CHAMPAIGN — When local McDonald's franchisee Dwight Miller looks back at the role models of his youth, Muhammad Ali stands out as the greatest.
"He was a strong man," Miller said of the now-retired heavyweight boxing champion. "He didn't care what other people thought. He wanted to do his own thing."
Miller noted that Ali had "an issue with the draft."
Specifically, Ali, who had won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1964, refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War, based on his religious beliefs and his opposition to the war.
That led to his arrest for draft evasion, the loss of his boxing title and the suspension of his boxing license.
"Right or wrong, he was willing to give up fighting" for what he believed, Miller said. "That's big."
Ali appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, and his conviction was reversed. His boxing license was reinstated, and he eventually regained the World Heavyweight Championship.
Miller, who was recently named Parkland College's Entrepreneur of the Year, said he also looked up to blacks who owned their own enterprises in the 1930s and 1940s, when it wasn't easy for blacks to break into the business world.
In particular, he remembered one black man in the Detroit area who worked for two men who owned multiple liquor stores.
That employee "made them a ton of money," but they "fired" him to encourage him to go into business for himself, Miller said.
"They helped him start his own liquor store and other businesses in Detroit," he said.
Miller said most black professionals he knew while he was growing up in the Detroit area were doctors.
"I knew a lot of black professional people, but not a lot who owned businesses," he said.
Education, not entrepreneurship, was commonly touted as the key to success, he said.
Today, Miller said he feels a special obligation to talk with students in local schools and at Parkland College about entrepreneurship, since they may not know many black entrepreneurs.
At the same time, he realizes entrepreneurship is "not for everybody."
"I encourage people to do what they want to do," Miller said, adding he tells his employees to "do your job like you own it."