Being Black in Corporate America: How attending an HBCU can impact the journey to the C-Suite

By: Dazayah E. Walker

For many people, college is the best four years of their lives. However, when hit with the stark reality of adulthood and climbing the corporate ladder, an important question is whether your alma mater could be a determining factor in making it into the C-Suite. Many African Americans are faced with this very question because of the value placed on attending an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) or a PWI (Predominately White Institution).

For decades, Corporate America has been imagined as an environment housing only white men in crisp white button-ups and freshly pleated dress pants. It wasn’t until 1987, when Dr. Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. became the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company, this image shifted. This moment became pivotal in history because companies began to see the value of diversity not only within a company but also in executive level positions.

 

The saying of Blacks needing to be “twice is good” is really exemplified within the corporate workforce. Education is fundamental in the progression of one’s career. There have been numerous debates on the value of receiving higher education from an HBCU. The dispute centers on the value of the degree from an HBCU and whether it is inferior to that of a PWI. Whether having attended an HBCU or not, achieving C-suite level has been a rarity for African-Americans. Since 1987, there have been only 15 Black CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies; a staggering statistic given the thirty years of history.

 

Some of the most game-changing and prolific scholars are HBCU graduates. Some notable HBCU Alumni include Rosalind Brewer, President and CEO of Sam’s Club, Denise Young Smith, Apple’s Vice President of Worldwide Human Resources, and John W. Thompson, the first black chairman of Microsoft Corporation and the CEO of Virtual Instruments. With a proven track record of developing successful and competitive individuals, HBCU recruitment has become one of the main approaches to increasing diversity in the workplace.

 

Companies are seeking diversity because it has been reported that they are more likely to experience higher profits, are more marketable, and the diversity cultivates innovation. Without diversity, companies can be seen as exclusive, insensitive, and can produce biased viewpoints. If a company limits its racial demographic, depending on the industry, it risks producing culturally inaccurate or stereotypical imagery. For example, when an advertisement is produced without cultural insight the work can be perceived as offensive. This also ties to the importance of multicultural marketing. When marketing to a specific demographic, having a diverse team helps get a better understanding of the targeted audiences.

 

African Americans make up approximately 12 percent of the workforce, of that 12 percent; only approximately 27 percent are college graduates. According to a corporate diversity survey by the office of Senator Bob Menendez, black men and women account for only 4.7 percent of executive team members in the Fortune 100. In an effort to increase this number, many companies recruit African Americans specifically from HBCUs. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, HBCUs produce 16 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by African-Americans and 22 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields earned by African-American students. With a significant percentage of bachelor’s degrees coming from HBCUs, this proves the impact that these institutions are making and will make in the workforce.

 

When diversity is reflected in upper-level management positions, that leadership trickles down and affects the corporation as a whole. However, an issue that remains is that the opportunities for upper-level management for African-Americans just aren’t there. Some reasons Blacks aren’t placed in these positions are because they are viewed as being intimidating, angry, or incapable of performing well in the job. According to Fortune, Black executives often have to play the role of “happy warrior,” mastering the art of being exceptional but not frightening. One solution to increase diversity in executive positions is the continued effort of recruiting HBCU students and providing them with the proper training, skill development, and mentorship needed to one day fill the big shoes of chief executive.

 

While achieving an executive position as an African-American is a difficulty of its own, attending an HBCU can prove to be beneficial on the road to the C-Suite. HBCUs foster a different kind of confidence, work ethic, and life experience, one that is distinct from the experience of attending a PWI. These values can be an asset to any team that is lacking a diverse environment. There is a proven decline of diversity in the C-Suite; As of today, there are only 4 Black Fortune 500 CEOs. As African-Americans continue to become competitive candidates, there should be more opportunities to increase this underrepresentation at executive levels.

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