"Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you'd better be running." —African proverb
I say six things to every black woman who will attend HBS in the future:
- Start running on the first day of class at HBS. Do not stop running until you graduate, and after that, pick up the pace.
- You stand on the shoulders of those who were at HBS before you.
- We are here for you.
- We are passing the baton of perseverance and performance to you.
- Don't drop the baton, and leave your own mark on it before you hand it on.
- Give back. (As Marion Wright Edelman once said, "Service is the rent we pay for being.")
In my experience, overcoming self-doubt may be the biggest obstacle to following these guideposts and fulfilling your promise. Remember these words from Nelson Mandela as you run your race:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your 'playing small' doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in us, it's in everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
While I was earning my degree at Harvard Law School, I cross-registered at HBS to take Professor C. Roland Christiansen's course in Business Policy, and Visiting Lecturer Philip Davidowitz's course in Urban Land Development. There I met and became friends with Bert King, who would receive his MBA from HBS in 1970. Bert later encouraged me to apply for admission to the MBA program. I did, and was wait-listed. I asked Bert what I should do, because I was starting to doubt; maybe HBS was not for me. Bert said I was just what HBS wanted and needed, and if admissions met me, I would get in. So I asked for an interview, got it, and a week later was admitted.
Each of us must learn to face the fear of failure in order to succeed. We have to find the courage to step out of our comfort zone "boat" onto the deepest waters while never forgetting what it takes to be a water-walker who masters fear management by staying focused, facing fear, and choosing not to let fear have the last word.
Another lesson I learned is the importance of faith and prayer. One of my favorite Bible verses, Hebrews 12:1, ties into the African proverb I cited earlier: "Therefore, having so vast a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, and throwing off everything that hinders us…let us keep running with endurance the race set before us." The Bible is full of leaders, each with a key lesson to impart, including Noah (how one person can make a difference) Joseph (don't give up on your dreams), and Esther for the question she was asked and that we all face at different points in our careers: "Who knows if you have not come into the Kingdom [or for HBS alumni, the company or business opportunity] for such a time as this?"
I grew up in Compton, California, as the third of nine children. My dad had an 8th grade education and worked as a welder in the Naval Shipyard at Long Beach. My mom was a homemaker who later became a practical nurse. My parents stressed the importance of faith, education, and investing the effort to be successful in whatever you did, whether it was debate (my passion in high school), the chess tournaments and football games my brothers competed in, or the beautiful roses that my mother grew.
Though I have always believed that excellence has no gender, ethnicity, or color, in my first job after HBS I sometimes felt like "Jacqueline Robinson" as the first African American woman associate hired by the Wall Street law firm White and Case. I picked up the pace there, because I recognized the lions as well as the bears on Wall Street were very hungry, very fast, and particularly demanding with respect to the areas in which I was providing professional services: negotiating and drafting documents for project finance and private placement of notes and bonds, as well as drafting registration statements and other documents for common stock, bond, debenture and note offerings. Later, I adjusted my pace from sprinter to long distance runner when I began working in the corporate department of J.C. Penney and was appointed to the boards of Ramapo College and United Hospitals, as well as moving up into numerous leadership positions in professional associations.
In addition to being involved in professional associations, all of us have an obligation to give back in some way in order to better a community (which could consist of one elderly person to whom you give the gift of companionship or a ride to keep a doctor's appointment). My commitment has ranged from board service for Montclair Community Pre-K to serving as a pro bono general counsel for Renaissance Jr. Golf (a program that taught golf and life skills to urban youth). Find a niche and give of yourself to make a difference that matters. Regardless of whether you are in a sprint or a marathon, remember to always set the pace for your race. Now, take your mark. Get ready. Get set. Get running!