Winston Burnett's childhood home was a second-floor rear apartment in a Harlem tenement, across the street from the local hangout and around the corner from the Baptist church. That church became a major influence in young Burnett's life, thanks to the guidance of his parents, primarily his mother. "She was a deeply religious woman," says Burnett. "She knew that the intangible thing that raises people above their material needs is their spirit. We all went to church, and she instilled that love of God in us."
Burnett's father, a merchant seaman from Barbados who jumped ship in New York and made his home there, shared with his son his talent as a builder. "My father was a dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur, and so am I," Burnett says. "He was a house painter, and then he advanced to plastering and to carpentry. Soon, he could build a whole house all by himself."
Inspired by his father's example, Burnett studied construction technology and engineering at Manhattan Technical Institute and City College of New York, as well as architecture at Columbia University. By the time he received his Horatio Alger Award in 1969, he had founded and was president of the nation's largest black-owned construction firm, with some $100 million in domestic and foreign projects. More recently, he has operated primarily outside the United States, first in West Africa, mainly Nigeria, then in Trinidad.
In 1982, Burnett briefly returned to New York to be with his father, who had a terminal illness. He then made his home in Trinidad, the birthplace of his wife, Jean, who was Nigeria's national lawn tennis champion from 1975 to 1978. It was in Trinidad that Burnett renewed his relationship with God, which had been such a part of his childhood and youth. "For the first time in my life, I had the chance to sit down and find out who I was," he says. "I found I was a son of God. I was truly born again."
In the late 1980s, he reactivated Winston A. Burnett Construction Co., establishing offices in New York and Atlanta. "My goal was to involve minorities to a greater degree in the economy of the United States," says Burnett, who spent much of his time developing business for his firm. "I realize when I look up at the sky in New York or Nigeria or Trinidad, it's all the same sky," says Burnett. "It's important that we don't think everything is focused exactly where we are. We need to be concerned about what's happening everywhere in the world."
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award and what it represents, Burnett believes that success comes not only from individual initiative, but also with the help of God. "People used to ask me how I achieved so much. I believe that the person who goes out to make money never makes it. Money is only a by-product. It is the accomplishment of something of value that brings real wealth."