Updated: Nov 12, 2020
"The ultimate legacy is that I've made a difference in our communities. I've helped people advance in their careers. I've helped support and mentor folks coming up, especially early leaders and early professionals."
Photo by: Joe Proudman
Louis Stewart is the head of strategic initiatives for the developer ecosystem at NVIDIA, a multinational billion-dollar tech company which creates graphic processing units for PC gaming. Prior to working for NVIDIA, Louis travelled Europe playing basketball professionally and enjoyed an extensive careering driving economic innovation and entrepreneurship for the State of California and the City of Sacramento.
We sat down with Louis to unpack his career as a former pro-athlete and his experience in California government:
I grew up traveling because my dad played basketball overseas. I grew up in France and Italy with my brother, my sister, and my mom. And we were there for eight seasons. For me, since I was older than my brother and my sister, I thought it was fantastic. For five of those seasons, my dad played in Monaco. People know that country now as the land of the rich and famous. You see it now on the James Bond movies, but that was home. It is a small nation-state; you can walk from one end to the other because it’s about a mile and a half. And as young kid, I was the fluent French speaker and was the translator for my parents a lot of times. I was the one that got sent to the store.
The transition back to the US was a little bit more challenging. While I spoke English, I wasn't familiar with America. And coming back in fifth grade, early sixth grade being one of the only Black kids in private school, not fitting in because I wasn't familiar with the colloquialisms and slang, you start to coalesce around sports. And at the time around breakdancing. Those two things got me indoctrinated to what was going on. I had the zipper pants and everything.
High school was even more interesting because that was my first time really around 70% Black students. Still speaking proper English, I didn't understand code switching. Trying to assimilate into a new environment was even more challenging in high school; grades dropped. That’s when I started throwing myself a basketball mostly. I got out of high school with a scholarship to Santa Clara University. I left school early when I went to go play overseas.
Can you describe the process of getting to playing basketball overseas?
It was actually really interesting when I left, Santa Clara. I actually stopped playing basketball altogether. I gained like 40 pounds. I was done with basketball, but I kept showing up to gyms to watch people play. And a couple of guys stayed on me for about 18 months trying to convince me to play with them. Ultimately, I got back in shape, started playing in the San Francisco Pro-Am and in tournaments all around California. One day I got a random phone call essentially telling me that there was a job for me in Peru. I went the next day to get my passport and was on a flight to Peru.
I played for a military school down there. I was the only American on the team. I was greeted at the airport by military police with AK-47s because at the time there was a terrorist organization in Peru, and they wanted to make sure that nothing happened to because my flight was late. They laid me down in the back of a pickup truck and took me to the base. And that was my introduction to overseas basketball. I was there for a season, and I hurt my knee. Then I went to go play in Belgium, but my knee decided it didn't want to do anything positive for me. So, I came back to the states and started working again.
Elaborate on your experiences working for the Governor and with the City of Sacramento.
I work in the private sector in the San Jose and Santa Clara for 17 years. I ended up getting laid off during the dot.com bust and moved back up to Sacramento and got a job for a freight forwarding company doing business development marketing. I was laid off from there also. And for about two and half years I was going back to school, doing websites for people—randomness. And it got to the point where we needed money, so I applied to a Craigslist ad for a junior web developer. That’s all it said. It said that there were benefits. It said that it was a state level job, didn't really know what that meant. And it turns out that I did not get hired as a junior web developer. Instead, I got hired as the IT Director for Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign in 2006. That was the catalyst for 10 years of state service, working for Schwarzenegger, working for Jerry Brown, and most recently, I worked for Mayor Steinberg in Sacramento for the last 3 years before I moved over to NVIDIA.
In your professional career you have had a series of layoffs. What is something that has helped you in those times? What advice can you give for individuals currently faced with that, given COVID-19 unemployment climate?
Having a good support system is crucial to surviving these times. Not only professionally, but as a human with all the stuff that’s been happening with all the social unrest and the killings of Black folks in the U.S right now. You need to have a good, positive social network so it’s not always people reinforcing your thought process but other people that are willing to support and listen to you—be there for you in times of need. A lot of self-reflection has helped me as well. When something bad happens, you can stay mad with whoever was involved when the bad thing happened. But a lot of times for me personally, it's looking inward and saying, “What could I have done differently? What can I change so that doesn’t happen again? What is the next thing for the reincarnation of me that's going to help me succeed and move forward?”
You need to have a good, positive social network so it’s not always people reinforcing your thought process but other people that are willing to support and listen to you and be there for you in times of need.
What were your day-to-day responsibilities while working for the former California Governors and for Mayor Steinberg?
The first two and a half years I was working in the department of motor vehicles as special advisor to the director. I did a quick stint working in the governor's office doing the census 2009-2010. And that's actually when I started getting out into the community and understanding the true importance of government, and how money is allocated to the community, specifically to the Black and brown communities. I moved straight from that to economic development because that was the connection to industry, that was the connection to money, and to really figure out how to affect change in the community. There was a position open within that office as the deputy of innovation and entrepreneurship. I moved into that six months into the economic development job.
My day-to-day of that was dealing with government from all around the country and all around the world—dealing with universities and with businesses. It was helping to build ecosystems around universities, helping cities do innovation, trying to set up programs within universities so they can compete for dollars at the federal level. I was doing partnerships with universities all around the US, whether it be for drones or for advanced manufacturing. I represented the State in the biotech industry. I was the guy sent to the biotech and life science events around the country. And then, more towards the end of my stay at the State, I started to meet a guy that was out there talking about autonomous cars. And that got the attention of the City of Sacramento because they were trying to do some things with autonomous cars, and they recruited me to stand up some programs.
What is something that would make applicants competitive if they wanted to pursue that type of career?
The first piece of advice I have is to be 100% open to learning, open to opportunities that you may not have thought that you would ever do. I think staying curious about what is coming next. What I didn't understand when I was younger is the value of network and having the right network. Not networking just to network—that doesn't do you any good. Have a purpose and an agenda when you go to meetings, when you go talk to people. It can’t just be random in how you are talking to people, whether it be on LinkedIn, in person, or on Zoom meetings. Be intentional about what you want to talk about so people don’t feel like they're wasting your time, and they want to help.
Last thing: don't be afraid to ask for help. It's not a sign of weakness. It’s actually how I got my new gig in NVIDIA. I’ve been searching for a way out of the City for a change of pace and started posting some stuff on my blog and Linked-In. And one of the posts was, “Are you on the right bus?” Basically, put it out there that it may be a time for a change.
What are some obstacles or roadblocks that you would advise people to stay away from?
This may sound a little weird, but don't not trust your gut. If you're able to get into an opportunity area, and you feel like you may have overstayed your welcome, trust that so you don't get bogged down, mentally, emotionally, physically with the burdens of being on the wrong seat at the wrong time. But you have to do a little bit of self-assessment and figure out—is it you? Is it the role? Is it a person? What is it that is holding you back? The first obstacle is getting over yourself and being willing to step out there and do something different.
My second obstacle: people always want to be authentic and represent themselves. But there's a time and a place to be fully authentic. When I was younger, I used to be the king of email wars. That didn’t do me any good, whether I was right, wrong or otherwise. It wasn’t a reason to go at people like I was. But you have to be authentic so that people know they can trust you, that you're going to do what you say you’re going to do, and earn people’s respect by delivering for folks.
The first obstacle is getting over yourself and being willing to step out there and do something different.
What is your average week like at NVIDIA?
I am just starting this new gig with NVIDIA, and what I predict my average week is going to look like is a lot of conversation with historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic serving institutions, tech institutions, and others trying to get to the students to get them to understand what a Nvidia does and how they can have a career as a developer within the ecosystem. NVIDIA is trying to hire more Black and brown folks in the company in order to diversify. It’s a lot of relationship building. It’s a lot of education. On the other end, I’ll probably be helping the government relations people develop a California strategy for growing a policy lens in California.
What's the ultimate legacy that you would like to leave behind?
For the past five or six years of my career, I have been really intent on doing what I do for my kids, for kids that look like my kids, so they have opportunities more immediately than what I did. It’s not even really for me. The ultimate legacy is that I've made a difference in our communities. I've helped people advance in their careers. I've helped support and mentor folks coming up, especially early leaders and early professionals. And I am remembered for what I was able to deliver, and for being a man of my word.
Checkout Louis Stewart's blog at:
#policy #education #basketball #probasketball #sports #government #stateofcalifornia #california #sacramento #HBCU #arnoldschwarzenegger #jerrybrown #governor #mayor #mayorsteinberg #pcgaming #gaming #innovation #entrepreneur #professionalsports