Trevor Burgess is not a household name, but his story is familiar to many of us who live the struggle to win everyday.

Raised by a single mother, Burgess, the chief executive of a Florida community bank, C1 Financial, grew up poor from the age of 7. He learned about resilience, determination, and adaptability during those times. But it was when he went to Dartmouth College that he encountered a seminal moment in his life: the decision to come out as a gay man.

As Burgess described it: "I was a precocious 19 year old having a great learning experience in college, but I wasn't being true to myself. And I made the decision one day to just be who I was."

His fraternity brothers didn't take the revelation too well. One peer wrote an op-ed in the newspaper calling him a "renounced sodomite." According to Burgess, who detailed all of this in the latest episode of my podcast, Radiate, university officials swept the incident under the rug. (You can listen to the entire episode on my website, iTunes and SoundCloud or download the RSS feed).

"That was an acceptable thing to happen in 1991, 1992," he said. "Thankfully, we've come a long way and Dartmouth has changed a lot and society has changed a lot."

Experience will tell you that those dark moments have more to do in shaping one's character and determining one's success than any collection of Ivy League degrees. Burgess proves that theory right.

"Going through that sort of experience...taught me a couple of things. One, that I needed to have really thick skin if I was going to survive in the business world," he said. "And number two is that I did have to be authentic. I needed to be myself completely if I was going to be successful. I think that when people are hiding something or aren't able to really be true to themselves, it's difficult when they're interacting with others in business."

But that's only half of it. When I met Burgess earlier this year, he had just taken C1 Financial public. A small bank with a market cap of nearly $400 million usually doesn't get the attention of The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg or The New York Times but in listing the bank, Burgess had made some history: being the first openly gay public bank CEO.

Being "different" in the corporate world also made Burgess a success in other ways: it made him aware. As he explained, he's more aware of the biases in hiring. He's aware of the pay disparity among women and minorities. He's aware that while it's good to get credit for breaking barriers, at the end of the day what really matters is how well you can execute your business.

"I don't think any of my clients in Florida...care one bit if I'm gay or not. I think they care about speed, service, certainty. Are we going to get the deal done? What's the pricing of the deal? How competitive are we and are we able to meet their needs?"

That execution has helped the bank grow its assets. Burgess launched a clever marketing campaign a few years ago to win wealthy clients by giving away "free" Mercedes Benzes.

Success is never guaranteed. Burgess knows it's a tough operating environment. A lot of people told him when he left his high-paying job at Morgan Stanley to take over C1 Financial he wasn't going to succeed.

That's when Burgess would dig back to his days at Dartmouth.

"All of the struggles that I faced really led me to the same outcome, which is that I really just don't care what other people think about me," he said. "We heard a lot of naysayers when we were working on this project to build a great Florida bank...not caring what other people are saying and what other people think about you - that's a really powerful tool."

If you like this article, you'll love my new podcast, Radiate, featuring interviews with CEOs, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders. You can click on new episodes on iTunes, SoundCloud or on my website. www.betty-liu.com. Here is the RSS feed too. And please don't forget to REVIEW the podcast or contact me at betty@betty-liu.com.

Published on: Dec 8, 2015
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.