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Meeting the changing needs of black MBAs.

How important is the National Black MBA Association to the advancement of blacks in business? It depends on who you ask, and when you ask them.

Talk to, a black professional who's still pursuing her MBA, and she will probably tell you that the group provides her with unparalleled networking opportunities and mentoring support. But talk to the same executive a few years after business school, and you might get a different answer: A lot of good her membership did when she was pushed out of her comfy middle-management perch and forced to fly with her own consulting firm. "The organization helped me get my MBA," she and others like her might say. "But if they can't help me advance my career, why do I need them?"

When the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA) was founded 23 years ago, its mission was clear: push blacks towards the degree, help them get into corporations and up the corporate ladder and provide a forum where they could network and socialize.

But changing times and the shifting needs of its membership prompted the group to reassess itself recently. What it discovered was that its mission was outdated, its structure too bureaucratic and its agenda out of sync with the real issues affecting its 2,700 members.

Specifically, the NBMBAA has been perceived as being too focused on helping African-Americans secure MBAs, and not focused enough on the survival and advancement strategies black professionals need once they've earned the coveted degree. The organization's conferences are also too often regarded as networking opportunities, as opposed to high-level business forums. Certainly, many of the programs sponsored by NBMBAA chapters seem far removed from the nine-to-five issues facing black MBAs. For example, a mentoring program for elementary school students, while laudable, does not exactly address the concerns of a black executive trying to avoid the downsizing axe. Meanwhile, the success of chapter-driven programs focusing on the needs of black MBAs has not translated into an image of power, influence and effectiveness. All of this adds up to an organization that many black MBAs feel they have outgrown.

Managing change, in the best of times, is difficult. Trying to do it amid chaos can be nearly impossible, and the corporate world is clearly in a scramble. The upheaval plaguing American business recently has upended the lives of even its top professionals, and black MBAs are no exception. Blacks who pursued a master's degree in business administration - once regarded as the panacea for all career obstacles-have fast discovered that even with the credential, they are still vulnerable. Downsizings and reinforced glass ceilings have hit these managers hard, forcing them into formerly unthinkable career options such as retraining and entrepreneurships to survive. "We quickly found out that Harvard MBAs can be laid off too," notes Leroy Nunery, NBMBAA's national treasurer and vice president of human and information resources for the National Basketball Association in New York City.

Against this backdrop, with its members facing new and more complex challenges, NBMBAA has to broaden its scope to remain viable. It must also refine its internal administrative structure, which, until 1989, was virtually nonexistent (prior to that, everything was administered by an outside management firm). Today, NBMBAA has 10 staff members - up from just four last year-operating out of its Chicago headquarters.

Despite these efforts, some black MBAs, both members and nonmembers, have been highly critical, charging that these changes have been too long in coming. NBMBAA officials concede this criticism, but say they are looking forward, not backward. Their willingness to accept the formidable challenge of redefinition is admirable, particularly at a time when the professional waters for black MBAs are murkier than ever.

By expanding its programs, streamlining its once cumbersome mission and stepping up its community outreach, the organization is seeking to justify its life expectancy into the 21st century, and beyond. But to reinvent itself successfully, the NBMBAA must shift some of its attention away from the "softer" social tactics of professional development such as networking, mentoring and community service, and place more emphasis on the harder strategies of career training, business development and political awareness.

A RELEVANCY SCORECARD

Time was when an African-American manager in a major corporation was rare. Even more exceptional was one with real bottom-line clout. Lacking the mentors and influential support systems available to their white counterparts, blacks often languished in lower-rung positions. These conditions led a group of black MBA students at the University of Chicago to form NBMBAA in 1970.

"Back then, that support group encouraged black students to pursue graduate business degrees and provided networking opportunities for those with the degree," recounts Derryl L. Reed, immediate past president of NBMBAA and an assistant vice president of the Teachers Insurance & Annuity Association in New York City. The expected payoff? That the increase in the number of black MBAs moving through the corporate pipeline would boost their ability to pull others through.

NBMBAA has been resoundingly successful in its original objective. From a roster that numbered less than 100 in its earliest days, the nonprofit organization's membership has swelled to 2,700 professionals, organized into 27 chapters and representing many of the nation's largest corporations. John A. Byrne, author of The Best B Schools (McGraw-Hill Inc., New York, $14.95), places the nation's MBA enrollment at 200,000 students, up from 49,000 a decade ago. NBMBAA identifies about 15% of these students as African-Americans, graduating at a rate of about 2,500 per year over the last decade.

On the issue of career advancement, however, the reality has fallen far short of the expectation. Blacks have made great strides in obtaining managerial positions throughout industry, but their numbers are still dismally low. While African-Americans represent 12% of the population, according to Census and Labor Bureau statistics, they make up only 6% of the nation's executives, administrators and managers. Thwarted by the additional hurdle of a now cemented-over glass ceiling, black MBAs have been humbled, learning not to believe the hype formerly associated with their degree.

But all's not lost The MBA remains the degree of choice for discriminating employers searching for more-bang-for-the-buck managers. "In danger of losing its global competitive edge, U.S. business now looks to B-schools to provide them wah innovative, self-starting leaders wfth accredited skills to push back the competition," notes Dr. Edward D. Irons, dean of Clark Atlanta University's business school.

As the only professional organization comprised almost entirely of the black business management elite (only 2% of its members are non-MBAs), NBMBAA's potential influence in the marketplace is considerable. That's why the impact is far-reaching when it hits its mark, as it does with its professional development programs and networking forums. "The corporate fundraising, project management and strategic planning experience I've gotten through my involvement with NBMBAA will be a great help in my case study analyses as I pursue my degree," says Cheryl Joan Jenkins, manager of client services at Farrar, Straus & Giroux publishers in New York City and a student member of the organization's New York chapter.

When it misses, as it has in being slow to administer to its entrepreneurial and senior-level executive ranks, the repercussions are just as apparent. Daphne Brown, a vice president at Houston investment banking firm Walton Johnson and Co., speaks for many nonmembers when she says: "I found the organization was more beneficial to me while I was pursuing my MBA than it ever was once I'd earned it and required more senior-level guidance."

For some MBAs with an entrepreneurial bent, membership was ruled out, since members on the corporate track got the lion's share of attention. "Because I've applied my MBA towards an entrepreneurial route, I never saw where any of their programs addressed my needs, so I subsequently never joined," says Christina M. Dunbar, a senior vice president for Levmark Corp., a private investment firm in New Rochelle, N.Y.

NBMBAA scored high marks as a professional organization addressing the needs of its membership when measured by its original objectives. Now as a leaner, more inclusive organization dedicated to economic and educational parity, NBMBAA finds itself playing "catch up" in offering courses and services to satisfy a more diverse and demanding membership.

MEMBERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES

The benefits of NBMBAA affiliation attest to its strong, nearly quarter of a century existence. For a $100 annual fee, members get a membership directory, a quarterly newsletter and discounts and preferential treatment in the group's career development and continuing education programs, the caliber of which have become the backbone of the revamped organization. Covering all phases of professional development, NBMBAA now has offerings that benefit preschoolers and Ph.D.s alike.

* For example, a year-old joint initiative with Junior Achievement links kindergarten and elementary school students with corporate volunteers who serve as role models and provide exposure to basic business management techniques.

* The Boston chapter has been successful with NBMBAA's "Leaders of Tomorrow" program, targeting marginal high school students with demonstrated but untapped leadership potential. Members expose the teenagers to the business world, while developing their untapped leadership skills. Students of the program, now in place in five chapters, also attend the annual conference.

* "Destination MBA," sponsored jointly with the Graduate Management Admissions Council in Princeton, N.J., offers potential degree candidates exposure to MBA students and working MBAs, who, in turn, encourage and advise them.

* Meanwhile, the Executive Development Institute, now in its second year, has gained wide praise and is in great demand. Offered at the NBMBAA's Annual Conference and Exposition, this program provides senior-level development strategies and skills for members in corporate or entrepreneurial environments.

The annual convention itself is the organization's most successful venture. Held each fall in a different city, the conference alone generates 85% of the NBMBAA's $2 million budget. A significant portion of this budget is distributed among local chapters to support programs and scholarships, according to director of operations and chief operating officer Antoinette Malveaux. A fair portion of that comes from "corporate partners," who pay $500 (for nonprofits and educational institutions) to $10,000 (for VIP corporate partners) to participate in the conference.

"This group provides an important demographic market that Marriott wants to tap into," observes Michael A. Mobley, senior director, internal audit for Marriott Corp., and an NBMBAA member. In addition to hosting the conference at one of its properties, Marriott has pledged $200,000 to NBMBAA's scholarship fund.

A seedbed for networking and professional development opportunities, NBMBAA's 15th annual conference, held in Atlanta in September, attracted more than 1,500 participants. At these conferences, members make important career connections, participate in developmental seminars and rub elbows with the likes of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (as they did last year).

This year, NBMBAA disseminated its new agenda, encouraging MBAs to tackle entrepreneurial as well as corporate challenges, and advocating a focus on general black business concerns - not just those of the upscale MBA community. "We're more inclusive of the black business community-at-large, since their concerns are essentially ours too," says Gregory Boyd, NBMBAA national president and co-owner of the Knight Group, an investment banking firm in San Francisco. "We realize the benefits of looking beyond ourselves and becoming more socially responsible leaders in our respective communities."

"We want our black professionals to be community leaders as well,"agrees Kevin Carter, president of NBMBAA's Cleveland chapter. As evidence, Carter cites his chapter's involvement in Cleveland's African-American Business Consortium. The consortium, which Carter chairs, pools the talents and resources of 13 other black business organizations in an attempt to promote economic development in the African-American community by encouraging black professionals to work with, and get involved in, the community.

MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES

Some prevailing weaknesses can't be overlooked, despite NBMBAA's commendable efforts to reshape itself into a more effective business development vehicle. For instance, the image of the NBMBAA as more of a bourgeois social clique than a serious professional organization still lingers. "Whenever I hear about the organization, it's because they're pushing a party, boat ride or their national convention," says investment banker Dunbar, voicing a complaint shared by many members and nonmembers alike.

"Socializing is only a part of what we do," counters vice treasurer Nunery. "But it's an important part, since its through networking that many important deals and connections are made. A closer look at our national conference themes and agenda shows that we're dealing with the cutting-edge issues that affect black professionals, at the same time that we're providing networking opportunities."

"What are they doing?" asks Maurice Thomas, a nonmember and principal of the Atlanta-based investment banking firm of Ward & Associates. "I probably need to investigate their agenda, but why should I have to ferret out that information?"

To this, Nunery says, "That's a recurring problem that we're constantly working to fix."

NBMBAA's programs and services are generally underpublicized, so the full scope of its efforts go largely unnoticed. NBMBAA director Malveaux is aware of the problem, but is unsure of the solution. "Clearly, the social events get more publicity than the programs," she says, "but that has a lot to do with word-of-mouth."

Malveaux explains that the group has a negligible advertising budget - less than $ 20,000 - almost all of which goes to promoting the annual conference. Publicity for all smaller events, social or otherwise, falls mosdy to local chapters. Some of these chapters have extensive resources and mailing lists, while others don't

The national office cannot escape the full brunt of yet more criticism, however. Although the office has been pared down and centralized, staff members can still turn the simplest requests into lengthy, frustrating bouts of telephone tag, say some dissatisfied callers. Issues like these might be expected in a novice group, but they're unacceptable for a time-honed organization, especially one whose mission is to serve the corporate and business elite. These criticisms are true, admits Malveaux, but she explains that the 10-member staff is small and still "in a transitional mode."

INTO THE FUTURE

The credibility that NBMBAA has established, and plans to expand on as it strives for more legitimacy in the black business community, far outweighs its fixable foibles. As long as the organization continues to better itself and the lives of its members, it can't help but extend its life expectancy.

NBMBAA's objective of wielding more clout in both national and global economic policy includes coalition-building, along with becoming an African-American business research repository and continued supporter of those members seeking political office. "We're moving to pick up where the Civil Rights Movement left off with social equality and extending it to economic parity,- says Etienne LeGrand, NBMBAA's economic development committee chair and national vice president of operations.

"Emphasizing |networthing,' rather than just networking, will move us from potential to actuality regarding economic empowerment," concurs Charles E. Walton, NBMBAA's director of marketing.

Ambitious goals for one organization to undertake? Perhaps. Certainly, more effective organizations have buckled under the weight of well-intentioned, but unrealistic visions. And, there's always the danger that broadening the scope of NBMBAA's mission will only dilute it. But these are black MBAs we're talking about, a group whose members are known for their passion and driven by their egos. It's doubtful that they would have set themselves up for failure.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Masters of Business degree; effectiveness of National Black MBA Association
Author:Baskerville, Dawn M.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:2538
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