2014 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"We must give back in order to move forward."
David "Dave" Steward was born in Chicago in 1951, but was raised on a farm in his mother's hometown of Clinton, Missouri. "When my mother was ready to start high school, the local high school in Clinton didn't allow black students," he says. "Her parents wanted her to finish her education, so they moved to Chicago. My grandfather did factory work in Chicago during World War II, which is when my parents met and married. I was the fifth of their eight children, the last one born in the city. Right after my birth, our family returned to Missouri."
The Stewards lived in a small house with no indoor plumbing or heating, on the edge of town. They raised cows and pigs, churned their butter, and grew vegetables. All the children were responsible for the many daily chores required in such an environment. "My jobs included emptying the chamber pots, shaking down the ash in the potbelly stove and then spreading that on the driveway for traction, cleaning the barn, feeding the cows and pigs, milking the cow and skimming the cream for the butter churn—our chores seemed endless," says Dave. "But it was just the way we grew up, and it was all just a part of our lives."
Dave's father worked as a personal mechanic; he also ran a janitorial service and hauled trash and coal with his truck. Occasionally he worked as a night watchman or guard and also tended bar at parties. "My father was the first entrepreneur I ever knew," says Dave. "He was an entrepreneur out of necessity. We probably would have qualified for welfare, but my father was proud, and he did what he had to do to support his wife and children. He was a master mechanic and should have been able to make good money working at the nearby power company, but they weren't hiring people of color. He and my mother were caring and committed to the next generation. Having two parents who understood their roles and their responsibilities, and then watching them work together to provide for their family, made them the best teachers in the world."
When Dave started first grade, he was the first person of color to attend Clinton's newly integrated elementary school. In town his family was not allowed to eat in white-only restaurants, had to sit in the balcony at the local theater, and was barred from public pools. But Dave's parents taught their children to forgive, to be self-reliant, and to take control of their own destinies.
Dave was part of a small group of African-American high school students who integrated Clinton's public swimming pool in 1967. "I was the only African-American male in my high school class," says Dave. "My experiences with forced integration taught me at a young age how to get along with and work well with people from other experiences and perspectives. My people skills have served me well in my career."
In addition to his parents, Dave was influenced by many people in his community. "I had good role models who reinforced what my parents were teaching me," he says. "Our minister at church, or my Boy Scout leader, or some of the teachers or coaches I had—they all influenced me and taught me about discipline, teamwork, and having a positive attitude."
Dave, who is 6-foot-5, played basketball in high school. He started college at Central Missouri State University as a walk-on player, but his skills on the court eventually earned him a scholarship. In 1973 he graduated with a degree in business administration, making him the first male in his family to graduate college.
Dave decided he wanted to go to St. Louis to begin his career. He had an older sister living there, and she agreed to let him live with her until he became established. Dave hitchhiked to St. Louis and worked as a substitute teacher while applying for full-time jobs. He became an executive for the Boy Scouts of America for a short time and then joined Wagner Electric in 1974.
A year later, when the company went out of business, Dave accepted a marketing and sales position with the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company. He was the company's first person of color hired to sell rail services.
In 1979 Dave joined Federal Express as a senior account executive. His skills in that position earned him Salesman of the Year in 1981, which also put him into the Federal Express Sales Hall of Fame. "I was very excited to earn this honor," says Dave. "On the day of the ceremony, I was given a silver ice bucket with my initials engraved on it. I was enjoying my job; I liked the company, but when I looked inside that bucket, I saw that it was empty. That sort of hit me then that there was an emptiness and a confinement to working for someone else. That's when I really started thinking about buying my own business."
In 1984 Dave borrowed $2,000 from his father for a term of three weeks, and he leveraged his railroad experience to purchase and launch Transportation Business Specialists, which audited and reviewed freight-bill and overcharges for the railroad industry. In 1987 he founded a sister company, Transport Administrative Service, which audited undercharges for the railroad companies.
In 1990 Mr. Steward founded World Wide Technology, Inc., to distribute computer hardware, software, and services to the federal government. The company has grown to become the leading supplier of advanced technology solutions to the U.S. government and ranks as one of the leading Cisco partners in North America. With more than 2,700 employees, after starting with only five, World Wide Technology has offices around the globe.
Dave credits the free-enterprise system and the American culture for much of his success in business. "The breadth and depth of opportunities we have here, coupled with a culture that allows you to be all you can be, makes it possible for anyone to be successful," says Dave. "We have a competitive edge over other countries, and it is important for us to preserve that. It's great that my story is only one of millions in America. I feel blessed to live in this great country."
Dave's deep Christian faith also plays an important role in his life. In 2004 he wrote a book with Robert L. Shook called Doing Business by the Good Book: 52 Lessons on Success Straight from the Bible. In the foreword, President George H.W. Bush says of Dave Steward, "His story of success epitomizes the American Dream, and his example is an inspiration to us all."
Mr. Steward is the chairman emeritus of the Board of Directors of Variety the Children's Charity of St. Louis, president of the Central Region of Boy Scouts of America and a member of the Board of Curators for the University of Missouri System. In 2006 he was named St. Louis Variety's Man of the Year, which shows the impact he has had on the city. In 2008 Mr. Steward received the National Urban League's Business Pioneer Award. He also received the Dr. William D. Phillips Technology Award from the St. Louis County Economic Council.
Mr. Steward served on numerous committees and boards, including Civic Progress of St. Louis, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association; the Regional Business Council; Webster University; St. Louis Science Center; United Way of Greater St. Louis Executive Committee; the Greater St. Louis Area Council of Boy Scouts of America; Harris-Stowe State University African American Business Leadership Council, and more.
Dave Steward is the recipient of three honorary doctorate degrees in humane letters in recognition of his work in the community. His degrees come from Harris Stowe State University; Lindenwood University; and the third, which is being awarded in the spring of 2014 to both Dave and Thelma Steward, is from St. Louis University.
"I believe it takes a community to raise a child," says Mr. Steward. "Serving in our communities is a responsibility we all share. We have a personal obligation to help the next generation, as they are the future of this great nation. That is why I am so honored to become a member of the Horatio Alger Association. I want to be a part of the Scholar program, and let them know that we are here to support them in their goals of higher education. We believe in them, and we believe in the future of America."