The business world may have come a long way in terms of racial diversity and inclusion, but the playing field is still far from level. Responsible for one of the most recent comprehensive and independent studies into this issue, the Center for Talent Innovation reports that, while African Americans account for roughly 12 percent of the national population, they hold just 3.2 percent of senior leadership roles at large US companies and just 0.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions.
Despite these statistics, certain sections of the business community are beginning to show signs of improvement. For example, the number of young black people with senior administrative aspirations has never been higher. As the Atlanta-area business school resource Metro MBA points out, “the number of African Americans and other minorities graduating from MBA programs continues to rise.”
Just as important, the attitudes of some influential business leaders have shifted in favor of equal representation in the boardrooms of America. Take for, example, Arch Systems CEO Andrew Scheuermann who honored Juneteenth 2020 by publishing a list of “40 Inspirational Black Business Leaders to Follow on LinkedIn and Twitter.” Social network platforms have a profound impact on Mr. Scheuermann’s thinking on a daily basis, so he made this list because he “wanted to be hearing from more Black leaders on the same topics I care about.”
Although the benefits of varied perspectives and equal opportunity are obvious to CEOs such as Mr. Scheuermann, institutional inequalities remain a reality in the modern business environment. In light of this fact, it is worth celebrating every African American who decides to pursue an MBA as well as those who rise through the ranks to secure top CEO positions.
Here is a short list of five black professionals who have leveraged their MBAs to accomplish amazing things in the business world:
1. Rosalind Brewer
The first name on our list of influential African American business leaders is also the most recent to assume her current position. The former chief operating officer of Starbucks, Rosalind Brewer became the CEO of Walgreens in March of 2021. Her new position not only makes her the only black woman to currently lead a Fortune 500 firm, but just the third black woman to serve as a Fortune 500 CEO in history.
Brewer formerly served as CEO of Sam’s Club and president of the Global Nonwovens Sector at Kimberly-Clark. She embarked on her career as a scientist with this multinational manufacturer of medical instruments and sanitary products.
Despite her amazing accomplishments, Brewer has not escaped negative stereotypes and ignorant assumptions. “When you’re a Black woman, you get mistaken a lot,” she said while addressing her business school alma mater, Spelman College. “You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have that top job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people assume you’re in the wrong place, and all I can think in the back of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.’”
2. Arnold W. Donald
After serving a decade as a director at the British-American leisure cruse giant Carnival Corporation & plc., Arnold W. Donald became the company’s CEO in 2013. In addition to his leadership role at Carnival, he concurrently serves as an executive advising partner at Wind Point Partners and an operating partner at Atlas Holdings LLC.
Donald first made a name for himself at Monsanto where he introduced that company’s first biotech crop protection products and ultimately became president of its nutrition and consumer areas. His other professional highlights include serving as CEO of Merisant and Tabletop Holdings.
Donald is also active in the charitable nonprofit sector, holding multiple management and board posts with a number of philanthropic and academic organizations over the course of his career. He formerly served tenures as CEO and president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
3. Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall
The first African American female CEO in the National Basketball Association, Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall has led business operations for the Dallas Mavericks since 2018. She was working as a senior executive at AT&T when Mavericks owner Mark Cuban hired her to clean up the workplace culture of his NBA team in the wake of an investigation that uncovered two decades of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Marshall credits her positive impact on the Mavericks organization to “dreaming big, having focus, prayer, and taking action.” She places a high value on mentoring other black women in hopes that “we’ll have a second, third, fourth and fifth” African American female CEO in the NBA.
4. Aylwin B. Lewis
Aylwin B. Lewis leveraged his MBA from the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business to pursue an administrative career in the quick service restaurant industry. Over the years, he held a series of leadership positions at the Fortune 1000 fast food corporation YUM! This included senior posts with former and current YUM! affiliate brands such as Pizza Hut, KFC, Jack-in-the-Box, Long John Silvers, and A&W. His specific titles with YUM! include president, chief operating officer, and chief of multi branding. His other career highlights include tenures as president and CEO of both K-Mart and Sears Holding Co.
Lewis currently serves as the CEO of Potbelly Sandwich Works LLC, a submarine sandwich chain with hundreds of locations that span the United States. He also serves as an independent director with The Walt Disney Company.
5. Mellody Hobson
In addition to her position as co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments, Mellody Hobson is the first black woman to chair the board of directors for Starbucks. She was born the youngest of six children and raised by a single mother in Chicago. Speaking at the Center for Financial Planning’s Diversity Summit in November of 2020, she said, “It’s no accident I am in the investment management business because as a child I was desperate to understand money.”
Hobson joined Ariel Investments as an intern after graduating from Princeton University in 1991. She worked her way up the chain of command to become a senior administrator. In addition to her work with Ariel and Starbucks, she sits on the board of directors of JPMorgan Chase. “My hope,” she told an audience at her alma mater “is that my name will remind future generations of students—especially those who are black and brown and the ‘firsts’ in their families—that they too belong.”
Let These Amazing Business Leaders Inspire You
Countless professionals of all racial and cultural backgrounds have followed in the footsteps of these trailblazing MBA holders. Among their other philanthropic and community outreach endeavors, they serve as role models to the next generation of African American business leaders.
At the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC), we not only place a high value on diversity and inclusion, but we have both online and in-person MBA program options that are designed to prepare students from all walks of life who want to overcome challenges of the modern business climate and achieve success. For more information on our Gary W. Rollins College of Business, visit the official UTC website today.