August 24, 2019

William Joern Taught Me to Choose Wisely

"Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. Whatever choice you make makes you. Choose wisely."
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

My friend and colleague, William Joern, who recently passed away at the age of 80, taught me many valuable lessons including each person has the ability to choose their own attitude, happiness, optimism, kindness, giving, and respect.

I first met Bill in 2009 at an event hosted by Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The event featured a panel of academics discussing how technology can improve the lives of those people living in developing countries. I was planning on attending the event with a friend. When my friend said she was unable to attend just a few hours before the event because of a work commitment, I decide to attend nonetheless.

I asked a question during the Q&A portion of the event and upon the event's conclusion, Bill introduced himself and expressed his appreciation for my question. Meeting people like Bill at events and conferences reinforces the saying, "90% of life is showing up."

Despite being 35 years my senior, Bill and I found mutual appreciation for each other. He spent most of his childhood in the Omaha, Neb./Council Bluffs, Iowa area; whereas, I am from Denver, Colo. We both attended a Jesuit institution of higher education (Bill went to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts to study history and political science and I studied philosophy at Seattle University). And we both worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa at different times during our respective careers.

Bill Joern (front row on the right)
at the Afghan-American Chamber of
Commerce's Business Matchmaking
Conference in Washington, DC
At the time of meeting Bill, I had a business idea of creating applications for mobile phones that will help people in developing countries. During the weeks following our first meeting, Bill provided assistance as I prepared to present "Investment Opportunities in Mobile Applications" at the U.S.-Uzbekistan Investment Summit in New York City. Another bond Bill and I shared is he served on the board of directors of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce and I was a board member of the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

While he regularly understated his professional experiences, our relationship provided me with the opportunity to learn from Bill's expansive knowledge. He also demonstrated his passion of being a lifelong learner. Despite having little knowledge of information and communication technology (ICT) and limited experience of using a computer beyond checking email, reading news articles, and watching online video of the Holy Cross Crusaders football team (he played for the Crusaders from 1959-1961), Bill understood the potential benefits of ICT tools such as mobile phones could bring to people worldwide. He also comprehended that although the mobile phone is a useful device, developing localized content is essential to delivering the full value of mobile technology.

Bill had experience working with a business that delivered foreign language programs and I had experience working with some of the world's biggest technology companies. We also understood the business opportunities that an economically rising China could provide for any business that developed localized content for mobile devices. Bill recommended that I meet Steve Drake of Silver Spring, Md., who possesses an impressive resume as a communications executive including many years working in China. During our first few meetings together, Bill, Steve, and I pooled our respective expertise and refined the concept of developing localized content and services optimized for mobile phones and portable computers, providing instant access to valuable, life-improving knowledge.

Similar to my experience of first meeting Bill, I developed an instant connection with Steve who understood the opportunities and challenges of international business. And like Bill, Steve knows the value of learning and teaching new ideas and concepts. It seemed natural for the three of us to form a company (ROI3, Inc.) where our mission was to empower people in emerging economies through innovative, technology-based solutions​. In doing so, I learned the importance of having a shared vision for the company's product and mission. It is also important to define the roles for the founders including equity ownership early in the company's existence.

Leading a startup is stressful dealing with a steady barrage of challenges to overcome and problems to fix. During the most stressful days, Bill's positive attitude, optimism, kindness, and respect were sources of comfort. I also appreciated the generosity of his time. And when a decision was made earlier this year to change the course of ROI3's strategic direction, Bill provided his support. His optimism for our company provided the confidence and clarity I needed to stay focused on the long-term vision and goals.

Bill (far left) with our colleague,
Jingyan Zhang (second from right)
and her parents,
and Steve Drake (far right)
But it was Bill's friendship that I valued most. We often had differing political views, but always respected each other and took time to learn from one another. Bill taught me the meaning of empathy.

We were fans of various sports including American football (although I overlooked his flaw of supporting the New England Patriots as I am a lifelong Denver Broncos fan and adopted the Seattle Seahawks as my home team). Yet, Bill never gloated after each of New England's three Super Bowl wins (including the Patriots' win over the Seahawks in 2015) during the ten years I knew him.

He appreciated my thoughts about the latest announcements by global tech companies and I sought his opinion about public policy and legislative proposals, whether they were introduced by local, state or federal governments.

Most importantly, Bill and I saw each other as friends first and colleagues second.

Bill, while you may not have realized it, you made a difference in the lives of many people. You provided a sense of calmness when I needed it by helping me analyze a problem and formulate a solution. And when decisions were made about our company that you did not agree with, your respect and support were steadfast. You taught me that attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. And the choices I make will make me who I am. I will choose wisely, my friend.

Thank you and God bless.

UPDATE

The obituary below was published in the Washington Post on Sept. 4, 2019.

WILLIAM C. JOERN (Age 80)

A former executive with the D.C. based International Center for Language Studies, passed away at his apartment in Northwest Washington on August 18, 2019. Mr. Joern was born in Omaha, Nebraska and grew up mostly on the east coast and Council Bluffs, Iowa. He attended Creighton Prep in Omaha and was a 1962 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA where he played lacrosse and quarterback and safety on the football team. Following college, Mr. Joern taught for a year at the Jesuit High school in Baghdad before returning to Nebraska where he began a career in management with several firms and state agencies, mostly in the healthcare sector. In the late 1970s, he moved to Washington, D.C. and continued his career in business management with several companies until 2008. Before and after 2008, during his time in DC, he was active on a number of boards including the Nebraska Society where he served a term as president, the Afgan-American [sic] Chamber of Commerce and ROI3, Inc. where served as Executive Chairman. He is survived by a sister, Judy Ryan, of Loveland, CO; and two brothers, Steve Joern of Wyckoff, NJ and James Joern of Schroon Lake, NY; as well as by numerous nieces and nephews. A memorial donation can be made to Creighton Prep, Alumni Director, 7400 Western Ave., Omaha, NE 68114, designate: "Creighton Prep Fontenelle Class of 57 Fund". A Memorial Service will be held in the near future.

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