Interview - Andre Norman

From Hardened Felon to Harvard Fellow

Full Interview-


Andre Norman knows more about leadership from life than most people ever get from a book. His history and now his ongoing commitment to the community have made him an expert on human connection.
Andre was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He and his 5 siblings were raised alone by his single mother. Andre didn’t do well in school and found his way in the streets trying to make ends meet because his mother didn’t have enough money to meet their needs. He drifted through life and found himself getting in a lot of trouble. The stuff he used to see in the streets became the things that he did. He eventually ended up in court in front of the judge and got sentenced to stay in prison.
Stepping into prison seemed like a reunion with all his friends from the dummy classes, the principal’s office, and the juvie. He spent years being the best gang member he could be. After 6 years, he realized he had become the King of Nowhere. He wanted to be free but realized it didn’t work for most people in prison. “97% of people who go home, 70% of them come back.” He heard that successful people went to Harvard, so that became his new personal mission. He planned to get out, go to Harvard University, and be successful. Nobody thought it was possible. Andre was on his own. He learned how to read and work with numbers. He studied the law, and decided to go to therapy to fix his anger management issues. “During my 2 ½ years of stay in solitary confinement, I found me. That’s the biggest gift anybody could ever find. I came up with my dreams and goals and I went for them. I came home and I’ve been home for 22 years.”
His Life in Prison
Inside the prison are 1000 or 2000 people who have been condemned and sentenced by the courts. “You take the worst of the worst, put them all in one building, then close the door.” With that number, chaos, violence, trauma, and drama are bound to happen. According to Andre, people don’t stop being violent after you put them in jail. Once you’re inside, you’re one of them and you must create a mechanism and system to survive each day. “In prison, you get it right or die.”
Andre realized that it’s not the biggest guy who wins in prison, it’s someone who can manage other men. Every day, Andre would walk around with Dominic, the gang leader, and watch how he managed people. Dominic didn’t rule by fear or intimidation, he ruled through emotional boundaries. He got to know the people. He addressed their biggest fears and problems and he solved them for them. Andre shares that leadership is an essential part of survival if you’re inside the prison. If you don’t have leadership, understand how to communicate with people, or who you are as a person, all kinds of bad things are going to happen to you.
Life Outside of Prison
When the South Carolina Prison System had a riot, 7 people were murdered in 4 hours. They locked in the entire prison with 19,000 people inside. Andre and his team were asked to come in and help with the problem. Andre shares that the key to reducing the violence in the prison was to assess and then talk to the men involved. He talked to 8000 people in 6 days. “When you speak to somebody’s heart and purpose, they will listen.” The prison went from 7 dead bodies and 30 wounded to just one fistfight over the next three years. “It’s not that these people became different, we just taught them to be a different version of themselves.”
Andre does not only help prisoners, he also teaches corporate leaders, associations, and business owners. In his early days out of prison, he was invited by the London Business School to train their top executives with emotional wellness, communication, and retention. “The stuff we do in prison is the same thing that we do in corporate minus the violence.” Just like in prison, it’s about reading the situation and coming up with a solution. “You have to do the assessments, you have to hear the people’s passion and heart, they speak to them.” Andre has been doing this training with London Business School for 21 years now.
Community Work
Andre specializes in helping addicts in the community. He created training programs for families in crisis, substance abuse, and teen drinking. They train parents on how to communicate with their kids and talk to the kids about how to get into treatment. Andre travels to schools, churches, and community centers around the world to serve as a mentor and friend to youth and community members alike.
With all the work that Andre did around the world, people would ask what they can do to support him. Andre always tell them, “If you don’t know me, you can’t help me. Sit down and have lunch with me. The best thing we can do is be friends.”
His Harvard Fellowship
When Andre got out of prison, he worked on himself and turned his life around. In 2001, he was invited to Harvard to share his insights, intelligence, articulations, and solutions to global problems. “It was the best feeling ever.” In 2016, he was granted a Harvard fellowship. Because of hard work, Andre went from the basement of the prison to a Harvard fellowship at the law school. “Anything is possible. If you are studying in a prison cell or at a top preparatory school, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re learning and that you’re going to apply it.”
Andre believes entrepreneurs change the world. He works with a lot of companies and has been on the quest to help businesses and individuals all over the world. “Outside of prison, my number 1 audience is entrepreneurs because they work against all odds. Entrepreneurs fight for everything they get.”