Fishing Far From the Dock: Undergrad Ahlam Khaleefa in Conversation with Alumni Kelvin Westbrook

My name is Ahlam Khaleefa, and I am entering my second year at the University of Washington as a direct admit student into the Foster School of Business. I’m majoring in Marketing and Information Systems as well as minoring in Law, Societies, and Justice.

At the end of my first year at the University of Washington, I had the pleasure of meeting Kelvin Westbrook through the Foster Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Student Bloggers Project. Now, you may be wondering, who is Kelvin Westbrook?

Kelvin Westbrook

Kelvin Westbrook looking into the camera and smiling

Kelvin Westbrook is a person of many titles. However, to simplify, he is a businessman. Yet, his title does not showcase who Kelvin Westbrook is and where he came from.

Westbrook comes from a huge family of 13 and was the sixth child of 11 kids. While his family is originally from Arkansas, when he was the youngest of the family, they made a move to Tacoma, Washington. He was raised in the inner city of Tacoma, specifically Hilltop, and attended elementary school within a predominantly Black student body.

Although his family lived in Tacoma, Washington for the first few years of his life, they eventually moved to Spanaway, Washington when he was in the 7th grade. As with any move, he relocated to a new school, Bethell Middle School. Westbrook mentioned that the school was a predominantly white student body, far from what he was used to in Tacoma. Yet, his family made Spanaway home and he spent his formative years, ages 12 through 18, within the community.

Westbrook has deemed himself to always be a curious and industrious child. When he was just 10 years old, he convinced a newspaper company to take on a paper route while he resided in the inner city of Tacoma. At 13 years old, he bought a paper route from a classmate in Spanaway. He never questioned his behavior as a student. He stayed involved through extracurricular activities and sports illustrating what a good student looks like.

Westbrook’s Life After High School

As Westbrook began to approach his senior year of high school, he began preparing for life after graduation. In hopes of creating a plan for his bright future, his high school counselor failed to see his potential for success. He was told that he was not “college material” and instead, he should show interest in trade school. Confused by this statement, he wondered why his counselor believed he was not college material. He went to school with students who were going to the University of Washington and Washington State University, so what made him different? He wondered and so he asked.

When Westbrook asked the question “why would you think I’m not college material?”, his counselor responded with another question: “Has anyone in your family ever graduated from college?”. While “no” was his answer, he knew that his counselor’s reason for not believing in him was simply because of where he came from and not who he was as a person or student.

“Nothing about the explanation said I didn’t have the capacity. It was more about who I am and where I’m from that suggested that I not try this college thing” he reflects. Rather than let his counselor’s words discourage him, Westbrook felt nothing of his counselor’s words and left it at that. His understanding of who he was and capable of doing allowed him to discount that opinion and find another door that’ll lead him towards someone who would believe in him. Sure enough, he becomes the first in his family to graduate from college.

Even though Westbrook graduated, it came with a fair share of struggle. With no prior knowledge of how to finance college or apply to four-year universities, like the University of Washington, he attended Tacoma Community College (TCC) for his first two years out of high school. In light of the financial struggle that came with college, Westbrook worked weekday night shifts at a Concrete Fabrication Plant in the Port of Tacoma from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. After work, he’d go home, shower, eat, sleep, study for a bit and then attend classes at TCC from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. His academics did not stop on the weekdays. On Saturdays, he’d have a class from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Westbrook was committed to school, but during his freshman year, he noticed that his grades were not matching his standards. It wasn’t that he wasn’t working hard in school, it was because he was trying to fit way too much into a 24-hour plate. In recognizing this, he reflected on his time management and realized that his social life was creating a barrier to his goals, such as going to law school. Therefore, he made some changes in his social life, like narrowing his dating scene and eliminating social activities to the weekends and leaving the rest of the week devoted to his work and studies.

This was Westbrook’s life leading up to his matriculation of being a student at the University of Washington at the age of 20.

Westbrook and the University of Washington

In becoming an undergraduate student at the University of Washington (UW), Westbrook was proud of his admission and ready to take on the next challenge. Nevertheless, his first challenge was the 20 credits he lost in the transfer process to the University of Washington. Many of the courses he took at Tacoma Community College were ineligible to qualify for credit at UW, leaving him 20 credits behind. Yet, he still made it a goal to graduate in two years.

While trying to figure out what his next steps would be to limit the burden of being 20 credits behind, he dedicated himself to making sure he stuck to his plan. He wanted to get a degree in Business Administration and the only way to do so was through the standard application process. However, in order to apply, he would have to complete prerequisite courses and soon realized he was too late to register for the prerequisite courses because it was too far into the registration period, all the classes had been filled up, and the only classes he was directed to take by the student assistance programs were not courses he needed.

Nevertheless, Westbrook refused to give up. He decided to audit business courses and see what would happen. His first course was Economics 300. On the first day he attended the class, the professor had asked him to stay after class to speak with him. Westbrook was worried about what the conversation to come. But the professor just wanted to know what he was trying to do and asked him if he had taken Economics 200 or 201, the entry-level classes and prerequisites for Economics 300. Westbrook responded truthfully and told the professor that he had not taken the 200-level courses. The professor knew Westbrook was new to Economics courses because compared to the rest of the class, he was taking copious notes (Economics 300 was intended as a review for people who have already taken the Economics 200-level courses.)

After talking to Westbrook and learning of his story and purpose at UW, the professor wanted to help. He suggested that he talk to Virginia Morrison, Director of Undergraduate Programs at the time, who would soon become Westbrook’s mentor during his time at UW. In his first meeting with her, Westbrook told Morrison about his goals and aspirations. After speaking with him, Morrison told him that she would do all that she could to help, but he would have to be patient while she figured out what she could do.

No less than 24 hours later, Morrison spoke with several business professors to allow Westbrook into their classes so he could complete his prerequisite courses for the Business Standard Application. Westbrook was beyond grateful for the opportunity and began his undergraduate career on a fresh note. Throughout his time at UW, he was able to flourish in his classes, yet as graduation crept up, he still had 20 credits to complete because they did not transfer from the community college. Yet, he did not let the credits keep him from graduating on time. In his last year at UW, he went to summer school and he took 12 credits, 18 in the fall and 23 in the winter quarter. Although his undergraduate career was hectic as it was, Morrison made sure to monitor his progress and ensured he was supported in the best ways possible.

Westbrook believes that college was a foundational time for him. He discovered who he was, what his goals were, and if his goals were meaningful and attainable. More importantly, he was on a path of self-discovery and self-determination. He can now reflect and see that he came out of college knowing a lot about himself, being able to motivate himself, focusing on the task at hand, and how to perform at a level that was sufficient enough to get him into a great law school.

Through all the obstacles that Westbrook faced, he would not change a thing, knowing he would not be the person he is today if not for the experiences he overcame.

Westbrook’s Life after UW

After graduating from the University of Washington, Westbrook set out his sights on law school. While ready for the next challenge, he decided to take a break from school and get back into the workforce. Within the first couple of months after graduation, he began to work for a construction company. Although this was not a part of his plan, it was what he needed at the time. He had to be paid every Friday to solve immediate financial problems.

As soon as Westbrook was able to take care of his financial obligations, he began to work for State Farm Insurance Company as a claims representative handling automobile and liability issues in North Seattle. While being a full-time employee, he was also studying for the LSAT. Once he got his scores back, all he knew was that he was going to go to a great school, and he was definitely not returning back to UW.

Westbrook always had a passion for business and law. As we know, his passion for business started during his paper routes. Furthermore, he had always read about what made the world turn, the economy turn. He wanted to understand how business worked, especially while living in a capitalistic society. The dream of law school developed over time. His dad had always engrained in his head that he’d be a great lawyer one day. His father’s words came from watching Westbrook talk his way out of various forms of discipline as a child. Somehow, someway, Westbrook always came up with an explanation or reason that taking a different path of discipline would allow him to better learn from his mistakes. Outside of getting out of punishment, Westbrook always had the ability to converse, reason, analyze, persuade, discern, and clearly see what was happening, especially when things were not lining up logically, for example, the conversation with his high school counselor.

In both fields, business and law, it turned out to be a great combination. Westbrook reasoned, if he could understand business and understand the rules that governed business, he would be well-positioned to not only be knowledgeable but make a good living. So, following two years of post-college work, he enrolled at Harvard Law School. In his three years at Harvard, he made it a point to build his experience through internships during the summer. During his first summer at Harvard, he interned at a State Farm Insurance Company in Bloomington, Illinois. During his second summer, he interned at a New York City corporate law firm. He performed so well, he was extended a full-time offer and came back after graduation.

In this time period, it was the early ‘80s and it was a great time to be entering the legal field as growth was taking place all over. To paint a picture, this was the time when the PC was just becoming a tool, Microsoft was still a very young company, software companies were just emerging, and there was a large volume of corporate transactions including mergers and acquisitions, and venture capital was starting to take off. Westbrook was afforded the opportunity to participate in many such transactions and witnessed and learned many important lessons.

During his law career, he performed pretty well. He made partner eight years out of law school, even after changing firms a couple of times. Then again, practicing law was just a means to an end rather than an end within itself. He wanted to go into the business world and so he did. He saw that the Telcom industry was growing, cable and telephone were encroaching on one another, and the potential of the internet was not yet known, however, a number of people knew it was out there but no one could see or understand what it could be. Telephone companies were looking into video companies and getting into voice and vice versa. Almost everybody was trying to figure out how to get into data transmission. He knew that there was too much out there for him to just be the legal skillset at the table, he had much more to offer on the business side.

Within his law firm, Westbrook approached a client that just sold a business and was starting on another endeavor in a cable/broadband arena. Westbrook told this client that he had great ideas he’d like to share and explore if he took him up as a partner. One conversation led to the next and Westbrook formed a partnership and eventually left his practice. This new journey meant moving to St. Louis and so he took his wife and three kids (nine, six, and one-year old at the time) with the thought that if this new endeavor worked out, he would stay in this field, but if not he would go back and practice law. Fortunately, Westbrook was able to conquer this new endeavor and his life was starting to become everything he dreamed of. His wife was doing a lot of community work and his kids were enrolled in great schools. He continued his journey and started another company a couple of years later. During this time, he also got involved in the community working on behalf of several nonprofits while involved in his own business.

To ensure he stayed exposed in his journey, he asked questions all the time. Somewhere in the midst of his journey, he met a man who asked if he’d be interested in working on the board of a public company. This person told Westbrook that every time they had spent time with him, he always asked questions that led him to think critically about his company strategy and business, and he would like to have that voice in a boardroom. That conversation led to Westbrook being elected to one board in the mid-‘90s, and he continued to be elected to several boards later on in his journey.

While serving on a board was different from his law and business plan, Westbrook was strategic in doing an analysis that fits within his plan for himself. While he considers himself more so “retired” he still serves on the boards of four public companies, keeping himself fully engaged. He also does a lot of volunteer work, including chairing the board of a large healthcare organization in St. Louis and many other organizations. His exposure to different businesses and the practice of law and his understanding of how business works have qualified him to be an outstanding board member.

Looking Back on Westbrook’s Journey

Westbrook shared a philosophy he developed along the way. If given the opportunity, he can perform above average. He demonstrated that through college while working and being a full-time student. Throughout his journey, he never thought as if doors were being closed for him because he was a Black man, but he knew that some were more difficult to open than others. While he couldn’t think about a time when he wanted an opportunity to pursue or a door he would want open, he mentioned that he had always found a way or angle to do it. Not to say he can do all things, but for example, he found an opportunity to practice law in New York, which turned out to be a special opportunity, and became a partner. It was not an opportunity he was looking for, but it became something.

Westbrook states that in one’s journey one should always be able to satisfy or meet the requirements for consideration. It has always been if you are prepared for when the opportunity shows up. If you are prepared, that is when preparation meets opportunity. And the opportunity can show up and not be a match, but at least you know. Westbrook always had success as a minority, even when he was the only minority in corporate settings. It was not unusual to be the only one. However, Westbrook says that you have to be confident with who you are and what you bring to the table. When you run into obstacles and roadblocks, be strategic and tactful on how to take on that challenge.

Looking back at his track record, not everything was easy, but he was never blocked from pursuing what he thought could assist him in becoming his full potential. It was not in his personality to give up. If he showed up in a room and every chair was occupied, one of two things had to happen: one, go get another chair, or two, someone had to leave the room so he could have a seat at the table. He believes that he brings value to every form in which he is looking for admission. He is a firm believer that he is not an average person nor a bottom 75% player. Westbrook is convinced he brings value, once he paints a picture of the value he brings to people, he has a pretty good shot of being included. Not to say you get every good job you go after, but you get every job you’re supposed to have.

While he is not convinced that roadblocks can be erected, it’s a different circumstance for him. Like in Westbrook’s parent’s generation when education was not available that is a different type of roadblock. In the realm of when he grew up, notwithstanding roadblocks you have to find faith in the purpose of who you are, why you’re here, and what you’re supposed to be about. Westbrook believes that people have a lot more they can do than they can believe they can do.

Westbrook’s Philosophy

Westbrook largely does things for reasons other than notoriety or credit; he just does. If someone can be inspired by him and his work, then so be it, but he doesn’t do it for that reason. Yet, he will make himself available to younger people about his philosophy, the road he traveled, his attitude, and his perspective on any number of challenges. However, his wisdom may not be for everybody because you have to know who you are. He often uses this metaphor, “if you are only comfortable fishing from the dock, you will be limited with respect to the type of fish you can catch”. You can have various dreams, but you won’t find that caught up on the dock. If you risk it and you’re not comfortable going out to sea and uncharted waters, then you need to stay on the dock. It may be uncomfortable, but if you have an appetite for taking a risk, then you can get in the boat and go.

If you are only comfortable fishing from the dock, you will be limited with respect to the type of fish you can catch.

In having this conversation, Westbrook has to level set with people: “You can’t look at someone who started a company and say you want a company. Do you understand what that means? There is no payday when you start a company, but if you’re more comfortable with getting a paycheck every Friday and working for someone else, then you need to have that conversation because there is another path to success within a corporation rather than independence,”. Westbrook always knew he was not a good employee, he wanted to be his own boss so he figured that out. He felt that it was better to be in a place where you can be independent and do things you want. His higher calling was to be of service to people and work in the community.

If you’re looking for someone to change your lens in terms of your DNA then that is another path, but what he did not involve an unreasonable amount of risks. Many people wonder why Westbrook would give up a large partnership with an office that looks down at the MetLife building. But he always knew that there were other opportunities and he wanted to do something different. Even at this point in his journey, he doesn’t know what he will do when he “grows up” or where life will take him, but he is still willing to take on any challenge he meets.

Westbrook and the University of Washington

Today, Westbrook is on the University of Washington Foster School of Business Advisory Board. His journey here is owing to his wife, Valerie Bell, who brought his relationship with Virginia Morrison to the attention of The University of Washington Magazine (Columns Magazine at the time). While he did independent outreach on his own, through that exposure, he met a lot of people and had several conversations, later leading to his invitation to join the board about three years ago. Even Virginia Morrison would not be surprised, as she believes he should have been on the board a long time ago.

Westbrook asks a lot of questions and is deemed to be a rational and logical thinker. He sees things that don’t make sense, and wonders if people are either underinformed or why are we not trying this or that. In asking, he inspires people to think. Westbrook’s belief is that if you don’t want to ask questions, you don’t belong in the room. Why be on the Advisory Board and be a wallflower? You need to add value and proposition, offer suggestions and comments or ask questions. You don’t always have to have an answer but ask questions.

Westbrook enjoys his new role as he provides lots of insight and meets new people. He knows that the business school could do a lot more and it definitely has the potential to do so. He shared that increasing participation by groups of people has not been as meaningfully included as the administration would aspire for it to be. Yet, to be able to be a voice, frame discussions, and work on strategies about that work is pleasing. In his work, he knows that through a traditional lens, you would not see him. He does not fit the profile of the student the college process tends to look for.

Westbrook believes that the University needs to start looking through things in a nontraditional way and look for talent in places you do not look. While they may not know where those places are, that’s part of the work of having the UW broaden its horizons and aperture. It is important to develop tactics and strategies to “pursue fish in different parts of the world rather than comfortable fishing holes,”. It is important to help broaden perspective and better inform the search process. For example, looking into community colleges, urban schools, and a different set of metrics besides GPA and SAT scores. Talent may not be exposed through GPA and SAT as some may not know how to take a test. We need to go deeper than the application and ask the questions, “turn over stones that haven’t been turned over,”.

Westbrook would like to see the participation and the diversification of the student body and faculty. As an institution, we leave a lot on the table by not being more inclusive. The benefit will flow far beyond the individual themselves, Westbrook is not the only one who benefits from being in the boardroom. If he is not in the boardroom and his voice is not part of the discussion, then something is wrong. The University loses an opportunity to bring added benefit to the institution and community. We need to change our entire perspective and look optimistically rather than through a social justice lens.

Westbrook’s Legacy

Westbrook holds his family as his legacy. He met his wife in law school, and they have been married for over four decades now. If he can contribute towards the upbringing of three amazing children and two grandchildren, he did something. Again, Westbrook emphasizes that most people have more bandwidth and potential than they realize.

Consider how a person spends their time. There is a lot of time they can give to others than they realize. People don’t know their potential or else they would act upon it. Westbrook ponders on three themes every day: How can I improve my ability to be aspirational, inspirational, and motivational (AIM)? Be aspirational; something above and beyond the ordinary. Be inspirational; inspire others in the process, to the extent that we push someone to realize their potential. Be motivational; self-motivation, in general, helps people stay in the game when life beats them up and they don’t feel like bringing themselves to the game.

So, when we wonder, who is Kelvin Westbrook? We now know he is a person just trying to AIM.

– Ahlam Khaleefa, Foster

My name is Ahlam Khaleefa and I was directly admitted into the Foster School of Business Autumn of 2021. Before attending the University of Washington, I was a YEOC mentee and a Business Bridge alumn. I’m currently entering my second year studying Marketing and Information Systems and minoring in Law, Societies, and Justice. I’ve been interested in social justice for some time and have been involved in related work since my senior year of high school. I served as the Founder and President of the Black Student Union and participated in many organizations and projects including the Association of Washington Student Leaders and the Snoqualmie Valley School District DEI Committee.

Since my time I’ve at the University of Washington, I have volunteered for YEOC, served as secretary for African Student Association and Oromo Student Union, was a stage manager for RETRO, and took 5th place in the National Diversity Case Competition within the Kelly School of Business. As I continue on my undergraduate journey, I am so excited for this next year when I will serve as the Association of Black Business Students Vice President of Marketing and Recruitment for Black @ Foster.