For all of his southern-fried lyricism, and the pizza jokes made at his expense, Cain’s story is much richer than he usually lets on. When the Klieg lights are shut off, he is a meticulous man in both his bookkeeping and his demeanor. Discipline and dogged ambition drive him.
Cain’s thirst for self-improvement was evident at the start. He grew up in Atlanta, the son of working-class parents — his father a chauffeur, his mother a domestic worker. They had always dreamed of owning their own home, not living in a “half-home,” an attached unit. They achieved that goal. They wanted their two sons to graduate from college. Both did.
Cain saw his parents’ hard work as a simple, inspirational example: Work hard, trust in God, have no fear, and you can achieve the American dream. To him, it is more than a political idea; it is central to who he is as a citizen, and as a potential presidential candidate. Once he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Morehouse College in 1967, Cain was determined to map his own path to success.
The early motivator, and Cain says it unabashedly, was wealth. Working as a systems analyst for the United States Navy in Dahlgren, Va., Cain made $7,729 a year. At age 23, he made a personal goal to one day earn $20,000. As he settled into his position, he noticed that advancement — and an increased salary — would require a graduate degree. So he searched for the top computer-science program he could find, predicting that future jobs would require such skills.
Cain selected Purdue University in Indiana. He was not exactly eager to return to the classroom, but he knew that he needed to learn more and improve his résumé. After surviving a string of difficult courses and exams and earning his master’s degree in 1971, he returned to the Navy full-time and was granted a GS-13 position. His new salary: $20,001.
With two degrees and solid Navy work experience, Cain began to explore new opportunities. He consulted with his father, Luther Cain, who had risen in the chauffeur ranks to become the personal driver for R. W. Woodruff, the legendary former chairman of Coca-Cola. He was granted an interview with the company, based on his father’s sterling reputation, but was told at the outset of the interview that there were no jobs available. Cain so impressed the hiring director that, weeks later, he was offered a newly created position as a business analyst.
Cain learned much at Coca-Cola, but found himself stalled again, often pegged as the “chauffeur’s son” in office politics. When he saw that his path to his new goal — to become a corporate vice president — was likely to be long and arduous, he began to eye other positions within the food industry. In 1977, he landed at Pillsbury in Minneapolis.
It was a fresh challenge, and Cain relished the chance to be an entrepreneur within the company, spearheading projects and managing teams. By 1981, he was tapped to be vice president for corporate systems, overseeing administrative and computer services. The promotion earned him a mention in Black Enterprise magazine. Herman Cain was on the radar.
The gentleman from Georgia drew notice inside of Pillsbury’s downtown headquarters for his ability to communicate. Cain began to develop his speaking style in those drab Upper Midwest conference rooms, using his math skills to break down financial information into easy-to-understand memos and presentations.
“One day, the president of the company called my boss aside and asked where I got my marketing degree,” Cain says. “My boss, Bob Copper, told the president that he does not have one, that I hold math and computer-science degrees. People were surprised about that. I did not come across as an analytic.”
Even as he excelled, Cain’s entrepreneurial itch emerged once again, but this time, he did not leave the company to scratch it. He decided to switch over to Burger King, which at the time was owned by Pillsbury. “That was a major transition,” he says. “I started at Pillsbury as a manager in one of their analysis functions, then worked my way up the corporate ladder to become vice president. Moving to Burger King was an important moment in my career.”