I had the good fortune of interviewing Fulton Breen, CEO of XSInc and Founder of Novareté. His story not only inspired the vision behind Novareté, it also empowers us all to give a little to make the world a better place.
Through his story I hope you learn to “pass it on,” creating a powerful culture and a happy life.
Q: What was your childhood like?
My four sisters and I enjoyed a good childhood. Our modest upbringing encouraged independence while structure was provided through family rules and strict weekly attendance at Mass. My father struggled with alcohol with my mother keeping us afloat working night shifts while attending school to earn her nursing degree. In retrospect, I consider the experiences and lessons learned during this period to be some of the most valuable and rewarding of my formative years. However, at the time, all I recall was the desire to “get away” and college seemed to provide the opportunity to do that.
Q: Even though you grew up in Georgia you attended Clemson University. How did you decide to go out of state?
Most of my friends were going to Georgia Tech, Georgia and Davidson as I recall. Although I had many friends in high school, I remember wanting to start from scratch; go someplace different. Clemson entered my short list of possibilities when I inquired about a football pennant hanging in my cousin’s bedroom. He was a Georgia Tech graduate and explained that Clemson was a respected school located in South Carolina. I suspect he was referring to Clemson’s football prowess now that I think about it.
Anyway, growing up in the small town of Decatur, Georgia, you’d hear nice things about Clemson, but it all seemed very far removed from my life. That is until I turned 17 and decided that I just had to go Clemson University. I had never visited Clemson, didn’t know of anyone that had been there and had no idea what they offered. But for some reason, it just seemed like the place for me. So I set my mind to it. In fact, I set my mind to it so much so, that it was the only college I applied to for admission. Apparently, intuition was a powerful influence in my decision process.
Q: Coming from a modest background, how did you afford school?
No one in my family was expected to go to college. And if they did go, there was no question that they’d have to pay their own way.
I distinctly recall that there was an $80 application fee, which I borrowed, and in turn begged the question, “How am I going to pay for this if I get in?” Working at roughly $3.00 an hour, my solution to this problem became a match against sheer numbers.
The summer before I was to begin my college career, I worked three jobs: I was a janitor, a golf course greens mower and a clerk at a plant store. I saved up enough to pay for my first semester tuition, a 5-day meal plan and a dorm room. I had no idea how I was going to pay for a second semester or if I’d even make it that far, but I suppose I was fueled by obsession and naïve optimism about my prospects. Like a lot of young people, I imagined that my acceptance letter somehow granted me immunity from my financial reality.
Q: Entomology 101 became an important class for you at Clemson. How did you come to register for it?
Since I was unable to attend orientation sessions (I had no car), I bought a one-way train ticket for $10.75 from Atlanta to Clemson station the weekend before classes were to begin. My sole possessions included a shoulder bag full of clothes and a cardboard box with items deemed dorm room worthy.
That first Monday, I registered for classes that were scheduled to begin on Wednesday. I distinctly recall the flurry of activity to sign up for elective courses that were easy and possibly even fun. Advice about these electives carried all the validity of a stock recommendation on the subway, but somehow I ended up with Entomology 101 under Dr. Tom Skelton. It was the clear favorite of the other late registrants in line for all the reasons you’d expect a teenager to desire: It was reported to be a relatively easy course with a nice professor.
Q: Tell me about your first interactions with Dr. Tom Skelton.
On the first day of Entomology 101, the professor, Dr. Tom Skelton, captured our attention immediately with his confident and enthusiastic persona. In an effort to gauge our understanding of entomology and agriculture in general, he asked various questions about insects, insecticides, and other general agricultural questions.
I recall answering one of the questions that had no other potential respondents: “Who knows what a ‘systemic pesticide’ is”? Having worked on the golf course and in the greenhouses where pesticides were used for one of my summer jobs, I knew the answer and basked in the delivery of my correct response.
After class, Dr. Skelton called me over to him. “What are you majoring in?” he inquired. “Microbiology” I replied. “Why microbiology?” I didn’t really know the answer. Before I could give it more thought, Dr. Skelton continued “I want you to change majors to Entomology.” Without considering what the career implications for an entomologist were or even considering if I liked entomology, I answered with an emphatic “Ok!”
Q: What was the impact of such a rash decision?
In retrospect, my choice made perfect sense. Here was this dynamic middle-aged professor showing genuine scholarly interest in an 18-year-old when I needed it most in my life….I’m pretty sure that I would have majored in home economics if he’d asked me to!
That day changed my life forever. Dr. Skelton arranged for scholarships and grants for my education. I didn’t pay another dime for my remaining 3.5 years at Clemson….and I even got to upgrade to a 7-day meal plan! Dr. Skelton became my mentor and friend. He has since counseled me in everything from investing (he had made his fortune in real-estate, banking and simply taught at Clemson out of love for the school), to career choices. He arranged for my first job and even visited me at my numerous overseas postings around the world.
Q: Dr. Skelton had such a huge impact on your life. What would you say the biggest impact was?
For reasons I can only begin to understand now as I approach my 59th birthday, this man changed my life forever with his kindness and attentiveness. One of Dr. Skelton’s early lessons to me was, “Fulton, make your money work for you. Save a little every day and you’ll let compounding to do its work assuring wealth.” I believe this was also a metaphor for his belief in the latent potential within all human beings; if you invest them, they will grow. I’m often reminded of Dr. Skelton, a virtuous man who invested a simple kindness in an impressionable young student.
Dr. Skelton’s simple act of charity profoundly changed my life in ways I could never have imagined at the time. And he did so with absolutely no possible benefit for himself in mind Why did he take me under his wing that day? I had absolutely nothing to offer him. Yet his simple act of kindness provided me and my family immeasurable benefit. The seed of kindness he planted in my life has grown into a profound sense of gratitude and desire to somehow “pass it on.”
I believe that we all are the beneficiaries of these kindnesses. If we think about it, the half-dozen or so pivotal people and events in all of our lives that have led to who we are today may likely have appeared insignificant at the time. The haphazard introduction to a friend of a friend who eventually becomes your spouse, the compliment from a stranger that awakens your desire to develop a latent talent the smile offered to a stranger that changes their day. Who can say which of these acts will set the course of another’s day and maybe their life?
These kindnesses “cost” you nothing yet some percentage of them result in a critical milestone in someone’s life. Imagine the impact, likely unbeknownst to you, of making a habit of offering simple kindnesses, mentorship or affirmations to those we encounter each day knowing that some percentage, albeit small, will change their life for the good.
Q: This gratitude and desire to pass it on – to impact others by helping without any expectation of thanks – is a huge driver in creating Novareté. Can you share a little more about that?
Human beings are naturally attracted to virtue; it’s one of our unique attributes. My life is full of people doing these sorts of acts of kindness as I’m sure yours is. Why do people do these beautiful things for others…others they may not even know and the impact they may never see?
Simply awakening or increasing our awareness of this attribute can impact our life. And in business, our organization’s culture. Novareté was developed to make virtue a part of the everyday conversation at work or in school thereby invigorating social engagement and culture.
As leaders, we are in a position to have even greater impact through kindness. Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Make kindness a habit and know that you are changing the world.
We all have so many opportunities every day to exercise simple acts of kindnesses. These acts cost us little or nothing and the impact of these gestures compound in a way that we can’t immediately measure but have proven to drive all successful organizations time and time again. Furthermore, the personal satisfaction derived from a shared kindness compounds into true happiness.
Founder and CEO of Novareté