This story is reproduced with the kind permission of the Atlanta Business Chronicle
DAVID Panton is no stranger to trailblazing.
He was the youngest member of his undergraduate class at Princeton University at the age of 20. Then, at Harvard Law School, he was one of two black presidents in the history of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. The other was President Barack Obama.
He is also among the youngest PhD holders from Oxford University.
Now, the 41-year-old is one of the select handful of minority leaders at a private equity firm, a field that rarely shows much diversity. But Panton remains humble about his accomplishments, citing hard work as the reason for his success.
"I believe success is defined by what you have overcome to accomplish what you accomplish," he said, emphasising his respect for people who achieve great things without a support system.
"The people I am most impressed by are those who have done more than I've done, with less support than I had," he said, in a lyrical Jamaican lilt.
For Panton, that journey began by flying to Princeton, NJ, from Jamaica at the age of 16, to convince admission officers he deserved a spot, even though he hadn't completed high school — a requirement for all applicants to Princeton University.
"I was very determined to get in," he said, simply.
A lot of that determination came from the Rev Keith Panton, his father. Born in Mandeville, Jamaica, Panton found an inspiring role model in his father, who worked his way "from growing up poor" to becoming the first black chief executive of a Jamaican company. The senior Panton later became a priest, but the allure of business had been embedded in his son.
"Seeing my father made me realise I wanted to run a business, be an entrepreneur," he said. Panton got his first taste of running a "multimillion-dollar business" in his 20s, as president of the Harvard Law Review. Since then, running companies has been very much part of his career.
Panton maintains a close relationship with his family in Jamaica. He said he speaks to his parents every day. In fact, he moved to Atlanta in 2004 to be closer to his sister who lives here.
He joined Mellon Ventures that year, and within three years, became part of the team that brought over the portfolio of investments from Mellon Bank to form Navigation Capital Partners. The company has deployed more than $1.5 billion to invest in notable companies including SecureWorks Inc (SecureWorks eventually was bought by Dell Inc).
Despite living an affluent lifestyle, which includes taking private jets and a reserved table at Buckhead restaurant Chops, Panton said "wealth in life is about health, family and satisfaction. Monetary wealth is a good way of keeping score, but without the first three, it means nothing."
Panton talks candidly about his failures too. As a senior at Princeton, he applied for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, where selected foreign students get a full scholarship to attend Oxford University in the United Kingdom.
"I was fairly confident I would win. And when they announced the winner, I was about to step forward, but then I lost," he said. "It was difficult. I reapplied the next year and I won. But it was a tough year for me."
So motivated is he by his belief "in the passionate pursuit of perfection" (carmaker Lexus' motto) that Panton spends much of his spare time mentoring.
Larry Mock, managing partner of Navigation Capital Partners, explains that Panton's personal and professional strengths converge around his desire to help others.
"The way I describe David to people that don't know him is that he's the 'consummate deal guy'. Most people leave a cocktail party having said hello to five old friends. David will walk out of a party with five new friends and offer to help them with either introductions to others, or to look at their business. It's not unusual for David to schedule two to three lunches in a day."
In turn, Panton said Mock is one of his greatest mentors, who he would "have never got into private equity without."
Panton also teaches a private equity course once a year at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, where his "magic touch with students makes him very popular," said Klaas Baaks, executive director at the Emory Center for Alternative Investments, who co-teaches the class. "He inspires students and genuinely has an interest in them, which is so hard to find."
Upon meeting Panton, what immediately strikes people is his breadth of knowledge on — what feels like — everything.
During the interview, he discussed governments, leadership techniques and international business with relative ease. In fact, he was an accomplished debate champion at Princeton, and his former roommate and debate partner, Ted Cruz, recently won election to the US Senate from Texas.
Even now, Panton's thirst for knowledge, along with a hectic work schedule, keeps him constantly travelling. But his favourite place in the world will always be "Jamaica, where I'm from", he said.
Panton's other love? Jamaican cuisine. In Atlanta, he frequents Chef Rob's on Roswell Road, for its authentic food. And anyone visiting Jamaica can't leave without trying the jerk chicken or jerk pork at Scotchies, according to him. He divides his time between homes in Atlanta, Jamaica and Trinidad, but said he can't see himself moving out of Atlanta any time soon.
"I love Atlanta," he said.
While Panton continues to build Navigation's multibillion-dollar portfolio, he said he also aspires to "leave the world in a better place than I saw it". He is "very committed" to inspiring change in his home country through capable leadership.
"To me, a good leader has a vision of what they want to accomplish, an ability to communicate their vision," he said, "and the ability to persuade others to work with them in accomplishing that vision."