. But that's not interacting"
KW: Iâ€™m sure my female readership would like to know whether you're available.
KJ: "I'm single and I'm dating and I'm in New York City. But I'm really focused right now on business and taking things to a level people might not expect. All of my partners and I are serious business people. We've gone to all the right schools and worked for all the right companies. And now it's our turn to go from being employees to being employers. I hope people can appreciate that we're trying to be a part of business in its larger scale."
KW: So, tell me about your new billion-dollar project.
KJ: "Here's the background behind it. I started a holding company called Legacy Holdings as an outgrowth of being on The Apprentice. I used the show as a specific platform to launch business enterprises. It was never about reality TV, never about tabloids, but about using the platform to launch sustainable economic enterprises within the African American community."
KW: Why are you naming the development Rosewood?
KJ: "We chose Rosewood because we wanted to honor the memory of the town in Florida that was burned to the ground in 1923 over a racial incident. We believe that the original Rosewood community would be just like what we're planning in D.C., had it been allowed to flourish."
KW: Do you think that you might be picking a name that's controversial, given the history?
KJ: "It could be perceived to be controversial in the way that anything that's touchy could be somewhat controversial. Our neighborhood is completely inclusive. We want all people to live there. But obviously, because it is a predominantly African-American county with a high wealth base, we wanted to honor that and cater to the residents."
KW: But isn't the plan to be more urban than suburban?
KJ: "It's for people who want urban amenities in a suburban setting. It's called 'New Urbanism,' a thriving combining of residential, commercial and retail."
KW: What type of housing units will it have?
KJ: "It'll have everything. Free-standing condos, some luxury homes, buildings with retail on the first level and apartments above. It's a city-center concept, similar to places like Celebration in Orlando and Reston Town Center [in Virginia].â€?
KW: Is there any significance to the name Legacy, like there is to Rosewood?
KJ: "We call it Legacy because we're building a legacy of African-American entrepreneurialism."
KW: What interested you in real estate?
KJ: "As an outgrowth of Legacy Holdings, we entered the real estate space because from my time on Wall Street dealing with high-net worth individuals, I realized that real estate is the cornerstone of any wealthy individual's portfolio, and a great opportunity to build long-term wealth."
KW: What made you choose Maryland as a site?
KJ: "We chose Prince George's County, specifically, because the county has the highest, per capita, African-American income in the nation. Plus, I'm a native of the District of Columbia and it has a great location, right outside of D.C., ten miles from the White House."
KW: What does Donald Trump think of his apprentice following in his footsteps so quickly and becoming a real estate magnate?
KJ: "I have focused on my enterprises and I really haven't corresponded with him in regards to this. We'd welcome his input, but we're moving ahead."
KW: Suppose you had won on The Apprentice. What would you be doing now, working for Trump or on this project?
KJ: "If I had won, I probably would have done the job, and used that time to plan my personal enterprises. But like I said, the show, for me, was always a launch pad for entrepreneurial activities, whether it happened right away, or in a year."
KW: What stage is Rosewood at right now?
KJ: "What we've announced was a partnership and a vision. We're not groundbreaking or cutting checks yet. The hard work's just beginning. We're still looking for institutional and high-net worth investors. And we direct potential partners to our website kwamejackson.com. But our target date for groundbreaking is 2006."
KW: What do you think has been your most valuable educational experience?
KJ: "Life. Hardship. I lost my Mom when I was 15. Just the mental hardship of knowing that you have to be self-sufficient Learning that if you want something in this world, you have to be motivated and ambitious. Perseverance has been number one."
KW: What advice do you have to anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
KJ: "I don't believe in sitting on thrones. So I don't say 'This is how you should do things' or lecture to people. All I do is try to lead by example and do the best that I can. If people find that inspiring, then more power to them."