What impact did HBS have on your life and the life of others?
First of all, it is incredibly difficult for me to believe that I graduated over 25 years ago. As a young girl from New Orleans, I dreamed of going to Harvard, but honestly thought it was a long shot.
Growing up, I thought that it would be amazing to lead a company that had a positive impact on my community. I learned firsthand what it took to run a small business from my mother and grandmother, who started a group of daycare centers in the 1960s. Not only were they helping to make women feel comfortable with childcare outside of their homes, they were also supporting women in the community by making it possible for them to pursue a career. Clearly, they were making an impact. It was an early lesson of women empowering women that I have valued and applied to my everyday life.
At HBS, I experienced an incredible series of lifelong lessons in the classroom and beyond. Harvard allowed us to experiment and debate every day with incredibly gifted individuals. There were moments of brilliance, but most often humbling learning experiences that prepared me for the challenges of managing a company. After just two years, I felt as though I had gained a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and experience.
I have been fortunate to serve as director of the Illinois State Lottery and as president of two utility companies before being named as social secretary to President Obama. My current position is CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, the parent company of Ebony, Jet, and Fashion Fair Cosmetics.
Johnson Publishing Company is the curator of the African American experience—past, present, and future. Over the last four years I have dedicated my life to ensuring these incredible, iconic brands thrive and remain viable for generations to come. I also mentor young women as much as I can, just like my grandmother and mother did before me.
Only time has allowed me to truly reflect on the remarkable lifetime impact of Harvard. Not since HBS have I experienced such a remarkable and talented group of people learning together. In my section at HBS we were known to have a fair share of chauvinistic men, but the women gave it right back to them. This experience taught me to be well prepared and fearless, which has been important in every position that I have pursued.
To African American women looking at the school, I would say, “Go for it!” Under the leadership of Dean Nitin Nohria, the school has a renewed emphasis on innovation and diversity. Now, more than ever, the world is recognizing the value of different voices and opinions, particularly in business. We need the next generation of African American HBS women.