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Profiles of Success with Cortlan Wickliff

December, 2019
Laura Tolentino

Tell us your name and a little about yourself.

Dr. Cortlan J. Wickliff, Esq. is an engineer, lawyer, and entrepreneur. He is a Texas native with an impressive academic and professional CV. He has an impressive resume which includes being accepted into the Texas Academy of Math & Science at the University of North Texas at 14 years old, graduating from Rice University as the youngest engineer in the nation (age 19). He then became one of the youngest African American graduates from Harvard Law School in the university’s history (age 22), and was the youngest of more than 94,000 licensed attorneys in the state of Texas (age 23). He completed his education when he attained his Ph.D. in Engineering from Texas A & M University (age 25).

Professionally, Wickliff has worked as legal counsel for several companies, conducted biomedical research in the public & private sector and continues to be a highly sought after author and motivational speaker. Most recently he published his book Young and Driven: Overdrive the second installation in his “Young and Driven” series.

Dr. Wickliff believes that it is never too early or too late to be impactful, and wants to encourage others to be driven to succeed regardless of the obstacles.

Why did you become an entrepreneur, speaker, author, etc in the first place?

I started speaking because people wanted to hear my story (started college at 15, youngest engineer in the nation at 19, youngest lawyer in TX at 23, and PhD before 26). I found that I was good at it and I was helping people so I kept honing my skills and speaking. I started my career at 15 and have never looked back.

I became an author because I wanted to be able to help more people. I couldn’t speak to everyone and even when I did speak to people I could only cram so much information in a small time allotted for workshops and keynote speeches. I wrote my first books to provide (to the best of my ability) all of my advice for success in one location

I became an engineer & lawyer because it would allow me to help people by working with companies to get their life saving/improving products/services to market. I am a problem solver by nature and like to help people. So this was a nature career choice for me.

Tell us, how do you deal with fear?

Three part process
1. Try to mitigate risk/danger (sometimes fear is an accurate assessment of your chances to succeed; by raising the likelihood of success, lesson fear)

2. Put myself in a situation where I cannot turn back. For example when I was going to college I told everyone I was going so that the fear of embarrassment for quitting or flunking out exceeded any other fear I might have had about being 15 and living on my own.

3. I force myself to take the first steps. When I am in a situation, my need to get out of it can overtake my fear of being in it.

Tell us, how do you deal with rejection?

I remind myself that rejection is an inevitable part of life. People think that success is the absence of failure, but successful people generally fail more times than they succeed. To be successful you just have to try more times than you fail.

On the Driven to Succeed Academic Tour of Texas, I told students that if you do not get at least one rejection letter during your college or job application process, it means you played it safe and didn’t accomplish everything that you could. And I would remind them that nobody cares about the rejection letters you got on the way to your dream school or dream job.

What’s the name of your company? What exactly does your company do, how do you help people?

CJW Holdings LLC. Through our consulting with businesses we are able to help early stage and expanding businesses to overcome the legal and business hurdles to get their products/services to market. I help people by doing supply chain consulting, legal/quality assurance consulting, and general business structure consulting. The goal is to make each product/service complaint with company, local, state and federal regulations at a cost that is reasonable to the company and the public.

What were the biggest challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge I faced is one that I believe all people face to a varying extent. I needed to find my assertive voice so that I would not be steamrolled in meeting or in the world of work. Being honest, I was generally 5 or more years younger than some of my peers in companies (and that gap has only increased). Initially, despite my ample knowledge and qualifications, I was easily dismissed because of my age (and probably my ethnicity). Until I learned to find my voice and boldly take stances I would find myself getting taken in wrong directions.

In situations like this, I had to decide what was more important: my comfort of not making waves or doing what was good and right. I learned to always choose the later.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?

Value networking more! Missteps in networking can haunt your career and make you miss out on great opportunities. Effective networking (i.e. purposeful interactions that grow your relationship while not becoming overly friendly or giving T.M.I.l) can drastically increase your success in life.

Who are your biggest influences and people you admire and why?

The first person that comes to mind is my mom. She got pregnant with my oldest brother at 15, was widowed at 35, and still managed to get 2 engineering degrees and a business degree while raising 3 boys (solo for most of our lives). She is the person who taught me the project management skills that have carried me thus far. Her philosophy was that the tools and techniques that make you successful on your job are the same ones that can make you successful in your personal life. She taught me to be project and solution oriented, and to engineer my way through any situation. That continuous guidance and assistance has made me who I am today and helped me to be successful.

Name a person who helped you along the way?

When I was in the 4th grade in gym class, a student had done something they were not supposed to do while the coach was not looking. The coach, upon becoming aware of the misdeed, proceeded to admonish a different student.

I have always had a strong moral compass and stood up against what I perceived to be injustice. So when I saw this, I walked straight up to the coach and proceeded to deliver an impassioned monologue about how respect is a mutual thing that most be given to be received and how it was disrespectful and wrong to jump to judgement without collecting the facts. At the end of this monologue the coach took me out of class, and I thought we were going to the office so that I could get a referral as had been the typical punishment for my protests against injustice in the past (and their were multiple).

However, rather than punishing me for voicing a well reasoned argument (which had been the custom of almost all my other teachers to date) he took me to the instructors over the gifted and talented program and had me repeat the speech I had given him. Never the bashful child when it came to justice, I repeated the speech near verbatim to the astonished teacher. Within a month or so I was in the gifted and talented program and from that point on I was always in advanced placement classes. That coach changed the trajectory of my life by putting me on the advanced placement track for the first time (even though I had skipped a grade and consistently made all A’s, nobody had done it before), and demonstrated what it meant to put pride aside for the betterment of the next generation which is a lesson I never forgot (keep in mind he was a grown man being admonished harshly & publicly by a 7-8 yr-old).

What do you see as your greatest success in life, so far?

My greatest success was the Driven to Succeed Tour Texas. I used up all of my vacation for 1.5 years, personally funded it, and planned every stop. This was pure altruism and cost a lot of time money and energy. Before the last of 50+speeches on this 25 city, 4 wk, 4500+ mile tour I was so sick that I vomited uncontrollably, was running a fever and felt like I could barely stand. But I delivered a 40 min speech, answered questions for more than 25 min, and had students say I was legitimately impactful. This is my greatest success because I was able to inspire, guide, and help thousands of students from around my home state and no matter how bad I felt, how tired I was, or how frustrated I felt I was able to consistently deliver and contribute. That tour and those students is my greatest success to date.

How can people contact you?
@cjwickliff (IG & Twitter)

What book would you recommend and why?

Young and Driven: Overdrive; it honestly contains every tip and trick to be successful I could think of. The book contains the step by step guide of how I planned and executed my 18 year plan to attain a Ph.D. before my 26th birthday, start a business, and by the youngest engineer in the country, lawyer in Texas, and consistently the youngest person in every position I have held.

What’s a personal self-talk, mantra, affirmation or self-belief that contributes to your success?

It is never too early or too late to be impactful; anything is possible if you are ambitious enough to dream big, bold enough to try, and courageous enough to try again.

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