From The Bronx to the World: February’s EVENT Examines Sponsorship as Career Accelerant

Robert Spencer profile pic

Toyota Industries Commercial Finance (TICF) held its second session of a new monthly series, “All I Know So Far,” which is designed to connect, inspire, motivate, and educate—and ultimately help TICF associates grow their careers. The format prioritizes ample time for Q&A to spark lively conversations and promote connections.

As part of its Black History Month activities, TICF invited Robert Spencer, Vice President of Finance, Administration, Sales, and Agency Operations for Toyota Insurance Management Solutions (TIMS) to share his career journey, highlighting the role of sponsorship.

Everything happens for a reason. Growing up poor in the Bronx and raised by his grandmother, Robert Spencer uses that mantra to guide him, knowing that his life could have turned out very differently than it did.

Early guidance set him on the right path

Today Robert is Vice President of Finance, Administration, Sales, and Agency Operations for Toyota Insurance Management Solutions (TIMS). But getting on that trajectory was not easy as an “inner city kid.” Fortunately, Robert’s eighth grade teacher–who in hindsight could be considered his first sponsor–interceded and encouraged him to apply to a program called Student Sponsor Partners, which provided participants with a scholarship to attend a private New York City high school. The goal of the program is to use education to help kids escape poverty.

Robert’s assigned sponsor couldn’t have been more different from him: Brian was a tall white guy from New Hampshire, who was mid-career at Goldman Sachs. Brian admired Robert’s tenacity and invited him to participate in an internship when Robert was just 16. Each day Robert took the subway to Wall Street, which inspired him to dream big as he experienced a life that seemed a world away from the Bronx not just in the commute. Robert did realize that big dream, eventually ascending from intern to associate to managing director by the time he was 31.

Sponsorship helped open key doors

While attending Duke University, Robert spent each summer on Goldman’s Japanese equity sales desk and was offered a full-time job after graduation selling Japanese stocks to people in the United States. “Being hired on that desk was a direct result of the vice president who ran it remembering my work as an intern and served as my sponsor,” Robert says. “While mentorship is helpful, I’ll take sponsorship every time,” he says, explaining that while a mentor might help you work through an issue, a sponsor is the one who champions you behind closed doors when decisions are being made.

She then helped orchestrate his move to Tokyo three years later, where he joined a small team as only the third employee, the perfect opportunity to make a big impact. While there he acquired yet another sponsor, a firm partner who allowed Robert to share the spotlight rather than taking personal credit for team successes. When his manager got a new role that moved him to Hong Kong from Japan, Robert saw sponsorship in motion yet again as he was invited to accompany him.

“When there’s a new opportunity, decisions have often already been made prior to the job being posted. You want to be in the position where a sponsor has already put your name up,” he explains.

Unfortunately, the business didn’t do as well as expected as quickly as Goldman had planned. Again, someone was looking out for him – a classmate from his analyst class, now a partner at the firm, gave him the heads up that Goldman Sachs was expanding its footprint in Dallas, and it would be a good opportunity.

“I recognized that the longer you’re away from your network, the harder it is to come back. I knew the Dallas team wasn’t necessarily looking for someone who had spent 12 years in Asia to lead the U.S. markets,” Robert says. But his track record and ambition spoke for themselves, and he was soon offered the opportunity in Dallas.

Eventually he decided to pursue the opportunity at Toyota, which came by way of the former mayor of Plano, who recommended he look into it. The mayor was a graduate of the same high school as Robert, introduced him to people at Toyota, which opened the door to his current position.

“What we’re doing with TIMS fits a lot of things I’ve looked for in my career – it’s new; I’m getting in early; and the company is giving it the support it needs to be successful,” he says. While it was hard to leave Goldman Sachs and the network he established over 19 years, he is eager to make Toyota the place he’ll be for the next 20 years.

Life lessons bring him full circle

During the Q&A portion of the career conversation, Robert was asked what it’s like to be in situations where there is no one who looks like him. “You have to balance that feeling that you are the only person like you and that you are the first, but remember you earned your position without qualifiers. I also realize that I am the one carrying the standard,” he says.

As an example, Robert began playing golf because he knew he was missing out on opportunities. Whenever he feels uncomfortable as one of the few Black people on the golf course, he remembers Charlie Sifford, the first Black member of the PGA. “Golf isn’t the most inclusive sport now, but when Charlie started playing, he couldn’t even compete on the PGA Tour,”

Robert says. Charlie finally was admitted at age 39, but just because he was allowed to play didn’t mean he was welcomed – he was threatened, called names, and excluded from eating in the clubs. “His story is one of perseverance, leadership, courage, and grace,” Robert says, saving the best part for last. One regret Charlie had was that he had never had a sponsor – until Toyota became his first in 1989 when he was 66.

While that is sponsorship of another kind, the sentiment of approval and knowing someone is behind you is the same.

Robert is still involved today with Student Sponsor Partners as a sponsor and mentor and sits on the board. “Coming full circle is a major source of pride,” he says.

Even with sponsorship, Robert still evaluates each potential career opportunity by asking the following questions

  1. Is this a growth opportunity for the company?
  2. Is the company providing the resources needed for success to be realized?
  3. Are my skills going to be utilized in a way that allows me to be personally successful?

Throughout the session, Robert’s creative use of examples had a profound effect on participants, who were visibly moved by his story, using words like “inspiring,” “engaging,” and “humble” to describe Robert and his presentation. One hundred percent of the attendees who responded to a survey after the event agreed that they “left with a better understanding sponsorship and the potential role in one’s life or career” and that “The event made me feel more connected to the TICF & Toyota community.”