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For someone who has spent much of his adult life sharing the benefits of a good attitude, Wally Amos surprisingly grew up surrounded by negativity. He spent his early years in relative poverty in the “colored” section of Tallahassee, Fla., during the late 1930s and ’40s. His mother, Ruby, worked as a domestic servant her whole life. Despite that, she had high expectations of her son, and never forgot to remind him when he didn’t measure up. Though Amos suffered frequent criticism and a fi rm hand, the value of discipline and hard work he learned from his mother helped him later in life.
In his book The Cookie Never Crumbles: Practical Recipes for Everyday Living, Amos explains that though the words I love you were never spoken in his childhood home, he understands now that his mother’s zealous discipline was the only way she knew how to show love. Later in life, he used his positive attitude to resolve their lingering issues, and their relationship grew to one of love and acceptance before his mother passed away in 1994.
Amos’s love of life and sunny attitude have helped him overcome countless obstacles. Today, with his Hawaiian shirts and trademark funky watermelon hats, Amos is easily identified. The founder of Famous Amos cookies, as well as Chip & Cookie and co-founder of Uncle Wally’s Muffin Company, Amos offers insights on hope, self-worth and positive thinking through his motivational speaking and nine books, including Watermelon Magic: Seeds of Wisdom, Slices of Life; Man with No Name: Turn Lemons into Lemonade; The Road to Success Is Paved with Positive Thinking; and Watermelon Credo: The Book.
“It doesn’t matter how bad things look or what appearances are,” says Amos, 73. “If I can just continue on—one breath at a time— that’s all I have to do. There’s no tomorrow. There’s no future or no past because those are just words. Those aren’t places you can visit. So, if I can just keep on keeping on with enthusiasm and excitement over what I’m doing and a great attitude, I absolutely believe I will succeed. And my life demonstrates that.”
A Taste for Cookies—and Ambition
After his parents divorced in 1948, 12-year-old Amos moved to New York to live with his Aunt Della. She frequently baked him chocolate-chip cookies using the recipe Amos later would adapt for his original Famous Amos crispy cookies.
Although he developed an interest in cooking at an early age, Amos dropped out of the Food Trades Vocational High School in New York to join the Air Force. He earned a high-school equivalency diploma before being honorably discharged.
Today an advocate of literacy and education, Amos tells SUCCESS he doesn’t see his lack of schooling as a disadvantage. Instead, he views it as a necessary life experience. If he hadn’t dropped out and joined the Air Force, he says he never would have been stationed in beautiful Hawaii, and perhaps he wouldn’t have the pleasure of living there now.
“It is possible to succeed under the worst of circumstances. My experience has told me that. I’m a high school dropout. I’m black. So, obviously, those two things have nothing to do with [preventing] success. Those are not two handicaps. They are just two experiences,” Amos says.
After he left the Air Force, Amos took a part-time job at Saks Fifth Avenue’s supply department. His manager at the time, Ernie Riccio, became one of Amos’s first mentors. In addition to encouraging Amos’s outstanding work, Riccio would discuss finance and business articles with him from The Wall Street Journal and U.S. News & World Report. “He saw something in me,” Amos says. “He gave me a chance to work, and I did everything I could to honor whatever he saw in me and to be the best employee.”
The hard work paid off. Amos eventually landed a permanent job in the supply department and, later, a managerial position when Riccio was promoted. “Guess who he recommended to take his place? Wally Amos. That was a wonderful thing because there were other people who had been there longer, but he thought I was more qualified,” he says.
Finding Paths Around Obstacles
When he left Saks to join the William Morris Talent Agency, it was that same work ethic that helped Amos move up the ranks from the mailroom to the music department. He became the agency’s first African-American talent agent in just a year and booked many top performers of the day, including Simon & Garfunkel and The Supremes, and was Marvin Gaye’s first agent. How did he get their attention? He sent them chocolate-chip cookies, of course.
After six and a half years as a successful agent, Amos hit a roadblock on the corporate ladder. It was the late 1960s, and he was told he could not be promoted to the film or television departments, or even manage the music department, because they didn’t think film executives or other white agents would want to take direction from a black man. Rather than focus on the problem, Amos focused on a solution. He moved to the West Coast to start a business as a personal manager. But eventually, he got another idea.
Amos planned to use his skills in promoting stars to promote gourmet chocolate-chip cookies. He borrowed $25,000 from friends to open the first Famous Amos free-standing store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Calif. (He stapled bags of his famous cookies to the front of the business plan.)
“A lot of people said, ‘You can’t make a living selling just chocolate chip cookies.’ I think what they were saying is that they didn’t think they could do it,” Amos says. “I believed that I could do it because I knew how to make chocolate-chip cookies and I knew how to promote, so why couldn’t I do it? Because it had never been done before? Oh well. At one point, nothing had been done, and look where we are now.”
How the Cookie Crumbled
Founded in 1975, the company took off almost instantly. Later, in 1987, Amos won the Horatio Alger Award, which is given to Americans who have shown purpose and perseverance in their personal lives. At that time, Famous Amos had reached $12 million in annual sales, with 35 stores in the United States and Asia. Despite that apparent success, it was an unstable time for the company, and Amos ultimately lost his company because of his own mismanagement.
“I got ahead of my team. I forgot there was a team. I thought that because I was famous Amos… I had all the answers, but I was very, very wrong. And that ultimately caused me to lose Famous Amos,” he says.
At one point, Amos lost his home in Hawaii because he fell 18 months behind on the mortgage payments. Instead of panicking, Amos called on a friend for help and was able to get his home back—the same home he occupies today with his wife, Christine.
“The more you focus on the problem, the more it pulls you down,” he says. “It’s like being in quicksand: If you become too conscious of what’s happening to you, you’ll sink in a second, but if you can remain calm long enough and focus on the answer... you will find support and help that lift you up.”
So Amos was back in his home but still out on his luck. There was a period after he left Famous Amos when he was sued for selling cookies and barred from using his own name to promote products because of a noncompete agreement. So he buried his love for cookies temporarily and focused on the cookie’s distant cousin: the muffin. He created a new company, Uncle Noname, which eventually became Uncle Wally’s Muffin Company in 1996. Now one of the top muffin manufacturers in the United States, Uncle Wally’s muffins are available in more than 3,500 stores.
Cementing His Legacy
Part of Amos’s dedication to hard work is his old-fashioned commitment to making the people who believe in him proud— whether they’ve invested time, wisdom, money or bought a whole lot of chocolate-chip cookies. Being passionate about your work is key to a fulfi lling life, he says.
Amos’s latest venture is Chip & Cookie, a brand of bitesized cookies. This company, based in Hawaii, has just passed the five-year mark and is growing. “I want to prove to Wally that I can create a company that is bigger than Famous Amos,” he says.
Amos also takes pride in his legacy, which he hopes will be more than just a positive outlook and delicious cookies. He wants to be remembered for helping to create a more literate society. This year, he launched a campaign with his Read It LOUD! foundation (ReadItLoud.org) to encourage parents to read aloud to their children for 10 minutes every day.
“The only way we are ever going to get rid of the problem of adult illiteracy is to create kids who can read, generations of children who can read,” says Amos, a father of four.
His commitment to ending illiteracy has been a lifelong journey, and a personal one, because his parents were illiterate. He says helping others has helped him in many other ways, including honing his public speaking abilities while recording videos to help adults learn to read during a stint as spokesman for Literacy Volunteers of America.
“I was doing something for the Literacy Volunteers of America that I thought would help other people, and it wound up helping me more than I could have imagined,” Amos says. “I came across a quote that said: ‘Volunteering is reaching your hand out into the darkness to pull another’s hand back into the light, only to discover that it’s your own.’ ”