We celebrate Black History Month because Black history is American history. Though that link isn’t always directly made because history is written by those in power, and for too long Black Americans were kept out of those positions. We are now seeing what I hope is the beginning of a movement resulting in African Americans in greater and more numerous positions of power so that our stories continue to be told. Whether we see representation through media like the movie Soul, which was co-directed by Kemp Power, the first Black co-director of a Pixar film, and featured the first Black main character, Joe Gardner. Or in the vice presidency of my fellow sorority sister, Kamala Harris, who currently holds the highest seat in US government as a woman to date. Or through Tope Awotona, the founder of Calendly who received a $350M investment and saw his company’s valuation soar to $3 billion.
Representation matters, and these stories give us cause to celebrate. It’s important to remember, however, that there is still work to be done. Even while we are seeing our stories portrayed on the silver screen, politicians take their oaths, and a few Black business leaders build unicorns, it remains true that according to a 2017 study, less than one percent of the10,000 available HBS cases highlight a Black protagonist, founder, or business. I’m thinking about Black visibility in the cases I read, but also in the spaces I hold. This became relevant to me not only as a Black student, but as a teaching assistant. I scoured the HBS case library and was unable to find one case featuring a Black entrepreneur that would have been relevant to teach our students in Professor Bunch’s New Venture Strategy course.
This is also why I remain acutely aware that of the 593 outstanding men and women that make up the Class of 2021, only eight of us are Black women. The percentage of Black students in top MBA programs has a direct correlation to the percentage of Black professionals that reach the C-Suite Level. Since the first publishing of the Fortune 500 list, there have only been 15 Black CEOs. Today, there is one Black female CEO, Roz Brewer. Who was appointed just last month as the newest CEO of Walgreens and is currently leading their COVID-19 vaccine rollout. There is an opportunity to significantly increase the pipeline towards the C-Suite for Black men and women. However, it will take more than just Diversity Equity & Inclusion efforts being peddled by HR teams to shift pervasively white corporate culture to an inclusive culture. Instead, it will require our peers and leaders to make a true effort to build authentic relationships with Black people, seeing us as partners, not just as colleagues. This is why I commit my time towards telling our stories on MBA:The Blog, being a voice and host within our community and a friend to many.
Representation matters. While you may have had an experience in which you’re the only person in the room that is “like you,” for myself and my fellow Black female Class of 2021 peers, that is our daily reality. The numbers simply aren’t in our favor. So, we shed tears when we see men and women that look like us succeed, because when they do we can’t help but find ourselves in awe, inspired, and that much more committed to finding success ourselves. We celebrate our collective successes because we are still vying for a seat at the table and breaking glass ceilings all while often being asked to be the voice of our entire racial community.
My hope is that when I have children, that if they too aspire to receive a higher education degree, or run for office, or want to create stories about their lives that as they sit next to your children, they won’t have to search hard for the one face in the room that looks like theirs. Instead, I hope they will see many. I also hope that people will give them a chance, because they have empathy and understanding for who they are as people. Is that too much to hope for?
Since the original release of this piece on The Booth Experience Blog in 2021, Kevin D. Johnson, the founder of the startup that I worked with while in school became one of the 1% of black protagonists represented in an HBS Case. The case is titled “Kevin D. Johnson: To Be a Venture Capitalist or an Operator?” you can find it here. I was lucky enough to get to go along for the ride. When it was first released, I got a text from a friend who was a current 1Y at HBS, asking me if this was in fact me in the case being taught to her class. I was shocked! Now, I the TA, who couldn’t find anyone that looked like herself in an HBS case for class, is now in an HBS case herself. That is pretty dam cool.