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Black Business Leadership in Focus at Harvard Business School

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“Entrepreneurship is a synonym for liberation because those who have success with it—it provides them the freedom to be whoever they want to be,” said Steven Rogers, a senior lecturer on entrepreneurial finance at Harvard Business School (HBS), as part of recent video promoting his latest project. “But more importantly to me is that it provides them with the freedom to uplift others.”

Linking entrepreneurship with freedom in this way provides the perfect set up for Rogers’ new course, “Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship.” New this semester, it is the first of its kind at HBS.

“If we are talking about really looking at the full landscape of business excellence, it has to include black business women and men,” Rogers continued matter-of-factly. “I think the thing that excites me the most about the opportunity to design and teach this course is that it provides the chance to teach young people about great businessmen and women who are African American—people that most of them have never heard of before who deserve to be recognized for their brilliance, who deserve to be a part of the narrative about business excellence.”

Part of the reason no such course has previously been taught at HBS is due to a dearth of case studies—the integral element at the center of HBS’s signature case method pedagogy—featuring African American protagonists.

Less Than One Percent of HBS Cases Have Black Protagonist
“There have been approximately 10,000 cases published by HBS and, from my last count, less than 100 of them have a black protagonist,” Rogers stated. “So our black students never get a chance—for the most part—to see other black businessmen and women who are role models, and our non-black students don’t get a chance to see black people who exhibit excellence in the fundamentals of business,” he continued.

“If we are not producing case studies that include black people, no one is being taught anything about these great business men and women who should be included in the conversation,” Rogers pointed out.

So he went out and wrote 14 new case studies, each having at its center an African American business man or woman who has been phenomenally successful—and successful not only in their professional life but also in giving back to their community.

These 14 case studies span industries ranging from private equity to publishing, from finance to franchise restaurants. One, featured in the promo video for the course, tells the story of Linda Johnson Rice, the daughter of John and Eunice Johnson, whose Johnson Publishing Company launched Ebony magazine at a time when segregation in America was widespread. Despite having covered the most important African-American issues for the past seven decades, Ebony found itself facing the profoundly difficult times that are prevalent throughout the publishing industry.

“I think what the students can learn is—they can learn part of our struggle,” said Rice, who visited Rogers’ classroom and spoke directly to students about the challenges she faced and the choices she made. “They can learn part of the struggle that you go thorough as an African-American in business, because there is not parity, there is not always access to capital, there is not always access to talent.”

Here again, Rogers returns to the fact that the business people he has chosen to highlight are not only successful professionally but are also committed to their communities. “John Johnson was saying you have the responsibility of being a successful businessman and using that success to pull up your community,” added Rogers, who plans to use the case as a springboard to a discussion about the intersection of race and entrepreneurial opportunity. After immersing themselves in the case, students then gather in teams and are instructed to identify underserved markets in poor, middle class and affluent black communities where they can create an entrepreneurial endeavor to service that market. Rogers’ goal? “To expand the discussion about entrepreneurial activity.”

HBS administrators say that the school is focused on increasing the racial diversity of its case study protagonists, much as it has been focused on increasing the gender diversity of protagonists since Dean Nitin Nohria pledged in 2014 to double the number of females in a central role in cases from 10 percent to 20 percent by 2019.

“We are paying much more attention to this and committed to increasing the numbers of blacks and other minorities represented in the cases,” HBS spokesperson Jim Aisner told the Boston Globe as part of a recent piece about Rogers’ new class.

The launch of Rogers’ new “Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship” class was well timed to coincide with Black History Month, but it’s not the only way HBS has marked the contributions of African Americans during February.

Cold Call Podcast Series Marks Black History Month
The school also devoted the entire month of its Cold Call podcast series to showcasing black business leaders and the value of diversity. The first of the podcasts featured Rogers presenting the Ebony magazine case study, and three others spotlighted fellow faculty members delving deep into additional case studies where black business leaders shone bright or diversity practices were central.

In one, Professor Henry McGee, former president of HBO Home Entertainment, shares the fascinating story behind Franklin Leonard’s The Black List, which has been a disruptive force in Hollywood for the past decade plus. Leonard, an African American graduate of Harvard College, headed out to Hollywood after a stint working at McKinsey. As a low-level production executive, Leonard was amazed to not be able to find any good screenplays he wanted to read. So he developed a crowdsourced mechanism for unearthing hot, as yet unproduced screenplays—shaking up an otherwise relatively entrenched motion picture industry. Three of the films nominated for Best Picture awards this year—Hell or High Water, Manchester by the Sea and Arrival—all were identified via The Black List.

In another podcast, Professor Tony Mayo discusses his case study about pioneering African American woman Maggie Lena Walker, who parlayed her leadership of the Independent Order of St. Luke to form a bank, a newspaper and a department store—in the middle of the Confederate South.

The final February Cold Call podcast features HBS Professor Robin Ely examining hiring practices designed to achieve a well-balanced, diverse staff—including where they can sometimes go wrong. Through two cases, she leads students through a critical review of race-based and race-blind hiring.

Stones Thrown—Ripples Expand
Of course, one could argue that case studies featuring African American protagonists should not simply be trotted out once a year—a token nod to black history during February. Instead, they should be integrated within the overall curriculum no matter the time of year.

Rogers, for his part, is encouraging faculty at other leading business schools to likewise work to include more diverse voices in their own curriculum. And the fact that HBS does a big business in exporting its own case studies to business programs around the nation and the world—selling 13.2 million copies in 2015 alone, according to the Globe—helps ensure that the ripples created by Rogers’ and others’ efforts will expand out into the world.

Meanwhile at HBS, cases offering greater diversity will almost certainly continue to be added. “We’re showing the true spectrum of the business world,” Leonard told the Globe. “We are now righting this wrong and being more inclusive.”