A legacy begins
BMA conference founders recall event’s start and its role in helping create Kellogg School’s culture of inclusionBy Adrienne Murrill
5/1/2007 - This year marked the 20th anniversary for the Kellogg School’s Black Management Association Conference, and the event’s founders couldn’t be more pleased at the important tradition they helped create.
The conference, held April 20-22, has established itself as an educational and collaborative forum, one that brings together expert practitioners and academics for keynote addresses and panel discussions, providing networking opportunities among current Kellogg students, as well as for alumni, prospective students and business professionals.
This was the same vision Kellogg students in the late 1980s embraced when they launched the event. Ed Thompson ’88 said the idea of hosting a minority conference at Kellogg came to him after attending a similar conference at another university in 1986.
“Up until that time at Kellogg, black student enrollment had been a flat trend line,” he said, recalling that the number of full-time African-American students would fluctuate between 10 to 20 students each year. (Today, minority students make up more than a quarter of the Kellogg Full-Time MBA Program.) “I felt that the conference would be an avenue for bringing prospective students to the school and to highlight some of the special things about the Kellogg culture.”
Kellogg also had excellent facilities to host such an event, he recalled, noting that the James L. Allen Center had recently undergone expansion and offered a state-of-the-art venue to highlight such collaboration between students and the administration.
Thompson, who today is the associate director of development and alumni relations for Penn State, knew he needed a leadership platform to bring this idea to fruition, so he set his sights on becoming president of the Black Management Association at Kellogg. Upon his election in the spring of 1987, he won approval from the school to develop the conference. With the help of his BMA committee members, the first conference welcomed 222 attendees and speakers Jerry Williams of AM International and Roland Burris, then-comptroller for the state of Illinois.
“It was and continues to be a very significant shared achievement in my business career,” Thompson said. “I felt at the time, as I do now, that it was the start of something very important, and it was potentially a turning point for Black Management Association members, black students and the Kellogg School in general.”
The following year the challenge continued for Gregory Jeffries ’89, who is now president and owner of Edge Development Company in Washington, D.C.
“The second year was pivotal because it would really set the stage for whether this was going to be an ongoing, viable conference,” Jeffries said. Sometimes there is a great deal of curiosity surrounding an event’s inaugural, he explained, but the students wanted to establish the conference as a lasting tradition.
The featured keynote speaker of the 1989 conference was Maynard Jackson, former mayor of Atlanta, and Jeffries added a Friday evening banquet that honored the school’s African-American alumni.
“I was very happy that the second conference really took off, and it established the conference to be a part of the Kellogg experience,” he said.
In the event’s third year, students added a career information exchange and the BMA established an alumni scholarship for African-American students at Kellogg. In 1991, the school partnered with the University of Chicago’s African-American Business Association for a gala event on Saturday night of the conference. Extending to the broader community, proceeds were contributed to the Cabrini Green Youth and Family Services in 1993, and a “Black Think Tank” was created to address welfare reform issues in 1994. The conference continued to grow, introducing programming innovations and attracting top business and political leaders, including Senator Barack Obama in 2004.
Over the years, the conference proved what Jeffries had glimpsed early on: the power of an event that “showcased the cohesiveness of the African-American community at the school.”
That connection remains strong today, according to Danielle Robinson, one of this year’s conference co-chairs. “Kellogg is a family, and the BMA is a family within that. [This support] is important when you’re choosing a business school,” she said.
The conference is one way the BMA lives out its mission: to develop black leaders within the community through professional and personal initiatives that create a supportive environment; enhance career development; and attract top talent. The BMA and the BMA conference have played a role over the years in establishing that sense of family, both at Kellogg and in the community.
But the BMA’s influence extends broadly to play a part in the school’s overall culture.
Fran Langewisch ’95, assistant dean and director of student life at Kellogg, said the diversity among the student body shapes the Kellogg experience. “Without the wide array of backgrounds amongst our students, they would not be able to share the breadth of experiences and knowledge that so impacts the level of discussion in the classroom,” she said. “That same rich variety also adds to the extracurricular activities created by the student body at Kellogg, and often the learning and growth opportunities in this area are as influential as time in the classroom.”
The theme for the 2007 BMA conference was “Embracing the Legacy, Harnessing the Future,” a fitting foundation for this year’s anniversary, as well as a way to celebrate the overall culture of inclusion that has become a Kellogg School hallmark.
For more details on this year’s program, visit http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/bmaconference.