Stanford Black Business Students Association Celebrates 25 Years

About 200 people including some 40 alums attended Gathering 25, a two-day conference to celebrate the club's 25th anniversary.

April 01, 2008

When Richard Phillips came to Stanford GSB in fall 2007, he knew he’d find professional and personal support at the Black Business Students Association, a student club. It is “one serious option where people can go and feel supported, feel like they know everyone, and feel like everyone is their friend,” Phillips said.

In his first year Phillips took part in a team-building weekend retreat in Napa and fielded questions from prospective MBA students during Admit Weekend about being Black at Stanford. Other BBSA members have helped undergraduates interested in business careers polish their resumes and hone their interview skills.

There’s also time for fun: The guys spent an evening out at dinner and clubbing in Oakland, while women of the BBSA gathered at a member’s apartment to bond around cocktails and dessert.

The group that has been an integral part of Stanford life for Phillips and hundreds of other Black students during the past quarter century is moving into the future with its old traditions intact and new goals underway. Its most ambitious effort of the year came in late April during Gathering 25, a two-day conference featuring speakers, workshops, and memories to celebrate the club’s 25th anniversary.

The event drew about 200 people, including about 40 alums from around the country. As a show of enthusiasm and solidarity, about two dozen Black members of the MBA class of 2008 made a pact to return to the conference every year.

Gathering 25 kicked off on April 25 with a keynote speech by Mellody Hobson, who described her rise through Chicago-based Ariel Investments to become president of that Black-owned investment firm at age 30. Johnathan Rodgers, president and CEO of TV One — the cable channel that targets African Americans with the jaunty “I See Black People” advertising campaign — detailed the business strategy of the nation’s sole Black-owned broadcast company. Jim Phills and Roderick Kramer, members of the Stanford GSB organizational behavior faculty, talked about power in the workplace.

“Get us all in one room, and you see a big community here,” said conference co-chair Rukaiyah Adams, MBA ’08, about the scene that was created when all current Black MBA students came up on stage for recognition. “If you take a picture of the 50 Black students who are here now, it makes a visual reminder that we have done well.”

The association got its start in the early 1980s when the number of Black students in the business school reached “a critical mass,” said former BBSA member Bruce Thompson, MBA ’84.

Never mind that only a handful of the 600 first- and second-year students attending business school at that time were Black. “We are not talking huge numbers,” Thompson explained, “but relative to what had been there in prior years, it was a substantial contingent.”

“I think there was a general feeling that we needed to have our own voice, as part of the business school and as part of the broader community.”

The year it was formed, the BBSA established an annual conference — which remains the oldest student-led conference at the business school. That event included a job fair, which at its peak drew representatives from as many as 30 companies and Black Stanford grads, including Thompson, to recruit and provide support, advice, or mentoring to students. The job fair was discontinued in the 1990s.

For Art May, MBA ’89, owner and principal of residential real estate development firm Keystone Development Group, “The bond with other BBSA members is one of the stronger bonds” from his Stanford years. “I do business with them and have a long network of working together with Black alums.”

Creating relationships remains one of the club’s most important functions. This year about 30 second-year club members took part in the annual retreat held at a Napa hotel, said Chimeka Thomas, MBA ’08.

During one exercise, participants jotted a professional or personal fear or concern on a piece of paper and placed it in a hat. The students closed their eyes and listened as the group’s leader read each note aloud. “When he read something off that related to you, you opened your eyes, and you look at the other people in the room whose eyes are open too,” Thomas said. “You don’t move. No one says anything. It’s just a way to understand that there are other people who are probably having the same concerns as you.

Today the BBSA is also cultivating non-Black club members. About 20 percent of the 75 current members are not minorities. Some are international students wanting to learn more about the Black American experience. Others are non-Black classmates eager to make new friends and expand their personal horizons.

“It’s been a nice thing to share,” said Thomas.

That strategy helps both sides learn about the realities of business today. “If you really want to excel, you have to learn how to have cross-cultural conversations. There’s much more mixing in society in general. I think it is for the better,” said Adams, who is Black and also a member of the Jewish Students Business Association.

David Silver, MBA ’08, who is white and Jewish, chairs the BBSA’s technology committee. While he considers being active in the group an important way to prepare for the reality of today’s workforce, Silver said he’s most enjoyed the BBSA’s social side. He attended the fall weekend retreat and got to meet Thomas Adams, MBA ’95 and a former eBay executive who hosted a BBSA reception at his home last year.

“It’s inspirational to hear someone like that speak,” Silver said. “He’s a fantastic role model for me, and for anybody at the GSB.”

By Michele Chandler

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