In 2008, Nneka Rimmer ’01 was named the first African-American female partner in The Boston Consulting Group’s 50-year history.
On Nov. 9, Rimmer came back to Northwestern – where she got her MBA and her JD – to share her experiences and business lessons with a packed house at the 27th Black Management Association Conference.
We sat down with Rimmer before the conference to talk about her path.
You’ve written extensively about a need for adaptive team leadership. What do you feel makes a team adaptive and how can management used to doing things a certain way adopt this?
The ability to adapt as a team and to understand the signal and distinguish it from noise, while being really quick to react to necessary changes that are coming through, really does make a team differentiated in terms of both what they do, how they do it and oftentimes the result.
Jack Welch solved all the problems of GE to hear the stories told. And maybe that's true. I don't know. But I know that it could not be true today. It is not a single individual. The leadership of the CEO alone is critical but it's not sufficient by itself.
What was your path to becoming BCG’s first African-American female partner?
I have been able to balance BCG's desire to have social impact in a meaningful way with my personal desire to do the same, and my civic lens of wanting to be a good citizen of the city, country and world. And I was given a lot of room to do that at BCG and so you take the preparation, the room and the growth, and pair that with having really great mentors and advocates, I looked up seven years in and I was a partner.
Much of your work in the civic lens has been in education. Why has that been so important to you?
I have a story that I tell about the three Miss Rimmers. It starts with my grandmother who graduated from college in the '40s as an African-American woman, which is incredible and I'm incredibly proud of her. When she went to college, she went to college to be a teacher. Fast forward 30 years and my mother went to college, not as Mrs. Rimmer as Rose Campbell. She eventually became Mrs. Rimmer, but she went to college thinking she was going to be a teacher. She went to Northwestern and was also brilliant.
And then you get to me as Nneka Rimmer. I went to Stanford and then came back to Northwestern, but actually never thought being a teacher. If I'm not thinking about teaching and the majority of my friends who I went to college with aren't thinking about teaching, then how are we making sure we've got great teachers and preparing them and making sure that we are enabling the next generation?
What's the business world like for a young black professional?
It's actually incredible. My mom had a few opportunities, I had a number more opportunities and that is just continuing to expand.
I think that the challenges that I face at BCG are about the work and not about me as a single mother and an African-American woman. That makes me really proud of the choice I made to join this firm.