30 Oct 2017
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Giving Minorities a Playbook for Career Success

Nonprofit launched at HBS is expanding the pipeline of diverse leadership talent
Re: Matt Halprin (MBA 1992); Bruce Holley (MBA 1992)
by Constantine von Hoffman

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Photo by Jennifer Heffner

It isn’t news that US companies have a problem with diversity, especially in the C suite.

Although African Americans make up 13.2 percent of the US population, only 1 percent—that’s just five people—are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. That is a third of the total number who have been CEOs since the list began in 1955. The figures are only slightly better beyond the corner office. According to a 2016 report on corporate diversity, black men and women account for 4.7 percent of executive team members in the Fortune 100, a percentage that remains unchanged since the survey was first conducted in 2011. Of the nation’s 16.2 million management jobs at smaller companies, only 6.7 percent are held by blacks, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These realities prompted John Rice (MBA 1992) to found Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a national nonprofit organization that equips underrepresented minorities with the skills, coaching, and relationships that are required to become high-impact leaders in corporations, nonprofits, and entrepreneurial ventures.

“When I was coming out of college, one of the learnings for me was that, even though my parents were highly educated, neither of them understood what I needed to do to prepare for a career in investment banking, tech, consulting, etc.,” Rice observes. “So, despite having a good academic record and compelling leadership story outside the classroom, I didn’t know about the ‘hiring bar’ that some of my peers were going for.”

That helps explain how it was that Rice managed to graduate with honors from Yale with a degree in Latin American studies, but without employment. He did eventually land a job after college, spending two years at AT&T in a management-development program before heading off to Harvard Business School. In retrospect, Rice realizes that he made a number of avoidable mistakes.

“I probably didn’t manage the college-to-first-job transition or the B-school application process as rigorously as I should have,” he recalls. “I applied last round and on the last day and never visited campuses. And if I made several mistakes, then others who had far less access to well-informed guidance, and whose parents had not attended college, had to be navigating even more tenuously. That has to be part of the reason that minorities were so underrepresented at HBS and in the fast-track entry-level jobs that tend to feed into top MBA programs as well as in leadership positions in major organizations.”

Rice found HBS to be a strange and wondrous place.

Strange, he says, because, compared to most of his classmates, he had very little background in business. He didn’t come from consulting or finance, nor had he majored in business in college, so he arrived never having read a case or used a spreadsheet.

“I learned so much; the journey for me was big,” Rice recalls. “I think I got more intellectual growth out of it than a lot of my peers whose work experiences had better prepared them for it.”

HBS was also wondrous, he says, because it was such a transformative experience, and it is one that he wants other people to have.

“I got more exposure to so many folks who were aspiring to do great things in the business world: the guest speakers, the CEOs who visited class, even the companies that were recruiting,” he says. “I got a deep appreciation for how much impact two years of business school can have on someone’s trajectory. And, beyond that, I saw how much impact senior leaders could have; and not just within their organizations, but also outside in their communities, as nonprofit board members, civic leaders, philanthropists, role models, and connectors for young people who are economically vulnerable.”

Yet when Rice looked around the classroom and saw few people who looked like him, “I asked, ‘why is that?’”

As a result, during his second year, he worked with entrepreneurship professor Greg Dees on an independent study examining initiatives that focused on broadening the pipeline of minorities in business schools as well as private- and public-sector executive positions. That work led Rice to establish Management Leadership for Tomorrow.

“The issue was how to expand the pipeline at every stage; if we could, then good things would happen,” he says.

After HBS, Rice worked at Walt Disney Co. for four years, in new business development and marketing. Next he joined the National Basketball Association as managing director of NBA Japan and as director of marketing for Latin America. But that didn’t mean Rice put his nonprofit on hold: he simply worked two jobs at once.

“Looking back, I’m not sure that would be my recommended course of action,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s risky to the day job; and it puts major constraints around free time. But I knew someone needed to do it. My choices were either put MLT on the shelf for a time, until I had more financial flexibility, or to take a shot at it. I wouldn’t say it got easier, once I started to get momentum, but it became more clear how much potential there was to have impact.”

Two HBS classmates who worked at Boston Consulting Group, Matt Halprin and Bruce Holley, helped him figure out how to put it together (Halprin is still on MLT’s board). BCG’s analysis showed that, while medical schools and law schools had enrollments consistent with the number of minorities applying at the undergraduate level (about 19 percent), the figures were far lower for business schools.

“Within minority communities, careers in business are perceived to be riskier than law and med school,” Rice explains. “You could be a doctor or lawyer in your own community; you get a license to practice. An MBA doesn’t give you a license for anything, so you have to navigate a more ambiguous path—one with fewer role models and fewer people to help you. The problem builds on itself: underrepresentation in the fast-track, post-college jobs that feed into the B-schools leads, in turn, to a narrow pool of young minority professionals who have the playbook to apply successfully; underrepresentation at the B-schools continues; and companies that recruit from MBA programs are constrained by the lack of diversity in the MBA talent pool.”

MLT’s solution is to provide the high-performance playbook by coaching and accelerating connections at every career stage, starting in college. The nonprofit now works with more than 1,000 people annually and has 100 corporate and social-sector employer partners, with impressive results:

  • 95 percent of Fellows in MLT’s college program receive highly competitive job offers prior to graduation
  • MLT is a leading source of diverse talent for Google; Goldman Sachs; Procter & Gamble; Deloitte; and many other top firms
  • 95 percent of its MBA Prep Fellows have been accepted by top-25 business schools
  • admission rates for MLT Fellows at the top 10 business schools are three times the schools’ overall selectivity indices
  • 75 percent of the professionals in MLT’s mid-career advancement program received promotions within one year of completing the program

“I think that what success will look like in the next 10 years is a critical mass of diverse talent in the leadership pipelines of the major institutions that are driving our economy,” Rice says. He isn’t stopping there, though, because he sees diversifying MBA programs and leading employers as critical levers in a broader effort.

“Our model can move the needle on socioeconomic mobility in this country. What has become clear is that it’s not enough to get a young person to college. They need to make the most out of college, get a job that they could not have gotten out of high school, and become a high performer at every stage of the professional world. Then they can bring hundreds of others along behind them.”

The obstacles and impediments are real, to be sure, but Rice is convinced that they can be overcome.

“Those who are first in their families to navigate these pathways don’t have ready access to folks who have been there before and who can offer well-informed insights to help them navigate successfully,” Rice notes. “That is why formalizing and scaling the delivery of the high-performance playbook and coaching are so important. It levels the playing field and it enables everyone to have the genuine confidence that they belong in those new pathways. When you feel that you belong, you take risks, bounce back quickly from setbacks, and build lasting friendships; the same things those who make the most out of the HBS experience are able to do.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1992, Section D
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