4/1/2005 - Some might consider Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., emblematic of a new kind of political leader, one whose youthful charisma has the potential to reach across party lines and whose strong views appear balanced by an apparent willingness to listen carefully to his peers and constituents.
These constituents include some of Illinois’ disenfranchised, but also entrepreneurs and members of the business community, such as those gathered to hear him deliver a keynote address at the Kellogg School’s 18th Annual Black Management Association Conference, held April 8-10. The theme of the student-run initiative was “Future Focus: Grooming a New Era of Leaders.”
Obama’s April 9 appearance at the James L. Allen Center was a conference highlight, and the capacity crowd may have been heartened to hear the senator express his concern that problems affecting businesspeople are getting too little attention today, thanks to misplaced congressional priorities.
Three months after arriving in Washington, D.C., Obama is frustrated not only by the “bitterly partisan” atmosphere on Capitol Hill but also by the time Congress spends debating less urgent problems while ignoring immediate ones, he told attendees.
“It’s not just that we don’t debate things in the right way; we’re not even debating the right things,” Obama said, paraphrasing business guru Peter Drucker. Those “right things,” like healthcare and education, directly impact entrepreneurs, he said.
For example, although the solvency of Social Security is “a serious debate we should be having,” Obama sees it as a “looming problem” that will require either bringing in more revenue or paying out less — an equation around which “historically, people came together in a bipartisan way.”
“Setting that aside, Medicare and Medicaid are broke right now,” he said. “Healthcare co-payments, deductible and premiums are going up right now.”
Entrepreneurs are having a difficult time affording health insurance for their families, let alone their employees, Obama said, yet “there is no serious discussion about healthcare in the capital. The biggest challenges facing you are not the ones being debated.”
Another of those challenges, global competition, should be prompting our nation’s leaders to “overhaul” the educational system to ensure that all Americans are prepared to participate actively.
“Your fate is tied to the global economy — but not the folks on the South Side, or the West Side [of Chicago], or Downstate,” Obama said. “As black MBAs, you have a particular stake in this. You are the folks likely to be most removed from the communities you grew up in.”
Earlier in the day, another speaker, Carol H. Williams, CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based Carol H. Williams Advertising, told attendees of her journey from Chicago’s South Side to the top of the business world.
“So many of you are just starting to live the dream,” she said. “I can’t tell you the path because everyone’s path is different. What I can share with you are the principles.”
The first African-American or female to become a creative director at Leo Burnett, Williams cited such values as integrity, commitment to excellence, openness to change, teamwork, optimism and courage as essential to success.
Williams said she draws inspiration from football players who are tackled, bounce up and point forward to signal a first down. “Take the hit and keep going,” she said. “Get on up. You want to be an entrepreneur? You know you’re going to get your butt knocked on the ground.”
Williams noted that the nation’s 38 million blacks have a combined $688 billion in buying power, up 133 percent in the past decade. “We are considered the Pied Pipers of American culture. Where we go, people follow,” Williams said. “Understanding this has been the key to our success.”
A panel of African-American executives from Pepsi North America, Nike and Daimler-Chrysler picked up on that theme, discussing “Urban Influence on Product Strategy,” one of five sessions whose topics included entrepreneurship, urban investment and board governance.
“It’s a central part of what we do,” said Mitzi Short, vice president of multicultural marketing for Pepsi. “We have a stand-alone organization that focuses on that.”
“It comes down to staying connected and understanding what’s going on in a consumer’s world,” said Larry Miller, president of Brand Jordan for Nike. “If we get that urban consumer, the other consumers will follow.”
Ralph Gilles, director of exterior and interior product design for Daimler-Chrysler, believes younger generations of urban consumers are not as race-conscious, so his company approaches that issue “in a softer way.”
Cora Daniels, author of Black Power, Inc. and staff writer for Fortune, said in an interview session that the current generation of black entrepreneurs must ensure their work “will bring us all up.” Noting the “difficult climb” many African-American MBAs face, Daniels said, “What’s the point of doing all that if you’re not going to pull someone up behind you?”
Other guest speakers included: Kenard Gibbs, president of Vibe magazine; Linda Johnson Rice, president and CEO, Johnson Publishing Company Inc., which produces Ebony and Jet magazines; and Hermene Hartman, founder and publisher, Hartman Group Publishing Ltd., which produces the weekly Chicago newspaper N’DIGO.
The Black Management Association Conference kicked off with a Friday evening alumni basketball game at Chicago’s Hoops Gym and concluded with a Gospel Brunch at the Allen Center on Sunday morning. The conference was co-sponsored by the Kellogg School with support from several corporate sources, including Morgan Stanley, Guidant, Target and GM.
Said Tamara Prather '05, conference co-chair: "This year's conference far exceeded our expectations. It is such a great feeling to know our hard work and attention to detail has paid off. The positive responses we've received from current students, alumni, sponsors, and prospective students have been phenomenal."