H. Melvin Ming didn't take the easy route to become the new chief of Sesame Workshop. He started in Bermuda and went through the U.S. Army and difficult times at NPR to join the small club of black CEOs in America. Ming replaces NPR's newly hired CEO and former Sesame Workshop CEO Gary Knell.
He recently joined Tell Me More host Michel Martin for a "Wisdom Watch" conversation.
On serving in the U.S. Army
Ming: "I was in Ft. Benning, Georgia, and we were being taught how to fall backwards if you're coming in with your parachute. I did what I was supposed to do, but I looked where I was falling — but I wasn't supposed to. I was supposed to use the feel of my feet. I twisted my ankle, and I'm laying on the ground, and I'm in agony.
"And the drill sergeant came over and yelled at me, and he kicked me in rear. ... He kicked me in my butt with his shiny boot. ... And he yelled at me. He said, "That what's wrong with you college boys! You think you know everything! If you would do what I tell you I could save your life.
"I looked at him and it hit me — he knew something I did not know. But because his language skills weren't that great, I had kind of in my own mind discounted his knowledge. But he was right, and I learned: don't dismiss people because of how they look, how they sound — those first impressions. If they know — you be quiet. You follow their guidance. That has saved me, that has guided me, that has gotten me more support over my life than just about any other thing: respect."
On working as NPR's Chief Financial Officer in the early 1980s, a time of financial difficulties
Ming: "NPR was the toughest job I ever had, but it was a most rewarding experience. I learned there the balance of business, and its practices, and its disciplines coupled with the freedoms of the creative within boundaries to deliver great content. And that was an influence I treasured. And I take a little credit for the great NPR of today."
On Sesame Street
Ming: "We try to see our work as meeting the needs of children and looking at the world through their eyes. The workshop is a place where people come to work, but they really come to live — it's an extension of their lives. And my rule is that if it's good enough for my grandchildren, it's good enough for any child on the planet.
"We only have issues when what we think are wholesome values — honesty, respect, caring for your environment, caring for your neighbor — when their list deviates from ours, we have to try to move people towards more where we'd like them to be. We don't see Sesame Workshop as a colonizer, we see Sesame Street Workshop as a teacher, an enabler. We have to be prepared to let others determine to go a path that's different than ours. Rarely, if ever, has there been a desire to teach children things we don't support."
Ming says Sesame Workshop didn't enter South Africa until apartheid was disbanded, even though they were asked to come launch a program.
On future goals
Ming: "Five years from now, we will discuss the joys of seeing Sesame reach, instead of 10 percent of the world's children, 50 percent of the world's children. There are places where the lives of children are being dampened, or they're not being able to reach their great potential because they aren't being exposed to images that can teach, images that inspire them to greatness, images that can show them how to live a fulfilled life. We want to reach more children."