Frederick W. Smith? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: During the holidays I often spot FedEx vehicles delivering packages. While the business is very successful today it faced considerable skepticism initially. According to company legend the founder Frederick W. Smith described his plans for creating the company in a paper when he was an undergraduate, but the professor who evaluated the idea deemed it infeasible and gave him a low grade. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 2004 a journalist at “BusinessWeek” (now “Bloomberg Businessweek”) asked Frederick W. Smith about this tale, and Smith expressed uncertainty. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Q: Part of the lore of FedEx is that you wrote a term paper while a grad student at Yale that first explored the idea of an overnight-delivery service — and that you received a C from a skeptical professor. Was that term paper truly the genesis of FedEx?
A: The question is prescient because there wasn’t a single “eureka” moment. The original idea for FedEx came when I wrote a term paper as an undergraduate — not as a graduate student, because I never went to graduate school . . .
That was the paper, and the whole issue about the C on the grade, came from naivete on my part when I was talking to a reporter years and years ago, and he asked what I made. I said, “I don’t know, probably made my usual C.”
The “BusinessWeek” journalist attempted a second time to obtain a more definitive answer:
Q: So did you, or did you not make the infamous C on the term paper?
A: I don’t know. It was so long ago, even when that question was asked 20 years ago, I didn’t know. I’ve tried to correct it many times, and usually when a journalist like you listens to the story and realizes how complex the story is, you realize it would take your whole profile to explain it.
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