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Support for the American dream; Gift to U of L business college will help students

December 30, 2019
arial view of Big Red the uofl college of business abstract sculpture

This opinion piece by Joe Craft was originally published in the December 8, 2019 edition of The Courier-Journal.

Last month, the University of Louisville’s College of Business announced a gift from my charitable foundation to enhance the mission of its Center for Free Enterprise. This support will help the university achieve its goals to recruit two professors of entrepreneurship and five doctoral students, as well as to expand the center’s research and student programming, which will include reading groups, a speaker series, and new online courses.

Louisville students who take advantage of these new opportunities will be prepared to apply entrepreneurial thinking and drive innovation throughout their careers and, equally important, understand and appreciate how value is created within our economic system.

I have been fortunate to have people throughout my life teach me the importance of free enterprise and the opportunities made available to those who would embrace participating in the business world with the goal or, more bluntly, the responsibility to advance the well-being of society. To the students at the University of Louisville, I want my gift to do the same for you! My hope is you will take advantage of the teachings at the Center for Free Enterprise and be inspired to chase the American dream. If you do, you will bring meaning and purpose to your life and to the tens of thousands, if not millions of lives you will touch along the way.

During the formative years of my life, I lived in Hazard during a period when Eastern Kentucky was experiencing extreme poverty. The region was very dependent on the coal industry, which was suffering from a decline in demand from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Distressed Appalachia was on the hearts and minds of many compassionate people from around the country.

In the 1960s, my memories included summers filled by serving on a host committee for my church. My assignment was to welcome a multitude of volunteer youth groups from all over the eastern United States who came to my hometown to offer hope and relief aid to those experiencing economic distress in the area. During that decade the message of hopelessness was constantly being reinforced in the media, by politicians and those who were coming to help. It was hard not to feel apprehensive about the future for the region and anxious for yourself and your fellow man.

Fortunately, my teachers, friends and family taught me the concept of self-reliance and the need to be an active participant in society, to take responsibility for your own life – your own outcome – and to make a difference in the lives of others. They explained lifting people from poverty is best achieved from being a job creator helping others get a job so they could enjoy the dignity of work and escape the shame of hopelessness and the need to depend on others to provide for their basic needs. That was my first understanding of entrepreneurship and chasing the American dream. I was sold immediately. The principles were simple – take school seriously, work hard, respect your mentors, take calculated risks, persevere through difficult times and care for others along the way.

Over the next decade, I experienced the truth in these teachings. While government programs proliferated at a rapid pace, it took an energy crisis, caused by the Arab embargo, to change the economic fortunes of Eastern Kentucky and its citizens.

Perfect timing for my career since I was graduating from the University of Kentucky at the same time energy investors were rushing to Kentucky’s coal mining regions, offering opportunities for employment to anyone with an education and a will to work. This was my chance to chase the American dream and I did so, joining one of those investors to learn job skills and help America solve the energy crisis. I worked in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky for five years before moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to join a different coal company that happened to have its corporate headquarters there.

The following question often runs through my mind: “Who would have thought a boy from Appalachia could achieve the American dream?” Over the past 40 years, I have had a front-row seat helping our country become an economic power that is the envy of the world. During this time, I had the opportunity to lead a company that has become the largest coal producer in Kentucky and the second-largest coal operator in the Eastern United States. Along the way, the outstanding accomplishments of the men and women who contributed to the success of our enterprise were recognized. A couple of examples are when Ernst & Young recognized me as Entrepreneur of the Year for the Southwest Region in the Energy, Chemical and Mining category in 2007; and the financial blog Motley Fool named me one of its “Top 10 CEO’s for 2011,” just ahead of Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and just behind the late Steve Jobs of Apple. Most of all, this success has allowed me the opportunity to give back to my home state.

Without America’s free enterprise system, this experience would not have been possible. Free markets and enterprise are driven by earned success. Free enterprise allows us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others. Earned success is the ultimate pursuit of happiness. This inspired me to make this contribution to the University of Louisville’s Center for Free Enterprise.

This contribution is given to enable our future leaders to define their success, pursue their happiness, and ultimately, achieve their vision of the American dream. To the students at the University of Louisville, our country needs you to take full advantage of this gift made for you!

Joe Craft, a native of Hazard and a graduate of the University of Kentucky, is president, CEO, and chairman of Alliance Resource Partners LP.