What impact did HBS have on your life and the life of others?
I grew up in a rural town in North Carolina. Even though both the town of Lilesville and my family were very education-oriented, I had never known anyone to go to Harvard University or even to pursue an MBA. Neither of these things was part of my reality growing up. It was not until I attended college at North Carolina A&T State University, where I studied accounting, that I began to understand what an MBA was designed to do. Performing well, both in college and in my first post-college job in public accounting, gave me the confidence that I could compete on a higher level. By the time I applied to HBS three years after college, I knew more precisely how I needed my leadership skills to grow and so I targeted the best institutions. When I got into HBS, not only were my family and college professors proud of this accomplishment—it also became part of a new reality for an entire cadre of students behind me.
Going to HBS was, and still is, one of the most pivotal decisions I have made in life. It changed the trajectory of my opportunity set in ways I never could have imagined. I have been polished with the patina of Harvard Business School for each opportunity that I have been considered for since graduation. In some instances, organizations have taken a chance on me and allowed me to do things that were more entrepreneurial with the expectation that "I would figure it out." My current role of managing a private equity fund focused on new and emerging managers is an instance of this entrepreneurial latitude. In addition to helping realize my career aspirations, HBS has helped me have an impact on other organizations for which I have a great deal of passion. I serve as chairperson of the board of trustees at NC A&T, where I help lead a university that was so pivotal in my development. And I serve on the Board of the Apollo Theater, an organization at the forefront of change in the historic Harlem community, where my family resides.
When I think about my personal life, in many respects I have lived it in reverse of my early expectations. I didn't meet my husband, Al Zollar, until my career was firmly established. Although we got married the following year, when I was 44, this was still pretty late in the marriage game. Now at 51, unbelievably, we have a 2-year-old daughter. Even as I write this sentence it makes me laugh, which coincidentally my husband and I have been doing a lot lately as we watch our toddler's exploits. I never planned my life this way. Quite frankly, after hearing that I was more likely to be kidnapped by a terrorist or hit by a train than get married in my 40s, I felt that my story would be very different from the traditional model. Coming to terms with that idea proved incredibly liberating and helped focus my energies on people in my family who needed help as well as my career choices. In the process of moving forward with a values-based life and not trying to control everything, as a woman of faith, I believe this gave God a chance to send to me the man who would be my perfect life partner. But the important thing I like to remember is that even as I feel incredibly grateful to have my husband and daughter, if things had turned out differently, I'd still be blessed.
I say to young black women who will attend HBS in the future to seek out those opportunities to which you can bring your whole selves. In the classroom, don't shy away from making observations that come from your experiences. This not only makes for a richer classroom experience, it also will distinguish you from everyone else. One piece of advice I remember getting many years ago that encouraged me to contribute my independent perspective is that if two people in a situation think alike, then one of them is not necessary! Also, at HBS, be prepared to be challenged in ways you never have been, but be confident that you are up for the challenge. The final piece of advice I'd offer is not to pre-judge who will be your friend based on anything other than your experience with an individual. Some of my best friends from HBS don't look anything like me and come from very different worlds.
Being a black woman in the Class of 1989 meant that I stood out. I was the only black woman in my section and one of very few in the class. The black students got along well and some of my best friends, even 25 years later, are other black women who were in my class. There were not enough opportunities for people of different backgrounds to work alongside each other. I'm glad that this is now a much more intentional part of the program and I believe as a consequence students of both genders and all races will leave HBS with deeper bonds.