Business United in Leadership Development: Alumni Perceptions of a Program Promoting Business as a Degree Program and Career for African Americans

Article excerpt

Introduction

According to a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study (Sappal, 2000), racial and ethnic minorities, to include African Americans, are represented on only about 4% of Fortune 500 company boards of directors. The survey corroborates the findings of both the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission (FGCC) study in 1995 and the Directorship, Inc. (DI) study of 1997.

In 1995, the FGCC found that less than 5% of the top positions in corporate America were held either by minorities or women. The FGCC did not more explicitly specify the percentage of positions held by minorities only. Nor did the study report on the percentage of positions held only by persons of color (Klimely, 1995). In 1997, the DI study similarly found that less than 4% of Forbes 500 board members were minorities, including but not limited to persons of color.

According to the SHRM survey, the most significant barrier to racial and ethnic minority organizational advancement is stereotyping and preconceptions based on the minority classification. Additional barriers, in order of significance, include exclusion from informal networks, a lack of mentoring opportunities, the lack of role models, and corporate cultures that are biased against these minorities.

Despite the many corporate initiatives implemented over the last twenty years, change has been slow and difficult. While the concept of diversity is bandied about in many boardrooms and is identified in corporate policy after corporate policy, we do not expect the rate of change for persons of color to accelerate greatly in the near future. Perhaps part of the problem is that various definitions of "diversity" are utilized and no broadly accepted definition has been determined.

As pointed out by The Conference Board (1992), the term diversity is often used in the strictest manner by restricting the term to "race, gender, ethnicity, age, national origin, religion, and disability". More general interpretations have also surfaced adding "sexual/ affectional orientation, values, personality characteristics, education, and background characteristics" to name a few. When something cannot be defined it seems reasonable to expect that successful implementation of programs dealing with or affected by it can be difficult at best, and impossible in the worst case.

Further complicating the situation is defining the term "minority". Various interpretations of this word are used and the groups comprising a given minority classification can be altered at the will of the user. Minorities are, in general, groups of people who differ in some way from the considered norm of the population. Minority groups can be defined, for example, to include women or they may be excluded depending on the need of the user.

The underrepresentation of African Americans in leadership roles in business has implications that reach far beyond the boundaries of personal income or the corporate bottom line. Without leadership experience, the business contacts and networking capability that come with such positions it is difficult at best for black community leaders to assist in the economic or social advancement of the communities in which they reside and work. The lack of successful role models further reduces the probability of improvement in the advancement of the African-American population in each successive generation.

Clearly, education in general, and obtaining a postsecondary degree from an institution of higher learning can be a key to advancement. African Americans have historically lagged behind the white population in earning postsecondary degrees. Over the last twenty years, numerous programs have been implemented to deal with the proportionately small number of blacks entering college and ultimately being awarded a degree. This study reports on the structure and success of one such program developed to foster, in high achieving black high school juniors, an interest in pursuing a business degree and in business as a career. …