What impact did HBS have on your life and the life of others?
Our mother always told us that as a woman, you have to be able to take care of yourself. Education was a great way to ensure that happened—it was taken very, very seriously in our family. Many of my friends at Howard University were going to law school, but I didn't want to do that. I'd minored in business, though, so one of my friends told me that I should apply to the top 10 business schools: "If they turn you down, then go to the next tier. But always start at the top." That's how I ended up at Harvard.
My father was also a big influence. There were four girls in our family, but he never made any of us feel like he wished he had sons instead. He expected us to mow the lawn, rake the leaves, shovel snow, and take out the garbage—all of those things that typically the boy child would do. It was not negotiable: "This has to be done, so you will do it." He also instilled in us the belief that we could do anything that we wanted to do, and that he'd be supportive of it. He worked three jobs at a time; my mother, meanwhile, was a real entrepreneur—she started a co-op nursery school in the basement of our house, using co-op fees to hire a wonderful teacher, Miss Alice. I am close friends with two classmates from that time: one is a judge and the other is a doctor. She also sold cosmetics as part of an early version of network marketing, Holiday Magic, and did all this while raising us and going back to school to get both her bachelors and masters degrees.
I think giving back to the community is deeply coded in my DNA because I saw both of my parents engaged in helping others. My father was extremely active in our community, from the Lion's Club to our church to the Boy Scouts. He was also part of the rebuilding effort after the riots in Detroit. My mother had her own style—she taught us how to talk to anyone, at any level, and to feel comfortable doing it. I would watch her talk to folks who were helping build something in the neighborhood, or the mayor, or the governor, and she was always the same person. That was definitely something to build on. Both of our parents felt that community was vitally important, in addition to family, self-esteem, and faith.
Right now I'm serving my second term on the Howard University Board of Trustees, which is one of the most gratifying things I've ever done. Howard was an extension of growing up in Detroit, where we saw African American role models all around us. Being a trustee of that environment and playing a role in preserving it for the next generation is so important to my heart. Being part of that environment helped me at HBS; I never, ever felt that I couldn't compete. Make no mistake, it was an intimidating experience. But the great thing about HBS is that you had to speak up in class, which was a wonderful opportunity to both be educated and to educate at the same time. You were taking in the material and analyzing it, but when you presented it, others saw that you could understand, analyze, and present just as well as anybody else. So their perception of what it meant to be black was calibrated by what they saw in the classroom. By the same token, I would advise anyone going to HBS to take advantage of the classroom's global perspective—the cultural lessons that you can learn are very important.
I also focus on women's issues and was just named to Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" advisory team. And I embrace being a role model and mentor. I believe it's very important for women and African Americans to see a tangible example that you can succeed at a high level in business without giving up your soul or being separate from your community. After spending 25 years in corporate America, marketing millions of dollars of products for other people, I thought maybe it was time to launch something of my own. The only thing I had at the time was my pound cake; my sister Gloria and I have always been a terrific tag team at Thanksgiving because Gloria provides the house and I do the cooking. One of the things I made every year was my pound cake, which people kept telling me to put on the market. So in 2001, I launched ComfortCake. In addition to retail distribution, our customers have included United Airlines and the Chicago Public Schools. The company has been featured on CNN, the Food Network, and in Black Enterprise.
If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's to bring your whole self to the game and to understand that the self you bring is a gift from God. So don't apologize or be shy about it. Recognize that everyone has a gift and acknowledge what you don't know. One of my greatest lessons has been that if you give others a seat at the table, then everyone wins. People tend to rise to the occasion that way.