Alumni profile: Albert Woodard, BS’74
Addressing the Class of 2017 at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Spring Commencement, Albert Woodard, BS’74, shared he had prepared 20-plus versions of his speech.
It’s not that he was unsure about what to say. Quite the opposite. He wanted to share his love for his alma mater and how UTC shaped him.
Woodard will also openly share with you that he loves public speaking, so he was in his comfort zone.
“While at Booker T. Washington High School, Mr. Neal made us work all semester to prepare for a debate that we would argue in front of the entire student body, all of our teachers and any guests,” Woodard recalls. “When we debated, it was one of the most electrifying experiences of my life. I haven’t stopped speaking in public from that time on.”
His advice to the new graduates included exercising responsibility, embracing opportunity and expressing gratitude — all lessons he has learned throughout his life.
Lessons in responsibility
Growing up in the Summit community, just outside of Ooltewah, Tennessee, Woodard came from a large family with four siblings and more cousins than he could count. He was taught “education and religion were the tickets to achieving equality and having a happy and successful life,” and he saw firsthand from his parents the importance of working hard.
“These are our values and my motivation,” Woodard says. “They still motivate me.”
During a time when his father was out of work and his family was struggling to eat, a young Woodard rode on a truck with other neighborhood people to go pick strawberries. During the school year, he went on Saturdays, and in the summer, he went every day.
“Normally, I would make about two dollars a day, but one day, I worked so hard I made five dollars. I had stayed on my knees so long that my mother had to cut my jeans off because my knees had swollen so large.”
Woodard applied this work ethic to his studies from elementary school to college. He was determined to be the best student.
One regrettable mistake in high school, however, altered his plans for continuing his education.
As a senior, he was expelled from school for fighting. It was a fight between two boys that escalated into a racial brawl and resulted in him losing all of his college scholarships — four academic and four athletic.
“I wanted to go to UCLA, but my parents couldn’t afford to send me after I lost my scholarships,” Woodard says. “My father told me to go downtown to UTC, where my brother was. I got what I deserved. I had made a mistake, but I was determined to learn from it.”
Lessons in opportunity
After graduating from Ooltewah High School (where he transferred when schools integrated) in 1969, a 17-year-old Woodard drove over to UTC’s campus to see if the basketball coach would let him try out for the team. It was the beginning of the summer, and Coach Leon Ford wasn’t there.
He spoke with Tom Weathers, the football coach, that day and was offered a summer job working in Maclellan Gymnasium. Coach Weathers told Woodard if he showed up and showed promise, he’d personally introduce him to Coach Ford in August.
Coach Weathers also took the time to help Woodard complete his application for UTC and encouraged him to major in engineering.
“I became a walk-on at UTC and on the basketball team,” Woodard reflects. “I didn’t have any scholarships, but I had plenty of opportunities. I’m so thankful Coach Weathers didn’t think my career options were limited back then.”
While living at home during his first semester, Woodard would drive to campus at 7:30 a.m. and go to classes, practice basketball from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., work at McKee Bakery from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. — and repeat day after day until Dr. Russell, the head of the Engineering Department, persuaded him to try out for a new co-op program he was starting.
In an outfit from the Soul Man Shop in downtown Chattanooga that he and his mother had picked out just for an interview, Woodard went to IBM with other engineering students and took a test for one opening.
He performed extremely well on the test. IBM wanted Woodard, and Dr. Russell convinced him to seize the opportunity, even if it meant no longer playing basketball.
Woodard started as a systems engineer trainee and co-op student for IBM, and the experience was valuable in many ways. His pay was more than his mother and father made at the time combined.
Daily, Woodard soaked up the lessons in his classes and at IBM, but he got a taste of entrepreneurship through an opportunity with his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.
“The fraternity had secured the right to sponsor a concert in Maclellan Gym, and we selected Black Oak Arkansas,” Woodard says. “Our director of entertainment recommended the band, and we did all of the work to advertise, market and sell tickets.”
Not only did they sell tickets, the guys arranged logistics, built the stage, set up the equipment and cleaned up the gym.
“The entire time leading up to the concert, I thought the group was some big-time rhythm and blues band. That day, the lead singer exited the bus with long blond hair, a dark tan, white cowboy boots and hat, white jeans and no shirt. I didn’t know what to think.”
As students started filling the gymnasium in droves, Woodard soon thought how lucky he was to be involved with this opportunity. The fraternity made thousands of dollars, and everyone believed the guys were more than lucky. To them, they were brilliant.
Lessons in gratitude
Woodard finished his courses in December 1973 and officially graduated the following spring from UTC. He remains thankful to his alma mater for taking him in at a time when he was out of options.
After graduating, Woodard began working full time at IBM. He had already been there three and a half years as part of the co-op program.
He stayed at IBM for eight years, in total, working on projects from coast to coast.
At 26, Woodard was ready to pursue something new. He left IBM with a lifelong respect for the company and its culture.
Moving to Los Angeles, Woodard quickly decided the South was the best fit for him. He returned and started Business Computer Applications, Inc. (BCA), a software development company, with two of his friends and business partners in Chattanooga.
Within five years, BCA became one of the largest software development companies in the United States. The company received recognition — and rewards — for its technical capabilities, management style and uniqueness.
Woodard was soon asked to serve on several non-profit boards in Chattanooga, including being appointed by Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts to the Board of Directors for Erlanger Medical Center. This was a way for Woodard to put his gratitude for his community into action.
In the 1980s, BCA shifted its focus from manufacturing to healthcare and its headquarters from Chattanooga to Atlanta.
“Moving to Atlanta was rewarding, but not retaining a major presence in Chattanooga was one of the greatest mistakes I ever made in the business.”
Before leaving Chattanooga, Woodard purchased two radio stations in the area with some friends and associates. They increased the listenership of each, growing them into top-five stations. It was the first time African-Americans had owned a major communications business in Hamilton County.
Woodard remained one of BCA’s owners and principle partners for more than 35 years.
In 2014, BCA became KaZee, after selling its federal health business to Acentia of Washington D.C. Under Woodard’s leadership, KaZee is recognized as the largest minority-owned software development company in the country.
Looking back, Woodard admits his greatest achievement was having his father tell him that he and his mother were proud of him. He had just turned 30 and had been named the Outstanding Young Alumnus of the UTC College of Engineering and Computer Science in 1982.
His parents were the people who loved him from the beginning. They were the people who supported him during difficult times. They were the people who led him to UTC.
“The man I am today was born at UTC. The school gave me a road map and a light that I needed to find my way,” Woodard shares. “I want new graduates to understand that same thing. They have earned the opportunity to come to the dance and to dance their dance, and they have the responsibility to always strive to make their dreams reality.”
Article By: Development and Alumni Affairs