Visionary Business Leader Jim Keyes: ‘It’s Time to Create an Educated Workforce for the Information Age’

Amid a general atmosphere of ignorance and fear that’s being stoked by the internet and social media, the U.S. education system currently is under attack as irrelevant or beyond repair, Jim Keyes says. What’s urgently needed, he believes, is replacing this cycle of negativity with knowledge—and a new technology platform that will ‘take American education to the next level.’

In late May, James R. “Jim” Keyes was en route to Australia, the latest place he’d been invited to talk about his new book, “Education is Freedom.” Other invitations to speak had been pouring in from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai, even China.

In recent months, there’s no doubt the former CEO of then-Dallas-based Fortune 500 companies 7-Eleven Inc. (2000-2005) and Blockbuster (2007-2011) has been enjoying a revival of attention, appearing on podcasts and in TikTok and other videos (at least one has attracted millions of views, he says) as a corporate Yoda of sorts.

Jim Keyes

Keyes’s up-by-the-bootstraps story warrants the focus. Reared by factory-worker parents in Massachusetts in a small country home without running water or indoor plumbing, he worked his way through college—earning an undergraduate degree from the College of the Holy Cross, then an MBA from New York’s Columbia University—before starting his business career at Gulf Oil. Over the years he’s also been a philanthropist, an education advocate, and an investor in multiple technology enterprises.

In 2005, the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans gave Keyes its Horatio Alger Award, which recognizes “exceptional leaders who have triumphed over adversity to achieve greatness.” Last month, he received the 2024 Robert S. Folsom Leadership Award. Presented annually by the Methodist Health System Foundation, that award honors individuals who’ve made significant contributions to the community.

The following Q&A with Keyes, conducted by phone and email, has been edited for length and clarity.  

Jim, you’re now billed not just as a veteran CEO but as a corporate Yoda who leads “transformational social change.” What’s behind all this new-found adulation?

You’ve known me long enough, you can find the humor in it! But I think the simplest explanation is, one, I’m old. Yoda is old and wrinkly, but I think there’s a certain amount of wisdom associated with that, too. Second is that the brands, Blockbuster and 7-Eleven, are iconic brands that so many people grew up with and were such important parts of our culture over the years. And third, I think people are hungry for a new way of looking at knowledge. Because the explosion of social media and other forms of media have distorted everyone’s perception of what’s real and what’s not real—particularly now with AI coming into play.

I think people are hungry for a new way of looking at knowledge.

The subtitle of the book, ‘The future is in your hands,’ implies that it’s up to each one of us to have the discernment necessary to understand truth from fiction, and to elevate critical thinking to a new level so we can separate the politics from the reality—or the influence of someone who’s trying to motivate toward some objective, versus report the news. I think it’s the responsibility of all of us to get back to the fundamentals of learning that we all learned in grade school.

The dust wrapper of Jim Keyes’ book that explores the transformative power of education and its importance to personal freedom, democracy, and the future of mankind. [Image via Jim Keyes]

Can you succinctly describe the main point of “Education is Freedom”?

The purpose of “Education is Freedom” is to help others use learning—everything from formal education to lifelong learning—to unlock their full potential and to enjoy the ‘freedom’ to choose whatever path they wish to take in life. From my personal life journey to the many examples of others of humble origins, I trace many examples of those who have successfully used education to unlock opportunity.

Following these basic steps can help an individual, a company, or even our society at large to find ‘freedom.’

 

I share my own learnings, after having had the privilege of leading two Fortune 500 companies, in a roadmap called the C-Suite Learnings. This roadmap provides nine “C’s” that outline What to Learn, How to Learn, and Why We Learn. Following these basic steps can help an individual, a company, or even our society at large to find ‘freedom.’

One point stressed in the book is the importance of companies and individuals adapting to change. What would your main message to innovators be about that?

I’ve coined the expression: Change Equals Opportunity. It’s no accident that those words form the acronym CEO, because the role of a CEO is to keep pace with change. Virtually all commerce began with change. Something changed in the world causing a need, and someone else responded to that need.

It’s no accident that those words form the acronym CEO.

The cycle of change continues every day, and those who embrace change as opportunity are able to adapt and succeed. I’ve learned that it isn’t the change that matters—good or bad—but rather our response to change that separates winners from losers.

You’ve said that Blockbuster had to file for Chapter 11 in 2010 not because it didn’t adapt to change, but because it couldn’t refinance its crushing debt due to the 2008 financial crisis. Doesn’t that sort of contradict your adage about managing change?

It ended up it turned out quite well for Blockbuster. They could have suffered from a complete liquidation in Chapter 7. We actually did save Blockbuster—we got it successfully restructured and sold to Dish. As I said, change happens—whether it’s good change or bad change, it’s inevitable. Now the question is, how do you respond? The easy answer for me would have been to just walk away from the business, because I didn’t start that problem—I didn’t load it up with a billion dollars of debt. I could have left. But by staying and by weathering through that storm, we were able to come out the other side with the business still intact and 19,000 jobs saved and the ability to take Blockbuster to the next level.

Even after buying the company it wanted, it had a very different vision of the future of streaming.

Now, it looks like it didn’t work because Dish—who was a great strategic partner—chose not to continue the path. Even after buying the company it wanted, it had a very different vision of the future of streaming. Dish wanted to take streaming straight to mobility and 5G. They weren’t happy with the buffering, with the slow response time of the internet in those days. Back in 2010, 2011, the internet wasn’t a great experience for streaming video yet. As you know, today, just 10 years later, 12 years later, we’re barely at 5G capability. When Dish realized that the advanced bandwidth capability via mobility wasn’t going to happen during the Obama administration, they ultimately shut down the stores and decided to step back from their original plan to take Blockbuster to the next level. That was their choice.

At one point in the book, you say that fear is a leading factor in our country’s increasing polarization. What do you mean?

Throughout history, we’ve seen the impact of fear on humanity. Fear is at the root cause of most conflict. Someone is afraid that another will have something they don’t have, take something from them, or harm them in some fashion. Today, the increased access to media through technology has provided a fertile environment for the propagation of fear. There are basically two ways to motivate people to take action—through inspiration, or through fear. Inspiration takes hard work, creative thought, and leadership. Fear takes little more than a rumor or an accusation and it will spread like wildfire.

This is a cycle that has destroyed individuals and led to the collapse of entire societies.

The internet provides the winds to stoke the flames of fear as unwitting participants read a shocking post—often a rumor or falsehood—and repost it, creating a viral outbreak of fear across huge numbers of people. Further, the algorithms that drive social media will curate content to the individual based on historical interests. So not only is the fear spread, it is curated to bring more fear to the eyes of the reader. As a result, the noise becomes deafening, and conspiracies or falsehoods become more real and believable. This is a cycle that has destroyed individuals and led to the collapse of entire societies.

Our forefathers warned of this, and emphasized the importance of an educated populace to the ability to sustain a democracy. Knowledge is the light that shines in the darkness to eliminate fear. It is the antidote to fear. The ability to use critical thinking and curiosity to determine truth from fiction is often missing in today’s polarized world.

The current narrative—that education is no longer relevant, or that our education system is beyond repair—is making the situation worse. We must reverse this trend toward ignorance and restore our faith in education as the answer. The only way to reverse our current cycle of ignorance causing fear, anger, and violence, is to replace this negative cycle with knowledge leading to hope, understanding, and peace.

That all sounds well and good, Jim, but there do seem to be big problems with the American education system. Student test scores badly lag competitor countries, university tuitions seem out of control. Meanwhile, our society has stigmatized alternative vocational tracks, leading skeptics like Peter Thiel to push back against the ‘college for all’ mentality with his fellowship grants to young innovators. So, don’t the critics have a point?  

 Yes, the critics of the system have a point. In the book, I point out a lot of the flaws in the system. We all know there are challenges today, but what we can’t do is dismiss the importance of the breadth of education necessary for individuals in a democratic society. There’s a temptation for us to say, well, let’s just specialize, let’s become—pick a vocation. But the challenge in specialization is that no one has a crystal ball to see what technology will do to replace that specialty over time. For example, somebody may say there’s a huge need for truck drivers, and I can make $150,000 a year being a truck driver. But what happens in 20 years, when we have autonomous trucks, or if autonomous trucks put a serious dent in the employment or salary of truck drivers? What does that person do without an alternative?

I was offered an opportunity to go to McDonald’s ‘Hamburger U’ instead of to a four-year college.

I’m a living example of someone who grew up in a bubble like we’re in now. Because in the 1970s, we were enjoying some pretty good prosperity. Companies like McDonald’s were growing like crazy. I was offered an opportunity to go to McDonald’s ‘Hamburger U’ instead of to a four-year college. I had guidance counselors saying I’d be crazy not to do that. And, it might have been an OK path. But if I had, I would not have had the freedom that I have today. Because the breadth of my liberal arts education gave me the opportunity to pivot. Where I thought I wanted to be a lawyer all the way through college, I pivoted into business and was able to have a successful career in business.

What I’m stressing is that knowledge creates opportunity.

If I had pursued Hamburger U, it may have served me well if I’d wanted to spend the rest of my career in a fast-food business. But I would not have had the flexibility, versus a four-year degree, to move from oil and gas to retail to media to the aerospace things I’ve done. I don’t ever want to be dismissive of vocations, because any kind of learning is good. What I’m stressing is that knowledge creates opportunity. We’ve gotten this notion in our heads that there are good things and bad things to learn in college, that there are degrees that are relevant, and there are degrees that don’t pay. But, it’s not about money. It’s about freedom and flexibility and expanding your breadth of knowledge to be able to pursue any path you choose in life.

We should never encourage young people to just go for the near-term dollar opportunity. And I agree that college is not for everyone. But the opportunity to go to college should be for everyone. So, strive for the best you can be—use knowledge to get as far as you can get. And then after honestly giving it all you’ve got, if you still haven’t achieved academic success, then a vocation might be a good opportunity.

So, you’re really talking about the value of a liberal arts education.

I think a liberal arts education is valuable for those who aren’t sure of what they want to do. Because at 17 or 18, most of us have had so little exposure to the world that we don’t have any idea what we want to be when we grow up. So, a liberal arts education gives you the breadth of learning that allows you to pivot to anything you can. You can take that degree and then go on to med school or go to law school, or to business school, and then you can specialize.

… we’re going to need the ability to pivot from one career, one interest, to another, as technology evolves, and as jobs and entire industries perhaps are replaced by technology.

The question is, at what age should we start encouraging young people to overly specialize? Some people say you should do it in grade school. They start pushing people toward being an engineer, when maybe they really should be a journalist, for example. It’s pretty shocking that with all this emphasis on STEM—which I love—kids are coming out of these technical schools without an ability to communicate.

Particularly in the information age, and with the coming of artificial intelligence, the ability for machine language to go deep in any one subject and to completely eliminate many, many jobs is real. That’s why breadth of knowledge is more important than ever before. Because we’re going to need the ability to pivot from one career, one interest, to another, as technology evolves, and as jobs and entire industries perhaps are replaced by technology.

What about the high cost of college, though?

I was doing an interview with somebody in New York, and they challenged me on a Forbes article that said in 1980, the cost of room, board, and tuition was $10,000. And today, it’s $50,000 or more. And they said, ‘It’s just outrageous what these colleges have done.’ I just said, ‘You know, I wonder if anybody’s done the math?’ And I pulled out my HP-12C that I still use, and I ran the numbers on $10,000 in 2024 terms—the value of the dollar today, versus what it was then. Because I was thinking, back in 1980, I was making a $1.75 an hour, right? So, my $10,000 was pretty insurmountable at the time. I didn’t go to a college where I had to spend for room and board—I spent all my money on tuition, so I could get the best education I could. Now, in today’s dollars, that $10,000 is $50,000 to $60,000. So, where’s the increase?

Now, in today’s dollars, that $10,000 is $50,000 to $60,000. So, where’s the increase?

Now, I’ll give you another fact. In 1980, university endowments were like nothing. There were very, very few schools with big endowments. In the last 20 years, 50 years, it’s amazing how much giving has occurred, which is a beautiful thing. So, my undergraduate alma mater, Holy Cross in Massachusetts, has over $1 billion in endowment today. What that allows is the subsidization of those dollars. So, if a kid with wealthy parents comes over from Europe and they can afford the full tuition, they pay $80,000. But the average ‘discount rate’ at most of these liberal arts colleges like Holy Cross or Harvard is between 40% and 50%, some even higher. So, we look at a sticker price of $80,000, but very few people are paying $80,000. It’s only those who can truly afford it. The rest are paying significantly lower prices because of scholarships. So, it is a very dangerous narrative, because what we’re doing is giving kids an excuse not to go to school. We’re telling people, it’s too expensive.

Why don’t we look at college as a return on our investment? We don’t. We look at it in terms of today’s dollars and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to spend $80,000 a year, and when I come out of school, I’m only going to make $30,000. How would I ever pay for this?’ Well, if you look at it as an investment, it pays dividends for the rest of your life.

So, you don’t think runaway student debt is a problem?

It depends on your perspective. The first five years, sometimes the first 10 years, trying to pay back your college loans was hard on all of us. But this is like any other business investment decision—you’re making an investment in yourself. If you really don’t want to strive for one of those higher-paying jobs in the future, then maybe you’re better off with a community college or maybe even chasing a vocation. But my point is, the opportunity is there. And if you dial back to 1980, it’s not that different.

The cost of college was horrifically expensive back then. When we were making $1.50 an hour, it seemed like it was impossible to overcome that. But we all put our heads down and said you know what, we have to do it, because that’s the price of admission for a career that pays off in the future. It’s all about unlocking opportunity and opening doors.

I’m assuming you came out of college with a lot of debt but that you “buckled down” and paid it off. How did you do it?

I worked two jobs through college. I drove a truck, I worked at McDonald’s, I did everything I could to knock down that cost while I was in school, and I tried to study at the same time. And then, coming out of school, I was able to continue to progress through my career and make more and more. But for the first five to 10 years, I was carrying a lot of that college debt, just like young people today. But it pays off in dividends for the long term—and that’s what everyone’s missing.

For a couple of million dollars over the course of a lifetime, there’s a reasonable return on that debt.

If you just do the basic historical math on college graduates versus high school graduates, there’s a documented lifetime difference of at least $1 million—between $1 million and $2 million in lifetime earnings potential. So yeah, you might carry a couple of hundred thousand dollars in debt. But for a couple of million dollars over the course of a lifetime, there’s a reasonable return on that debt.

Finally on this topic, Jim, there’s a perception among some that colleges are turning out “far-left wokesters” who all think alike and don’t have much patience for dissenting views. Your thoughts?

I don’t even like the word wokeness. But it’s a mindset—and it’s been going on for years. It didn’t just start in the last five years. When I went to school in the late 1960s, early 1970s, the perception was everybody was liberal. And you know what, we all turned out OK. And here’s the irony in this whole discussion: All my friends who were pot-smoking, anti-establishment, hippie-freak protestors are now the most conservative hard-right people I know, bitching about these crazy liberal kids in schools doing the same things they were doing in school, right? I mean, I’m one of them. We were protesting the Vietnam War. We were dressing crazy. Parents thought we had lost our minds. We were dancing like Elvis! It was shocking; where are morals?! I mean, people forget—we have collective amnesia. It’s no different now than it was in 1970—and it may have been worse back then. I mean, come on, BLM doesn’t even compare to the things that were happening back then, with the Symbionese Liberation Army and so on.

I mean, people forget—we have collective amnesia. It’s no different now than it was in 1970—and it may have been worse back then.

And so, again, I’m going to come back to this issue and say I think the root cause of this stuff is fear. We are being bombarded with fear from every media outlet, social media, it’s a constant drumbeat of fear, ‘They’re going to take something from you,’ ‘They’re going to do something to you.’ At the end of the day, I’m a capitalist, and I’m a Christian. Do I fear socialism? No. Not a bit. Because we’ve proven that capitalism is a better way of life. What am I afraid of?

The net-net of all this noise about the liberal institutions and blah, blah, blah—well, fine, then let’s fix it! [Are] you ready for my solution? So, you don’t like the way people are teaching? Fine. Pick the best algebra teacher in the country, and we can make [them] available in every classroom in America through technology. We can take that teacher and make them a concierge, a guide, someone who helps supplement the [other] best teachers in the world. Just as we’ve done with other industries, we can revolutionize the way we teach and learn, because frankly, we’re still using the same methods we have for the last 100 years or more.

The pandemic actually jump-started the availability of technology by as much as 20 years because it forced us to distribute technology and light up whole cities with Wi-Fi hotspots.

So, the opportunity is there — the tools exist. The pandemic actually jump-started the availability of technology by as much as 20 years, because it forced us to distribute technology and light up whole cities with Wi-Fi hotspots. So, most public school kids now have access to Wi-Fi and laptops. Now we need to finish the job: Integrate the software capability, improve usability, and up the engagement level for online learning for children with gamification and incentives, like they have with their video games. But, this radical transformation of teaching and learning is not going to happen in our lifetime with the existing mechanisms of state and local government funding.

This is a supply and demand problem. What do corporations do when they have a supply problem? They invest in it. If we need chips because we’re worried about what’s going on in Taiwan, we build chip factories, and we correct a supply imbalance by investing. That’s the nature of commerce. My premise is we have a supply crisis for the most important resource to any corporation—which is the human resource—and it’s getting worse. Because if you look at the trends and scores of math and reading and science, they’re pretty pathetic. In the last 10 to 20 years, especially those post-pandemic, our college graduation rates have been dropping, while other countries like China and India have been doubling down on education, and college graduates there are rising.

This is a supply and demand problem.

If you look at this in terms of supply and demand, where does that leave Americans right now? Believe it or not, out of almost 950,000 physicians and surgeons in this country, between 20% and 25% are foreign-born. We can’t find enough degreed physicians and surgeons in our own country today. And that problem of lacking an educated workforce extends well beyond the medical profession, to every industry that we have. This is something I saw 20 years ago, trying to hire store managers at 7-Eleven, and it’s gotten worse. So, the flag I’m raising to my peers in the industry is: We have a supply and demand crisis, and we need to come together and fix it by investing in the technologies necessary to transform education in a positive way. Just like Roosevelt and the Rockefellers and other industrialists created an educated workforce for our factories 100 years ago, it’s time now for us to create an educated workforce for the Information Age.

What are the concrete things you think are needed to make that happen?

I think it’s the investment in technology, and I think it’s coming. Using AI as an example, we can modify the way a young person learns. Maybe someone learns better with audio or video than with the written word. With AI, the delivery mechanism of the material can be modified in real time, based on the way the student is absorbing the information. So, I affectionately call it machine learning to enhance human learning. This is not future rocket science stuff—this is technology that’s absolutely available today.

This is not future rocket science stuff—this is technology that’s absolutely available today.

I’ll give you an example of something that people of our vintage can relate to. You remember the days before Microsoft Office? We had typewriters, then Lotus 1-2-3. Even when that technology came in, it was all discombobulated. You couldn’t do something in WordPerfect and then put a Lotus 1-2-3 chart right in the thing, and you certainly didn’t have a PowerPoint presentation. And then Microsoft came in, and they integrated the whole thing. I was like, thank goodness! Now I could do all this stuff myself from my desktop.

No one has yet done that—created the Microsoft Office of education curriculum tools. So, this is the next wave that will come: integration, improved engagement, graphics, interactive capabilities, incentives, those kinds of things. The technology exists to be able to execute these things today.

Are you working on doing this yourself?

Yeah, I’m working on it. I actually assembled a group of students at Columbia Business School to help put together a business case for it, and I’m talking with a couple of technology companies to be able to build a platform. You may know I’m a member of the Dallas Education Foundation. And during the pandemic, we started making a big push for digital learning. And we learned there was a lot of resistance to it by the students. So we asked, why would a student spend a painful few hours on their schoolwork electronically, and then go play video games and love it for 10 hours? Well, it’s fundamental stuff: it’s interaction, ease of operation, engagement incentives.

This is my call to action for companies: the tools exist.

And so, this is my call to action for companies: the tools exist. It’s somewhat like the internet [was], in that we could have discrete tools that are not integrated, and individual companies out there making money on them. Or, we could come together as a business community and say, ‘We need the internet-like, open-architecture platform that will accelerate education.’ And then if people want to add on to that, with specialties and so on, that’s fine. But let’s build the platform that will take American education to the next level.

Shifting to one last important topic, Jim, what’s behind your current involvement in the aerospace/aviation fields?

I grew up being inspired by the Apollo astronauts and remain privileged to call several of them personal friends. They inspired me to study, to learn STEM, and ultimately to become an aviator. I still fly today and have the skill to fly anywhere in the world—an example of the need to continue learning and the embodiment of personal freedom. I believe that aviation/aerospace is one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind. The use of mental and physical skill to ‘escape the surly bonds of earth’ is among the greatest achievements of humanity, but it remains in its early stages.

All of my astronaut friends share a common experience called the ‘world view.’

All of my astronaut friends share a common experience called the ‘world view.’ When they are in space, looking down upon the earth, they don’t see borders, races, conflict, or despair. They see the most beautiful planet imaginable with one race—the human race—thriving below. I have that same experience while flying at 45,000 feet, feeling closer to God and gratitude for the skills that allow me to accomplish such an amazing thing and for the beautiful planet that I witness below.

[Image via Jim Keyes]

To me, aerospace is more than just a commercial opportunity or even an avocation. It is an expression of freedom, faith, and wonder that makes me grateful to be alive.

So, it’s a natural evolution for me to take my aerospace background through flying and to apply it to some of the new aerospace initiatives that are out there—particularly in commercial, what they call ‘new space.’ SpaceX being the leader in that arena, plus Blue Origin with Jeff Bezos and Virgin, of course.

Those three, primarily SpaceX, have created an entirely new industry around commercializing space. It’s fascinating. It’s not dissimilar from the early days of technology and the internet.

What are some of your investments in this area, and how have they been doing?

 I wouldn’t call myself a huge investor, but I am fascinated with the space. I’ve been getting involved with a lot of startups to, you know, try to bring a little gray hair and wisdom to their opportunities as they build these companies and deal with issues like change and managing cash flow. I’ve done some work investing in Axiom Space, which is out of Houston. I have a lot of respect for the founder of Axiom, Kam Ghaffarian. You may have seen the moon landing—that was Intuitive Machines, another one of his companies.

Two more—one right here in Dallas that I co-founded called Back to Space, which is being led by Gabriella Draney Zielke. It’s an education opportunity for young people, because we’re using the latest immersion technologies—AR, VR—to allow people to experience space travel, or the moon, as an example. My friend Charlie Duke from Apollo 16 came to Dallas and was able to visit a Back to Space pop-up immersion experience they put up, by the old Valley View Mall. Then I’ve got a rocket company out in California. It’s building the next starship, but for low-earth orbit.

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