For Tylon Garrett, Black History Month is a reminder that “despite being born at least as talented as everyone else, it takes twice as much work to accomplish the same thing.” It’s as much true at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where Garrett is an MBA student, as anywhere else in America.
“In the words of Booker T. Washington,” he says, “‘Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which one has overcome.’ By that definition, black people are the most successful people in America. This system was not built for us, yet we consistently find ways to shine.”
Garrett has found ways to shine at Stanford, where he is one of more than 100 students of color — and nearly 40 black students — in the Class of 2020 that graduates this spring. A former Boston Consulting Group consultant, Garrett is vice president of the Art, Media, and Entertainment Club, co-president of the Cannabis Business Club, and a leader of View From The Top, the dean’s speaker series. The Atlanta, Georgia native is also co-president of Stanford’s Black Business Student Association, which will have its annual gala on April 3-4 this year.
‘STORIES ARE SHARED AND RELATIONSHIPS ARE FORMED’
Stanford GSB’s black MBA population hovers between 3% and 9% each year. Whatever its size, it is an active and vibrant community, Garrett says, organizing and hosting events year-round and — particularly through the Black Business Students Association, offering a backbone of support for the campus black community. “We have planned a mix of open events for the entire GSB population and closed events specifically for the black community,” he says. “We believe it’s important to share some experiences while maintaining some safe space for more intimate black moments.
“To emphasize that black is not a monolith — in other words, there is no singular black experience — we co-hosted an open dinner showcasing cuisine from different parts of the Black Diaspora (e.g., jollof rice from West Africa, oxtail from the Caribbean, mac & cheese from the South) and hosted a panel where first-year black MBAs talked about their experience.”
Another example of black community togetherness: Stanford students joining their colleagues at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business for First Fridays in Oakland and weekend brunch. “Many of our closed events involve food, not just because we’re broke students, but also because of the communal nature of breaking bread,” Garrett says. “Stories are shared and relationships are formed. That’s what we’re all about!”
The broader Stanford University also has Black History Month programming, Garrett notes, mentioning Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times recently speaking on campus about The 1619 Project, and Stanford’s Law School hosting a Black History Month Gala. “There’s something going on every week, you just have to keep your head on a swivel to stay in the loop.”
A PIVOTAL MOMENT
When Garrett was in elementary school, he attended a predominantly white, private school. He was the only black student in his grade until the third grade. Garrett’s father was a teacher at the associated high school, so he was able to attend the expensive school at nominal cost.
An experience at the school when he was 7 informed his views on race — a pivotal moment that has stayed with him to this day.
“We had a rotating schedule of gym, art, and music class,” Garrett recalls. “Art met twice per week. The biggest project one year was a self-portrait painting that would be transferred to canvas bags, refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs, etc. It was the one project that lived on. I was very excited to make a magnet for my mom!
“On the first day of the project the art teacher pulled me aside to tell me that, unfortunately, they did not have the right paint for my skin color, so I had to wait until the next class to start my project. Looking back, I’m proud of my 7-year-old self for taking that disappointing news in stride. Two decades later, it’s hard to not shed a tear thinking back on the event. Not because I was given one less day to work on the most important project of the year. Not because I had the additional step of blending paint to find the right shade of brown while my classmates were free to choose from an assortment of beige-ish paints (I didn’t know so many shades of white existed). But because the adults involved didn’t proactively think about my basic needs as a black kid.”
‘I WANT TO SEE OUR MULTI-BILLION-DOLLAR ENDOWMENT GO TO WORK’
At Stanford, diversity and inclusion is a nuanced topic, Garrett says. While the GSB has made great strides on gender equality, he says, with the proportion of students that identify as female growing from 41% to 47% in the 2019 intake, the black population is only around 8-9% of the total class. “I’d like to see that number be at least 12-13%, the size of the black population in the U.S.,” he says. “I’ve had personal conversations with Dean Levin and other key administrative people about empowering and growing the black community, so I know the will is there. We recently hosted a mixer for the newly admitted black students, and the room was more full than it’s ever been, so I’m optimistic about the Class of 2022.”
While the school deserves credit for the creation of Diversity PODS and the launch of GSB’s inaugural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Report, Garrett wants to see the school expand their recruiting strategy. “The vast majority of black students at the GSB and other top business schools come from Ivy League schools,” he notes. Not him — he earned his bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech in 2014 — and not the students he’s like to see more of walking around the GSB campus. “I want to see more black students from Georgia Tech, Morehouse, Spelman, etc.,” he says.
Financial aid is another concern. For black students, it’s increasingly vital, Garrett says.
“Beyond the advertised price,” he says, “students are also forgoing two years of earned income — internships are often a rounding error. Many students, myself included, were financially supporting family members before enrolling. It’s not uncommon for a black student to be the primary breadwinner in an extended family due to systematic oppression in the U.S., making the decision to apply and attend business school even more costly. I want to see our multi-billion-dollar endowment go to work. I don’t care as much about a new parking structure as I do about giving more people the opportunities that I’ve been afforded by this wonderful institution.”
See the next pages for reflections on black history by MBA students at Stanford GSB.