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Ex-Lakers star Magic Johnson lights up panel discussion

March 24, 2012|By John Corrigan
  • Earvin "Magic" Johnson speaks to the crowd at LMU's Gersten Pavilion.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson speaks to the crowd at LMU's Gersten… (Getty Images )

The term “panel discussion” ranks somewhere between “fixing a flat tire” and “IRS audit” on the Fun List. You have to figure that most people dragooned into attending these events are usually on the clock in some fashion.

But a panel discussion with former Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson? That’s something else entirely.

This week, Loyola Marymount University played host to one of the Urban Economic Forums being staged around the country by the White House Business Council. The forum included a series of workshops aimed at helping urban entrepreneurs expand their businesses, land government contracts and tap into overseas markets.

And there were panel discussions. Of course.

As the Los Angeles Times Business editor, I was asked to moderate a panel with Johnson – perhaps the country’s best-known urban entrepreneur – and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

The subject, loosely, was the role urban entrepreneurship can play in reducing unemployment, which is especially high among African Americans and Latinos.

I prepared a series of questions aimed at sheddling light on the roles both government and the private sector can play in spurring development and getting people back to work.

Turns out, most of the questions weren’t necessary. As the session began, Johnson asked for a handheld microphone and was soon off the stage and on the floor of LMU’s Gersten Pavilion – telling the rapt audience how he became a successful entrepreneur by focusing on urban areas that mainstream businesspeople had ignored.

His first major venture was the Magic Johnson Theaters in Crenshaw Plaza, which he developed with a partner in the 1990s (they sold their stake in 2004). The theaters were a huge success, which Johnson attributes to his insight into the tastes of the community he served.

It was not without hitches, however. Before opening weekend, Johnson recalled, his hot dog supplier assured him that he had a 30-day supply of frankfurters. Instead, he said, they sold out the first night.

In the suburbs, Johnson said, it’s dinner and a movie. But in urban communities, “it’s dinner at the movie.”

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