What impact did HBS have on your life and the life of others?
I went to Howard University intending to study education, because that’s primarily what women did back then...nursing and education. Then my economics professor asked, “Have you ever considered business?” I didn’t know about business as a discipline. He said, “It’s going to open up for women, and African Americans—it’s something to think about.”
There were only three women in my section, so yes, you were aware of being one of a few. There weren’t any women’s restrooms near the classroom; I used a ladies’ room in the stacks of Baker Library. I do remember someone telling me and the two other women in my section that we were taking up seats that should have been given to men. This was 1970, so it wasn’t a politically incorrect point of view back then, but it wasn’t a pleasant conversation. I know I felt a lot of pressure to perform and to do something that lived up to being a graduate of Harvard Business School because of comments like that. But I also studied with men and became good friends with them. The feminist movement wasn’t very active yet, so you didn’t think of yourself as a pioneer—you just plowed ahead and did the work. My daughter, B.J., and I went to the School many years apart, and HBS has changed dramatically over that period. It was a tougher time for me, but I’ve come to appreciate how fortunate I was to have an experience that instilled so much confidence in my ability to try new and different things.
I think success is personal. It’s easy to get on a treadmill of expectations that may not be what works for you. For me, success is holistic. I want to grow and contribute to a professional organization but also have a rich life outside of work with my family and in the community. Having an MBA gave me the flexibility to balance work and family. I worked part-time for 15 years as an independent consultant, volunteered, and started a high-end toy store on Martha’s Vineyard. Then, in 1991, an opportunity presented itself to work full-time as president and CEO of The Partnership, a nonprofit talent management organization for minority professionals in greater Boston. It was actually born out of the merger of two organizations founded in the 1970s that addressed race dynamics in the city during the era of enforced busing. They merged in the 1980s, but I’m given founder status because The Partnership, as it currently exists, is what I built.
It was the right opportunity at the right time. In my volunteer work, I had become increasingly intrigued by the difficulty of sharing power across racial lines, even when everyone had the best intentions. So making a difference in that arena, and being able to run my own shop, was a blessing. The Partnership supports professionals and the organizations that hope to recruit and retain them through its research, courses, consulting, and events. The only reason I stepped down, in 2005, was that I believe people have a tendency to stay in those positions too long; I was also becoming increasingly engaged in some corporate boards, and wanted to commit to that more fully. I like the deep dive that board membership requires and enjoy learning about different sectors and industries. And I love observing good leadership in action and participating alongside an effective management team. In everything you do, whether it’s your community involvement or your day-to-day work, you hope to have a significant impact. As a board member, I know I am a voice in the room; there’s the potential to have an impact on leadership and create change in the workplace for women and people of color. That’s how I hope to make a difference in the work I’m doing now.