Black History Month: Impressions From Stanford MBA Students

Stanford GSB MBA students who shared their insights and reflections on Black history for a new school feature: top row, left to right: Brent Westbrook (MBA ’22), Oriekose Idah (MBA ’21), Wes Adams (MBA MBA ’21), Meghan Hunter (MBA ’22). Bottom row, left to right: Micah Greenberg (MBA ’21), Izunna Okonkwo (MBA ’22), Melanie Okuneye (MBA ’22), Adiam Tesfalul (MBA ’21). Photos by Allison Felt

Stanford Graduate School of Business hosted a series of virtual events in February to observe Black History Month, including virtual get-togethers, panels, and open-dialogue discussions about Black history. The series of events continues the business school’s celebration of successes in the Black community, but also a recognition that work needs to be done to achieve racial justice in society and racial equity in graduate business education.

Last summer, Stanford GSB took its biggest concrete action to date in addressing racism in academia and business. With the input of faculty, administrators, students, and alumni, the school’s much-ballyhooed second annual DEI report included an Action Plan for Racial Equity that outlined the GSB’s goals to increase the diversity of its community. Among other goals, that includes creating an inclusive classroom and learning experience, cultivating a welcoming campus, empowering under-represented communities, and supporting new research efforts. The school released an update to the plan this month.

Black History Month is a good time to celebrate those goals while acknowledging that they have not yet been achieved, says Wes Adams, Stanford GSB student and Black Business Students’ Association co-president.

“Black History Month is American history, and its lessons remain relevant for all of us who value equity in our society,” Adams tells Poets&Quants.

Adams and other BBSA students are featured in a new showcase at the school website, in which they share their reflections on the meaning of the month and the struggle of Black people in America. It’s the second consecutive year of the project. Among those featured are Adams’ BBSA co-president and GSB classmate, Oriekose Idah, who shares her view that Black History Month is a time to reflect on challenges overcome in the past, facing us in the present, and likely to arise in the future. “It’s a celebration of Black leaders that have come before and laid the groundwork for the access we all have today. It’s an acknowledgement of the pain that continues in the Black community and the inequities that exist in the United States, but also an acknowledgement of how far myself, my friends, and my family have come. It’s an appreciation for everything that’s coming in the future and the work that still needs to be done,” she says.

MEET THE BBSA MEMBERS

Wes Adams. Photo by Allison Felt

Wes Adams, a former finance undergrad at Howard University and associate at Goldman Sachs, was driven to study at Stanford to focus on financial inclusion and economic empowerment for underserved communities. “I became really focused and passionate about serving communities that I didn’t interact with on a day-to-day basis during my role at the firm, and was deeply troubled by many of the inequities that continue to persist within our financial system,” he says. “I witnessed and experienced the freedom that financial access and empowerment can unlock. And I really feel an existential responsibility to work fearlessly in service of those communities that have been underserved by the financial system.

“Throughout my career, I hope I can honor the heroes that made it possible for me to even be here at the GSB by carrying their legacy forward in some way.”

After Idah studied engineering and Chinese at Stanford, she went on to work at YouTube, where she became even more passionate about telling stories, learning about those who were previously silenced or unable to voice their experiences. Returning to Stanford — a school she says “feels like home” — for her MBA, she hopes to continue her career in visual storytelling after graduation and raise marginalized voices.

While both Idah and Adams graduate in 2021, Another BBSA member and GSB MBA student, Melanie Okuneye, is in her first year. She hopes to become the BBSA’s social secretary in year two. A dual citizen of Britain and Nigeria, Okuneye went to boarding school and university in the UK. After studying philosophy, economics, and politics at the University of York, like Adams she spent five years at Goldman Sachs as an associate. One of her goals is to continue to mentor young Black women towards financial literacy and help them navigate a career in finance.

Okuneye says her favorite part of Black History Month is experiencing the diversity within the Black community — not just at Stanford but across the U.S.

“We need to celebrate the descendants of slaves; a lot of Black people in America have had to still see the repercussions of the sad history today,” Okuneye tells P&Q. “Within the Black community, there’s still so much socioeconomic diversity. I’m Nigerian and I’m still learning so much about Black history. This month has been a great learning opportunity that also allows people to put very hard conversations on the table.”

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION BEYOND BLACK HISTORY MONTH

All the BBSA members stress the importance of continuing the conversation around race beyond Black History Month.

“As you can imagine, this past year has been unprecedented in terms of the combined dynamics of living through and studying in a pandemic, but also trying to lead through a time of racial reckoning. It’s tested us in honoring our primary mandate of building a supportive and engaging community for Black students here at the GSB,” Adams says. “It troubles me that it takes such extreme tragedy and loss of life for injustice and inequity to be recognized. But it’s also been inspiring to see renewed activism within the Black community and an entirely new wave of allyship from the outside at a scale that we haven’t seen before.”

“I think it is imperative for us as future leaders to be able to be open and welcoming to have those difficult conversations, particularly around race, when we will be managing people of color from multiple backgrounds,” Okuneye says. “I think people should definitely feel an imperative to continue having the conversation after this month to give voice to minorities.”

Idah believes that MBA students have immense power in driving change.

“We need to leverage the power of the GSB and the privilege we have as MBA students to impact those around us that don’t have the same level of access,” she says. “It’s easy to get caught up in the GSB and Silicon Valley bubbles. But I think we have a powerful opportunity and responsibility to support the community around us, whether it’s mentoring high school students, hosting professional development workshops. or supporting Black-owned businesses.”

A VISION FOR DIVERSITY, EQUITY & INCLUSION

Okuneye offers some big-picture perspective on the road ahead.

“When you look within the Black population of some companies, you’ll find many that are first-, second-, or third-generation immigrants, meaning they came directly from Africa, the Caribbean, or other parts of the world,” she says. “You don’t get enough descendants of slavery represented in those figures. It’s important to be conscious of that during the hiring process, because we’re supposed to be helping to reverse the effects of hundreds of years of slavery.

“I think it’s important to look at the wider effects of why we need more diversity, not just as representation for making better decisions, but also as a way of reversing the years of slavery and the history that America has.”

Adams says Black History Month is a reminder “that we all have a responsibility and a role to play in supporting each other and holding those in power accountable for creating a more equitable society. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re thrilled for the next team to take this forward and upward.”

See the next page for more insights on Black history by Stanford GSB students.

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