Randal Pinkett, 36, is best known for his role in the ultimate job interview--season four of the TV reality show, "The Apprentice," which ended on December 15, 2005 when Donald Trump proclaimed: "Randal, you're hired!" The lesser-known story is that Randal, who grew up in East Windsor and now lives in Somerset, was a success long before his "Apprentice" victory. With five advanced degrees (starting with a B.S. in electrical engineering from Rutgers University); five business ventures, including his current technology consulting firm, BCT Partners, in Newark; and a new book, Campus CEO: The Student Entrepreneur's Guide to Launching a Multimillion-Dollar Business, Randal has made winning education, career and life choices. NJ Next Stop spoke with Randal about life after "The Apprentice" and so much more.
NJ Next Stop: Where did you go to high school?
Randal: I attended Hightstown High School and graduated in 1989.
NJ Next Stop: Did you work as a teenager?
Randal: My first job in 7th and 8th grade was as a counselor at the Hightstown/East Windsor YMCA. During my high school years, I worked during the summer with my mom at the McGraw-Hill facility in Hightstown. I worked in the travel and incidental expenses department processing expense reports. A subsequent summer I was a customer service operator for BusinessWeek, which is published by McGraw-Hill. That was a lot more fun because I got to deal with people, use the computer and sometimes solve callers' problems. My last year of high school I worked at RCA, not far from the McGraw-Hill building, doing some computer engineering work.
NJ Next Stop: Did you know at a young age that you were interested in technology?
Randal: I was always good at math and science. When my brother and I were clamoring to get a video game called Atari, my father came home with a computer called a Commodore Vic-20. We were a little disappointed because we wanted a video game. But eventually we took the time to learn how to program the computer. We were hooked at that point and spent hours after school and on weekends playing around with the computer. That pretty much informed our choice of major when we got to college. We actually designed and wrote the program for our own Space Invaders game.
NJ Next Stop: What helped you decide to pursue advanced education in engineering and computer science?
Randal: I knew I was interested in math and science but I didn't know what that meant in terms of my career path. During my junior and senior year at Hightstown High, RCA sponsored a minority engineering program. We were bused from Hightstown High to the RCA plant and spent half a day every week with engineers working on an engineering project. This helped me see what options were available to me and how to channel my natural talents. I subsequently enrolled in a summer program at Rutgers called the Minority Introduction to Engineering and spent the summer on campus working on an engineering project. Throughout high school I was involved in school plays, choir, the band. I tried a lot of different things, but it was engineering and science and math that really resonated with me.
NJ Next Stop: Your company, BCT Partners, is actually your fifth business venture. How did you get into entrepreneurship?
Randal: The turning point for me was my junior year of college. A high school classmate and childhood friend of mine who also went to Rutgers to study engineering started his own company selling t-shirts during his senior year of college. I had always imagined that my career path would take me to corporate America to work for someone else, become an engineer, maybe a manager, retire, get a gold watch, a party and fade off into the sunset. Seeing my friend as an entrepreneur forced me to look back on my experiences growing up. I was always experimenting with entrepreneurial opportunities. I had a lemonade stand and I sold my old toys to other kids in the neighborhood. That summer before my senior year was when I crafted the plan for my first venture, which was selling compact discs out of my dormitory at Rutgers. I researched local wholesale distributors, registered the business with the state and sold them for a profit. That venture ended up generating in one year as high as $300,000. We used the proceeds from the sales to pay for outreach to other high school students to encourage them to go to college. We figured out that we could charge people for the seminars and workshops that we were holding for young people.
NJ Next Stop: Sounds like your own experiences inspired Campus CEO: The Student Entrepreneur's Guide to Launching a Multimillion-Dollar Business. What is the key message from your first book?
Randal: You don't have to be an entrepreneur to think like an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur's mindset is really a way of thinking for the 21st century. There are ways that you can innovate and make a difference in our world and society by bringing to bear your ingenuity and creativity and your vision and passion for whatever you do. You don't have to wait until you're out of school or have 10 years of experience to be entrepreneurial. I started my first business as a student and don't believe that I would be where I am now if I had waited.
NJ Next Stop: How did "The Apprentice" change your life?
Randal: "The Apprentice" was a life-changing opportunity for me. It was my wife's idea. She believed I could win and, low and behold, she was right. It gave me notoriety and exposure, which I have been able to parlay into opportunities for my firm, BCT Partners. Second was the opportunity to shadow a billionaire and see how he runs his business. I was employed full-time by the Trump Organization for 2006. In 2007 I have extended the relationship, but only in a part-time capacity. I'm working on projects with Mr. Trump in the New York office. My biggest lesson from the experience was being able to isolate my greatest value-add in my organization. Mr. Trump has literally about 30 ventures going on at the same time. Obviously he can't be involved in all 30 in a material way. Mr. Trump is very good at negotiation, he's very good at structuring and closing deals. He may not prospect the opportunity, he may not manage it or oversee it, but he will structure it, negotiate it and close it. Before working with him, I was a little more scattered, perhaps doing too many things and not isolating what I should be focusing my time on.
NJ Next Stop: What advice would give to young people who are figuring out what they want to do with their lives after high school?
Randal: I would suggest that they spend as much time as they can experimenting and exploring different opportunities. Young people ask me all the time, ‘How do I figure out what I'm passionate about?' My response is that if you're actively looking, experimenting and exploring, just spreading your wings and not letting anything inhibit your vision for the future, you will figure it out. If you don't find your passion, it will eventually find you. Just keep on looking.