How HBCUs are changing the face of business and political leadership

March 4, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC
Historically Black colleges have long held a critical place in developing leaders, including (from left) Stacey Abrams, Roz Brewer, and Kamala Harris.
Ben McCanna—Portland Press Herald/Getty Images; Sara Stathas; JIM WATSON—AFP/Getty Images

Roz Brewer had only a vague sense of Spelman College as a high school student growing up in Detroit in the 1970s. Neither of Brewer’s parents graduated from high school before going to work for General Motors. And while they insisted that all five of their children go to college, Brewer’s four older siblings had all chosen schools in state. 

But in a meeting during her senior year, Brewer’s college counselor told her she absolutely must apply to Spelman. The counselor was herself a Spelman graduate and thought Brewer would blossom at the all-women’s historically Black college in Atlanta. “She saw something in me and said, ‘You need to go to my alma mater,’” Brewer remembers.

Incoming Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer at Spelman College in Atlanta, 1984.
Courtesy of Rosalind Brewer

Brewer’s four years at Spelman changed her life. “Being in that environment where my fellow students looked like me and had similar experiences, I felt like it endorsed who I was,” she says. It nurtured her self-confidence and sparked a deep need to continually challenge the status quo—traits that prepared her for a career that has included top jobs at Walmart’s Sam’s Club and Starbucks, and in January culminated with her being named CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance

“I’ve taken some of the most unique roles in my career because I knew I could make change happen,” Brewer told Fortune in late January. “A constant change agent is just who we are when we finish at an HBCU”—a historically Black college or university.

Brewer’s belief in the role historically Black institutions play in developing talent helps explain why, during a period of extreme turmoil, a growing group of HBCU graduates are breaking new ground in their professional fields. Brewer’s new job running the $140 billion pharmacy chain will make her the only Black woman CEO running a Fortune 500 company when she takes the reins on March 15, and only the third in history. (Thasunda Brown Duckett will become the fourth when she takes over at TIAA on May 1.)

In politics, the examples abound: Kamala Harris, the first Black—and female—Vice President of the United States (Howard University); Fair Fight founder Stacey Abrams (Spelman), who was instrumental in turning Georgia blue; Raphael Warnock (Morehouse College), Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator. 

Rise of HBCUs-Kamala Harris-Howard University
Vice President Kamala Harris at her alma mater Howard University speaks to an Alpha Kappa Alpha sister in January 2019.
Al Drago—Getty Images

All have been intentional about promoting their HBCU roots—perhaps Vice President Harris most of all. On the cover of the February issue of Vogue, Harris posed in front of a pink and green backdrop, a reference to the signature colors of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority she joined as a student at Howard. One of the Bibles Harris chose to use at her swearing in belonged to the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was also a Howard graduate. And when she gave a shout-out to her “HBCU brothers and sisters” at the Democratic National Convention, experts say that it may have been the first time many Americans had heard the acronym. 

To those in the HBCU community, watching fellow graduates ascend to historic heights is not new or surprising. HBCUs have long had a critical place in developing leaders, including those at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Barbara Jordan, to name a few. 

Rise of HBCUs-MLK-Morehouse College
Martin Luther King Jr. (third from left, front row) in a class at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
John van Hasselt—Sygma/Getty Images

These icons attended HBCUs because they essentially had no other options; the first HBCUs were founded in the years after the Civil War when most colleges and universities prohibited Black students from attending. Since their inception, HBCUs have had to fight against the mainstream narrative in higher education that they are somehow inferior to their predominantly white counterparts. Experts say the leaders on display today, who could have gone to any school and chose an HBCU, are helping to eradicate that bias and are a reaffirmation of the power and influence of these colleges and universities.

Despite being under-resourced, the 100-plus institutions designated as HBCUs, which in total enroll about 300,000 students, punch well above their weight. Howard’s medical school and Meharry Medical College trained 80% of all Black Americans who have degrees in dentistry and medicine, according to the Department of Education. Some 75% of all Black people holding a doctorate degree, and 80% of all Black federal judges got their undergraduate degrees at an HBCU. The president of Howard has noted that the university is the No. 2 producer of Black students attending Harvard’s MBA program, second only to Harvard itself. 

They are also helping to create an alternative image and path of what success should and must look like. “The optimist in me says that people are now ready to recognize people from all different walks and backgrounds,” says Brewer. “That there’s great caliber of talent that looks different from you, in many different pockets.”

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Stacey Abrams, age 20, discusses her volunteer work and community service award as a student at Spelman College, 1994.
Nick Arroyo—Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

“There’s always been a wealth of superior talent at HBCUs since their inception,” says Crystal Ashby, interim president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, the premier membership organization for Black executives. “And that talent is really on display right now.”

‘A shallow critique

As the votes were counted in the Georgia Senate runoff race in January, a tweet from a Morehouse grad started to go viral: “If a Morehouse man becomes a U.S. senator while a Howard alumna is the Vice President, and both were aided by a Spelman woman, I NEVER NEVER NEVER want to hear any more talk about HBCUs not preparing you for the ‘real world.’”

It was a common refrain echoing around social media. HBCU graduates were using the historic moment to dispel the criticism their alma maters often face—that because their student bodies don’t reflect the broader population, they are creating an unrealistic environment for their students and not getting them ready to operate in predominantly white workplaces.

It’s a “shallow critique,” says Eddie R. Cole, a professor of higher education at UCLA who attended the historically Black university Tennessee State. “[HBCUs] were created within the context of broader U.S. society and racial discrimination,” says Cole, pointing to their inception in post–Civil War America. “They are quite aware of the real world because they are a product of the real world.”

Nadrea Njoku, senior research associate at the United Negro College Fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, says that at the crux of the argument is a feeling that to be prepared to succeed in America, “we must be oversaturated and be overexposed to the white experience.” But in order to constantly face systemic racism, “you have to have a sense of joy. You have to have a sense of self.” Those are traits that HBCUs are expert at manufacturing, she says. 

Njoku’s four years at Xavier University of Louisiana, the only Catholic HBCU, also gave her a reprieve from the day-to-day racism and the “exhaust factor” that came with having to often be the spokeswoman for everything Black, she says. At her predominantly white high school and graduate school, she had been expected “to represent [my] entire culture,” she says. “There is a sense of labor that goes into that is not present at an HBCU. You don’t have to put on extra armor.” 

‘Without judgment

Arlene Isaacs-Lowe graduated at the top of her class at New York’s competitive Brooklyn Tech high school and could have gone anywhere for college in 1976. But for a Jamaican immigrant like herself—and the first in the family to go to college—Howard was the mecca. It was the only school to which she applied. “There were people who looked like you, talked like you,” who were culturally aligned and passed no judgment, she says. It was the only experience she’s ever had where she felt like her success was purely about her abilities and nothing else.

Isaacs-Lowe entered Howard thinking she wanted to be a lawyer—that and doctor were really the only two professions that had been on her radar growing up. A guidance counselor who knew her financial situation told her she’d likely have to work before law school, so why didn’t she consider a major that would land her a lucrative job that would help pay her tuition? The advice led Isaacs-Lowe to accounting, then an MBA rather than law school, and eventually a 20-plus-year career at Moody’s, where she is currently global head of corporate social responsibility. “She knew enough of the experiences of the students to give them practical advice,” Isaacs-Lowe says of her guidance counselor. “And I never forgot that.”

Howard was the first place where Isaacs-Lowe studied Black history—a required course at the school. She initially had a difficult time conceptualizing how the subject connected to her desire for a career in business. But as she learned about the namesakes of the very spaces she moved between on campus—Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, Harriet Tubman Quad—it clicked for her. If these people, who were former slaves or had faced the horror of the Jim Crow era, were able to survive and accomplish so much, then she too certainly could be successful.

‘Air of expectancy

Najoh Tita-Reid was actively discouraged from attending an HBCU as a high school student at a private boarding school in Massachusetts. Her guidance counselor told her she’d just gone through four years of prep school—she should go to an “elite college.” “She made it sound like I’d be downgrading my education if I went to an HBCU,” Tita-Reid remembers. 

Tita-Reid ended up at a private college in New England, but there she felt as though professors treated her like a statistic and cared little about who she was, her goals, or ambitions. At one point, she’d gotten a B on a paper that she thought deserved an A. It wasn’t so much the grade that bothered her but the conversation with her professor, who, she says, told her that a B was good “for her.” She wanted to use her energy to learn, she says, not to prove to professors that she deserved to be there.

After visiting a friend at an HBCU and comparing the experience with her own, Tita-Reid completed an application to Spelman within the week and transferred the following semester. “I want to be in an environment that expects me to be my best; that expects me to change the world,” she remembers. “Where I don’t have to convince them that I can.” It was a feeling that Tita-Reid, now an executive for Logitech in Switzerland, has tried to maintain throughout her career.

Many HBCU alumni spoke of a heightened sense of promise upon arriving on campus—what Morehouse president emeritus Benjamin Mays once called “an air of expectancy” in remarks to the class of 1961. It’s a speech that Sháka Rasheed, managing director and general manager of capital markets at Microsoft, can still recite verbatim. He first heard it from a Morehouse graduate at a college fair, and the words solidified the school as Rasheed’s top choice.

When Rasheed arrived at Morehouse in 1989, he sensed a shifting orientation of what was possible for him, despite the poverty of his youth. He’d grown up in inner-city Miami with a single mom raising four kids and his father in prison. At Morehouse, over and over he heard that he was expected to be excellent. Crown Forum, the college’s weekly seminar, brought in CEOs and politicians to discuss leadership, but, more important, Rasheed says, “it was communicating that whatever environment or community you were in, you were to lead.”   

‘Most with the least

Willie Deese has been cochair of the capital campaign at North Carolina A&T State University, his alma mater, for five years, but in the past eight months the conversation with potential corporate donors has shifted. He says donors are starting to acknowledge how the disparity in their contributions to HBCUs versus predominantly white schools has contributed to the enormous wealth gap between the two types of institutions. The data point that’s most often referenced: Howard has the largest endowment of any HBCU, with about $700 million. Compare that with Harvard’s more than $40 billion. “HBCUs have miraculously done the most with the least,” says UCLA’s Cole.

Amid the Black Lives Matter movement and fight for racial justice, HBCUs have seen a surge in funding. In July, MacKenzie Scott, the world’s richest woman and former spouse of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, gave $1.7 billion to a list of recipients that included six HBCUs, each of which received an eight-figure gift. The previous month, Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, gave $120 million to the United Negro College Fund, Spelman, and Morehouse. Hastings and Quillin noted that HBCUs have “a tremendous record, yet are disadvantaged when it comes to giving” and that “investing in the education of Black youth is one of the best ways to invest in America’s future.”

Deese knows firsthand what an education can do. His dad finished the sixth grade, and his mother went to the 11th grade, but eight of the nine kids in the family went to college, and four completed advanced degrees. Deese entered the workforce as corporate America was starting to open up more broadly to Black professionals in the 1970s, and he would go on to have a four-decade-long career as an executive in the computer and pharmaceutical industries. Deese, who retired as global head of manufacturing at Merck in 2016, has made donating to N.C. A&T the center of his philanthropy (the business school is named after him).

To Deese, this level of giving is an obligation. He saw the ongoing and selfless sacrifice and investment made by professors and administrators on his behalf. “They didn’t have ample financial resources to give, so they gave their time and talent,” he says. “It just became clear to me when I was able to share my resources with the university, I needed to both pay that back and pay it forward.” 

He’s not alone. At one point while Brewer, the incoming CEO of Walgreens, was in college, her father worked three jobs to put the kids through school. Now she chairs Spelman’s board of trustees and funds an annual scholarship program at the college for first-generation students.

At N.C. A&T, the university’s capital campaign just concluded, and Deese says it far exceeded the college’s goal. To Deese, “education is still the greatest emancipator,” he says. “It’s as great an emancipator today as it was 40 years ago or 100 years ago.”

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