Al Roker Heckles Me: Laughing at Myself and Always Learning with SVP & CCO of Conagra Brands Jon Harris

I don’t think I’ve ever met someone more truer to their self than Jon Harris. To me, he is the definition of Be Brave, Be Free, Be You. He’s not afraid to be real, to show up as himself every time, and share his passions. As the Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of Conagra Brands, Jon meets a lot of people and one of his gifts is bringing them together – it’s like magic.

JS: John, I know a lot of connectors, but you that’s like a superpower, like super connector! Man, I need to get you a cape.

JH: You’re very kind.

JS: No, I’m very honest. I’m also kind. But when did you know that that those things were gifts that you had for other people. Was it something you realized over time? Or was there like a moment where you’re like, “This is what I’m meant to do. I don’t know how it plays out. But this is what I’m meant to do.”

JH: I learned early on in my life, that the time to make friends is not when you need them, but always. I remember in high school, I had a job at Dial America telemarketing years ago, you know, there was telemarketing. Which is by the way, where I learned great rejection, I learned great rejection in my dating life. And Dial America telemarketing selling Weekly Reader and anything else I could possibly sell online. But I used to help folks get part-time jobs and that’s when I learned I really loved helping people, helping connect people. And so I did that. And then throughout college, I had jobs at the Student Union. I was on student aid. And I helped connect folks with jobs within Rutgers.

JS: Good old work study?

JH: Total work study. Do you know that the I was so close with the woman in the financial aid office? May she rest in peace Lesley Gilbert, she came to our wedding.

JS: I love it.

JH: I learned the value of real friends, real true friendship, real people being themselves and authentic. And what a blessing it was to have people in your life. And that’s why I always wanted to give back. And even though my home life might have been a little unique, I wanted to help folks because I realized that everybody had that. So I was connecting folks. I got a job at Lens Crafters. I worked at WXRK in New York. I worked for Howard Stern.

JS: You worked for Stern? In all our conversations, how did I miss your radio time with Stern?

JH: I’ll tell you a funny story. The other thing in life is moxie, right? So what you’re talking about being brave, be free, be you. I won tickets in 1990 to go see Billy Joel at Nassau Coliseum. My dad (had) died and I was raising my brothers. I didn’t have an internship. I was a communications major at Rutgers. And I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I gotta get an internship.” So it was over the summer. And I had to go to WXRK to pick up the tickets. And I walked in I said, Oh, I’m also to a woman by the name of Diane Areyardy. If she’s listening, Diane, hello, and I love you and I owe you a lot. And I said to Diane, “Hey, Diane, I’m also here to talk to someone about an internship for next semester.” She said, “Oh, you mean Jeff Zaidman?” And I’m like, “Yes.” And she’s like, “Alright, come tomorrow.” So the next day I came in my Marshall’s suit that my mother bought me that was completely oversized. And I got the internship.

You’re in the Room for a Reason with Tennis Trailblazer – Former Pro Player and Tennis Executive – Katrina Adams

InStyle magazine naming her a BadAss Woman is probably the most accurate description of Kat Adams that I’ve ever heard. She’s been influencing and improving the game of tennis since she was six years old, playing on Chicago’s Southside. She’s always been an inspiration to me from our time at Northwestern University; her humility, determination, and understanding of who she is and the power she has on and off the court.

JS: One thing I find interesting about athletes is that you guys understand from a young age that there is a time limit on that thing that you have a gift for. And you have made some interesting changes that not all athletes do. Right? Of course, coaching and commentating, I think are always the obvious steps from the outside looking in. But moving into the C suite, not only in sports, but in the private sector is something that a lot of folks in your position never would have done. What is the thing that keeps you discovering and knowing what the next right things are? Is it that same feeling that you got when you were young? And picking up the tennis racquet? Is that the same feeling that guides you forward?

KA: Absolutely, I think it’s something that’s at the core of who you are. It’s the passion that is brewing inside of you to want to do whatever that next level is. For me staying in the sport of tennis, it’s in my DNA. It’s who I am. It’s what I have been raised to do. It’s the relationships that I built throughout my career from a junior all the way up to today. It’s being in those boardrooms and understanding the sport from a global perspective, not just from a national perspective, and being able to be that voice and the decision maker as to where we go from here. Our sport is an amazing sport. It’s a sport for a lifetime. It’s really from grassroots to the professional, to the US Open. We want American US Open champions. And so when I had the opportunity to be at the helm and making those decisions, not from the top down, but from the bottom up. The bigger the pool is from grassroots and you can get these players in a pipeline, the better chance you have of having a greater pool of champions at the top. And that’s something that we’ve done a great job at, if you look at the numbers and those that are ranked in the ATP tour and the WTA Tour, in the last in this year, it didn’t just start yesterday, they started years ago with a plan. And those players have progressed and are doing extremely well. So for me, being that decision maker for the growth and development of tennis was huge. And then of course, you had your staff that was doing all the other great things as far as making sure that the US Open was what it was, so that we could fund these programs and to get more kids into our sports. So that’s something that I think, inside me was brewing, to be that person, to be that leader. Because I’ve lived it, I’m the poster child of who the USTA was, or is when I was in that position. And it’s something that, you know, I will definitely keep close to my chest.

JS: One of the things that I loved in your book was how you talked about and illustrated that part so clearly, because I think a lot of times we look at that story with Serena and Venus in particular, but also Naomi and Coco and the other young Black women who have come up in the sports in a similar way. But one of the things I thought that was particularly poignant about the point you were making is that even though they are superstars, and you got to watch that very close up as they were developing, that it’s not the rarity that we think it could be, like we always think about this pie in the sky thing. And yes, that gift that they all have is super important. But this idea that we’re building a system that many of us have not had access to on a lot of different levels, and how important that part is, and I want you to dive a little deeper into that, because you did just hit on it. But to me, that’s power – building a system that creates access. And what does that mean for you?

KA: It’s huge. When you name the names that you mentioned that you know are champions, and then you know there was a big gap from Althea Gibson to the rest of us right? So we had players like Lesley Allen, Renee Blount, Kim Sands; people that no one unfortunately, know. And then you had that next generation of Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, Camille Benjamin that people know. And then I came along with Chanda Rubin, Jeri Ingram, Stacey Martin, you know, some you’ve heard, some you haven’t heard of. And then now there’s just a slew of them, I can’t even name all of them, which is great. It’s great. Because when you look at Sloane Stephens, who is a US Open champion, Madison Keys, who got to the finals of that one, and 2017. And then you now have the emergence of Coco Gauff, Taylor Townsend, who’s a new mother who’s now coming back on the tour, etc. It’s great. But there’s a much larger pool of players, boys and girls that people just don’t know about. And they’re all playing college, there’s a lot of them that are getting college scholarships, etc. But the challenge, I think, for our people, for our community, is we can all develop, but the cost of getting to the next level is extraordinarily expensive. And if you don’t have your village that’s supporting you, that’s helping you get to these tournament so that you can continue to play so that you can have the opportunity, then that’s where we lose out.

(Edited for length and clarity)

How He Forgave Himself For Not Giving “SNL” His All with Actor, Author, Stand-Up Comedian, and President of the Laugh Factory Finesse Mitchell.

Finesse Mitchell was one of THE best guests we ever had on You & Me. He would come on the show to promote his stand-up gigs and had the whole studio rolling with his take on current events and advice on relationships. I thought I knew all about my brother but he totally surprised me with his new role as President of Laugh Factory, the comedy club chain where he got his start. He says it’s a dream come true!

JS: I didn’t even know you wanted to be an executive and kind of running stuff. How did this happen? And where are you taking it?

FM: When I was younger, I always wanted to own my comedy club. And I got really close, I had an investor and everything. I was doing stand-up at the time. In fact, I believe I was fresh off of Saturday Night Live. So I wanted to own my own Comedy Club, got my investor, everything fell through. I moved back out to L.A. after New York, after a stint in South Florida and then moved back out to L.A. ended up getting a Disney Channel job and became China’s dad on the show called Ant Farm and that ran for four years. It escaped me; I got back into acting and the problem has always been with me is jack of all trades syndrome, you know what I mean? I always felt like I can do anything I can. Comedy was the escape from me trying to do everything and comedy ended up taking off and turned into Saturday Night Live and everything else. So it was like how do I become the business exec and real estate mogul and the strip club owner? I got goals, you know what I mean?

JS: But you know what, though, Finesse? I think you and I have talked about this a little bit. But I want to dive deeper into that. Because that happens to me too. Whenever you’re one of those people who acts and cuz it’s like for me it’s radio, TV, voiceover now podcasting and speaking and stuff like that. People are like, “Could you pick something?” No! Why would I? Why would I ever want to pick any one thing? My brain just doesn’t work like that. And I think so many times people tell you what you should be doing. And if you get known for one thing that people like, why you branching off to this other stuff? Like, that’s where I started. I’m just getting back to it. How do you manage that when other people have expectations of what you should be doing? And balancing that with what your heart says, and what you know you’re good at, because you are good at a lot of different things.

FM: Jeanne, people are different. People are wired different. And as soon as you realize that you’re not like your brother, or your sister, I mean, the connection can be that close. Even though you came out the same womb. You’re not like your roommate in college, you’re not like your fraternity brother or sorority sister. Once you realize that you’re different, and you have different capabilities, and you’re firing on different spark plugs. Or maybe you have more. Once you accept that, then you have to be strong enough and bold enough to stop listening to the people who cannot operate on that frequency.

(Edited for length and clarity)

I’m Worth It with Chicago Radio Legend Bonnie “Hey Baby” DeShong

I credit Bonnie with helping teach me the ropes when I was a radio rookie at WGCI in the early ‘90s. By then, she was already an essential part of Chicago Urban Radio, co-hosting mornings with giants like Tom Joyner and Doug Banks.  She had shifted her dream of a full-time career in theater to performing behind a microphone. What I love about Bonnie is that she is absolutely herself in everything she does. 

JS:  I remember you doing plays and things. I mean, the Goodman, ETA, all these all these institutions of arts, the theatre arts in Chicago, you’ve been on those stages. So you didn’t actually give up that dream. It just looked a little bit different, right?

BS: Yeah. That’s exactly it Jeanne. I always felt that whatever I wanted to do I needed to do to fulfill how I felt, okay? And that even came down to being with the listeners that we would greet. And being on stage or being out in the public eye and someone coming up to you. It’s how you feel about yourself, it comes out to the people who you are greeting. You know what I’m saying?

JS: You’re gonna make me cry. Oh, that’s so true. And I talk about that so much. And I think because we share some acting background with that, and it’s so true. You affect how people feel. You can change the temperature in a room by how you enter it. And I tell that to my clients all the time. And it’s amazing how we learn that with work.

BS: And it’s the truth. Now, the one thing that that really resonated with me was when Marv Dyson (former WGCI GM) said, and he won’t remember this, I’m sure. He said that Gannett may sign your paycheck. But your boss is your listener. If they turn the radio off, you ain’t got no job. Okay, so you have to relate. And you can’t think that because I’m on the radio, I’m all this in a bag of chips, you got to realize that when you go to the bathroom, you’re going next to somebody who’s not on the radio, you know what I’m saying? It’s like when days get hard, it doesn’t matter that you on the radio or not, if you hungry, you don’t matter. You have to treat people the way you want to be treated. And when that happens, it comes out and they give it right back to you. 

JS: I just want that to sit there for a second because those are the biggest facts in the world. And it’s actually something that you taught me when I was new to the business because that’s one of the hardest things to get used to. Because when you start, you’re young, you don’t have no kind of sense. But you think you know everything.

(Edited for length and clarity)

Listening Is Our Superpower with Award-Winning Poet, Recording Artist, Songwriter, Actor, & Author J. Ivy

As long as I’ve known J. Ivy, he’s been living his saying of “Dreams don’t come true. They are true.” I actually see it as a connection to Fearless Authenticity – that you speak what is inside of you. And man, does J! Poetry is in his heart and he’s not afraid to share it, especially on stage where he says he’s living his purpose. 

JS: I think the beauty in life is when you really listen to what is true and right. When you hear something that is not, you may not be able to put your finger on it, but you know that it’s there. And, I try to root that out in myself, because I think we often try to please, especially as performers, we try to get out there and do stuff and I wonder how that process is for you. Because you are very flexible in your art. You do everything from working with Kanye to major corporate brands, which is a whole other lane. And then the Deepak Chopra and the community work you do. And kids, like you do a lot of stuff and keep an arts in schools, which that’s a whole other lane I want to talk about. Specifically, but, but flowing through all those different things that are different audiences that need different things. How do you keep your truth? And that kernel of truth in it without trying to cater to it? Right? Or to please?

J.Ivy: Well, one, like flow is key. That’s our theme word – flow. So to move in different spaces. The foundation and everything that I do is poetry, is a writer. At the root of it all I’m a writer, I’m a writer. So if I’m kicking some bars poetically over here, or writing on a film or working on some music or writing proposals, with the Recording Academy, let me write this out and tell them how I feel because we need to make some changes over here. Like, I know I’m confident in myself finally. That has been an issue over the years, just finding that confidence, but I’m confident that I can get my point across and I can flow and adapt. 

I think it goes back to the listening and just like really trying to hear, okay, what is this call for? A lot of times people are typecast too. So a lot of times people, they might want me to come in and do something, but J, we don’t want it to be poetic. And I’m like, I know, I don’t want it to be poetic either. It just depends on what the project calls for. So it goes back to listening and goes back to flow, goes back to being flexible. And just knowing where we’re going, because once you know where you’re going, then it’s easy or easier to navigate and figure out how you gonna get there.