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The first Black Enterprise BE Smart HBCU Summit’s major themes were tough love, preparation and optimism

‘If you don’t know your history, you don’t know your possibilities’

The old saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But according to Ronald C. Parker, president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, the opposite is true in the private sector. If something ain’t broke, managers, leaders and bosses are going out of their way to not only break it, but also to turn it on its head, if need be.

While that may seem counterintuitive, Parker explained that if you and your company are not reinventing itself every so often to meet changes in the needs of consumers, then your company will be left behind and leave openings for your competitors.

Parker expressed these sentiments as one of three panelists speaking on the Partners in Driving Student Success panel to open up the inaugural Black Enterprise BE Smart HBCU Summit. His hope is that if he and the other panelists tell the students and audience what really goes on in business, they will know what to expect.

He was joined by Danette Howard, chief strategy officer and senior vice president of the Lumina Foundation, and Jesse J. Tyson, president and CEO of the National Black MBA Association, who doubled down by describing some of the inner workings of the field so they’d have an inside track.

“What are you willing to do to challenge an existing model and have the courage to change and transport it?” Parker asked. “There’s nothing wrong with having so-and-so’s father of so-and-so’s father on your board, but can they bring you financial stability? Can they bring you research dollars? Can they bring you access to corporations that will invest if they see a very sustainable business model? Oh, by the way, since 2008, they are asking for models. If these HBCUs do not have a strategic plan … there are major corporations that are redirecting their funds to other sources, because they don’t see a construct or a disciplined process or even the courage to disrupt this.”

The summit, hosted by Morgan State’s Earl G. Graves School of Business & Management with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicated its first day to speaking broadly, and at times concisely, about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), business, how to improve the diversity in the private sectors, and more.

Twenty-five percent of African-Americans who graduate from college earn their degrees at an HBCU. Yet there still remains this idea that the work that students at HBCUs are doing isn’t as rigorous, challenging or equal to those students outside of HBCUs.

That perception only changes by speaking to people in positions of power, working with them and bringing them to the schools to see firsthand how good the students are.

Morgan State president David Wilson discussed this before the first session Tuesday, saying his university is the No. 1 school in the nation and state in producing African-American electrical, industrial and civil engineers, and the No. 4 school in the nation in producing African-American engineers overall. North Carolina A&T State University is recognized as the school that produces the most engineers.

Wilson was at the White House on Monday afternoon, along with several other HBCU presidents, as they spoke with President Donald Trump about the future of HBCUs, before Trump issued his executive order on Tuesday afternoon. Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., who kicked things off both days with opening remarks, said it was not a coincidence that the summit closed out Black History Month and coincided with the executive order.

Tyson, who worked as a sharecropper in his youth, began his career after attending Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, and emphasized the need for folks to use the teachers, leaders and mentors around them to find and take advantage of opportunities. He used an analogy, saying an opportunity doesn’t have to come from the biggest company, either.

He put it this way: “Being the manager at Pepsi Co. means that every decision you make has to be signed off on by the higher-ups before it can be executed … the company is too big. … But if you’re the general manager of Funyuns, then you’re the one making those decisions and gaining that managerial experience.”

Currently, four Fortune 500 CEOs are black. At their peak, 15 African-Americans led Fortune 500 companies. The question became: How do students even get to the point where they’re in positions for those managerial jobs and on track to be a CEO?

Howard discussed how it all starts in school. Having worked as the secretary of higher education under former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, she was a part of the team that analyzed the average number of credits students in Maryland colleges and universities had when graduating with bachelor’s degrees.

Across the board, the number was close to 125, but at Morgan State the average student had 138 credits. What does this mean? Howard asked. Well, it meant that students were taking classes they didn’t necessarily need or held in classes for too long, prolonging their time in school and the amount of money they spent.

On one hand, the students were taking too many credits overall, but on the other hand students were taking an average of 12 credits a semester, which exacerbated the issue, because at the end of four years students were coming up almost 30 credits short of what they possibly needed.

This was something Howard has worked with Morgan State to amend over the years. Another change she wanted to see is HBCUs reaching out and taking the initiative. She described how schools are constantly asking her organization to come to their university and work with their students, but she has had to reach out on several occasions to HBCUs to gauge their interest.

“We have to be careful what we ask for,” Howard said. “With the greater attention I believe will come a great expectation of increased accountability. … In order to move forward, to remain competitive, to remain relevant, we have to do things in a more integrated way.

“Something that surprised me my first year at the institution was that I heard from a lot of institutions who wanted to understand how they could get support from the Lumina Foundation. I did not hear from a single HBCU. I have to proactively go out to HBCUs and say, ‘Are you interested in having conversations about how Lumina might be able to partner?’ We often hear from all sorts of institutions that are thinking about collaboratives and collective innovative ways to meet the talent needs of the nation, so I would invite HBCUs to think about that.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, a two-time Morgan State graduate, attended the opening remarks of the event before she had to leave for Annapolis. Pugh, the 50th mayor of the city, who was elected to the post almost a year ago, spoke glowingly about how attending an HBCU prepared her for her mayoral run.


Historically black colleges and universities, she said, ask a lot of their students and push them to their limits, and when a task presented to an HBCU appears daunting, there are no students better suited to tackle these hurdles.

“What college does, what universities do, is prepare you,” Pugh said. “It’s very apropos that this particular seminar is being held not just here but in Black History Month. I always remind young people, especially today, that we must understand our history and that we must share it with others, because if you don’t know your history, you don’t know your possibilities. I remind us that many of us are descendants from Africa and that we come from queens and kings.

“They didn’t want us in their schools, so we built our own colleges and universities, and so we must uphold the tradition of black colleges and universities in terms of what they meant in our history.”

The event concluded Tuesday with events such as Harvesting Talent for Corporate America’s Future; The HBCU Experience: Millennial Minds Matter; Presidentially Speaking: Strategies for Sustaining Your Institution; Financing Your Education: What HBCU Families Need to Know; and One-on-One: A Conversation with John B. King Jr.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.