A Man of Firsts
(Adpated from the College of Business http://business.illinois.edu/publications/ANN/2008-12.pdf)
The photographs on the walls in Cirilo McSween’s office tell
the story. Pictured with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jesse
Jackson, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Harry Belafonte, Nelson
Mandela, Herb McKinley and Dr. Albert Sampson, one can see
that Cirilo McSween has been friends and partners with some
of the most distinguished and notable people of our time. His
accomplishments are legion and his rise from poverty to the
heights of the business world makes for the stuff of which
legends are made.
Born to a family of five, McSween recalls his family’s home was
no bigger than a small conference room in his current downtown
Chicago office. “I didn’t own any shoes until I received a pair of
athletic shoes for Christmas from my dad when I was about ten,”
It could be said that the gift of running shoes was the harbinger
of a career that would take McSween first to the Panama National
Olympic Track and Field Team, on to an athletic scholarship
at the University of Illinois, followed by record-shattering
accomplishments for New York Life Insurance and later a partnership with McDonald’s. Through it all, McSween says he was
inspired by others to succeed and is quick to credit his mentors.
“At the time, the track coach was Leo Johnson, a national and
international figure. He was my hero. He taught us teamwork and
confidence. He inspired us to be the best through physical training
and developing a positive attitude. I believe that is the essence of
being prepared for anything in life.”
At the University McSween came under the tutelage of Robert
Mehr, a professor known not only for his knowledge of economics,
but also for his expertise and specialization in insurance. It was
Mehr who gave a pragmatic lift to McSween’s future and suggested
he apply to New York Life Insurance Company in New York. Mehr
was so awed by McSween’s drive and promise that he authored a
textbook on insurance and dedicated the fourth edition to him.
“At that time, large insurance companies did not hire African
Americans,” McSween recalls. Within a year at New York Life,
McSween had shattered every record in the life insurance
industry for African Americans. He was the first to sell $1 million
a year in life insurance policies. He later sold polices worth $1
million a month and surpassed that by selling $2 million a month.
McSween’s triumphs earned him a lifetime membership in “The
Million Dollar Roundtable,” making him the first African American
to join this prestigious insurance society. New York Life eventually
transferred McSween back to Chicago where he stayed with the
company for twenty years.
Remembering his roots and displaying a special courage and
compassion for the poor and downtrodden, McSween, in the
1960s, put his enterprises on hold and ventured to the South
where he marched, protested and linked arms with Dr. King
during the height of the
Civil Rights Movement.
McSween’s loyalty and
business acumen earned
King’s trust and respect.
He became a member of
the board and Executive Committee of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference (SCLC) while King was president. When
Dr. King was assassinated, McSween was a pallbearer. Today, he
continues to play an active role in the civil rights arena.
McSween is a board member and vice chairman of Operation
PUSH where he works as a personal confidant to Rev. Jesse
Jackson. Currently, he serves on the boards of the Martin Luther
King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and as vice
chairman and treasurer of the SCLC Foundation.
Also in the 1960s, McSween left the insurance industry
and became a McDonald’s franchisor, where he has been a vanguard in the corporation. When he opened his first franchise,
McSween became the first African American entrepreneur to
open a business at the still developing State Street Mall in
Chicago. He distinguished himself with marketing expertise and
his accomplishments earned him the Ronald McDonald Award for
Exemplary Contribution in 1981. In 1994, he received The Golden
Arch Award, the highest award presented to an owner/operator by
Cirilo McSween continues to leave his imprint on the business
community. He was one of the organizers of Independence Bank,
which became the largest African American financial institution.
He was inducted into Chicago State University’s Business Hall of
Fame and his business accomplishments earned him a host of
accolades. A high point in his life was when Chicago’s DuSable
Museum of African History mounted an exhibit entitled, “McSween
Meets King: A Civil Rights Story.” The exhibition was a visual diary
of McSween’s struggles for equality in 20th century America.
McSween’s greatest passion revolves around his native
Panama. He was the national coordinator for the ratification of the
Panama Canal Treaty and worked with President Jimmy Carter,
Omar Torrijos, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Ambassador Andrew
Young in this successful effort. He served as the Ambassador
Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Alternative Representative
of the Republic of Panama to the United Nations. He is also a
confidant of the current president Martin Torrijos who appointed
him an Ambassador with Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
Powers of Special Mission of the Republic of Panama.
McSween’s career and meteoric rise to prominence as
an African American in the business community have made
him a much sought after lecturer. “I speak from my personal
experiences,” McSween says. “You never know when your
accomplishments can serve as inspiration to others.”
To view additional photos, visit www.illinois.edu/goto/mcsween