From a Dark Moment to Our Finest Hour

Kel Jackson, Contributor

Kel Jackson (MBA ’19) reflects on the community’s response to anonymous death threats sent to him and other black HBS students.

On an afternoon in late March, an anonymous individual sent death threats to me and several other leaders of the African-American Student Union at HBS (AASU). In addition to direct threats to the recipients and racist language, the email contained hateful slogans, threatened genocide against certain religious and ethnic groups, and referred to recent terrorist events. The “To” field of the email contained our individual email addresses, so when several students opened their inboxes as part of their normal afternoon routine, a message straight from the depraved underbelly of humanity was waiting for them.

Leaders Tested

Within minutes, AASU leadership sprang into action. Outgoing Co-Presidents Lindsey Morrow (MBA ’19 F) and Amanda Tyson (MBA ’19 I), both of whom also received the email, delayed tending to themselves to serve their community. They communicated with the HBS administration, informed key stakeholders, communicated with security personnel, filed a report with law enforcement, communicated with recipients of the email, and communicated with AASU members about the incident. Once assured of AASU’s safety and well-being, these women insisted on reclaiming normality: they read cases and spent time out with friends, as they might on any other week night.

Incoming Co-Presidents Kim Foster (MBA ’20 H) and Melcolm Ruffin (MBA ’20 I) organized a rapid-response team to drive communication of the incident to the RC class. In the wee hours, the team identified RCs willing to take ownership of the conversation in each section and delegated the selection of formats to these students, who in turn prepared to brief their sections and lead a conversation in their own way. Practically speaking, this meant that the following morning, black RCs across all 10 sections, none of whom was rested and all of whom were still processing the incident themselves, stood up in front of their section mates and discussed the email.

The stories I recall hearing about this day resonate deeply with me: Some RCs chose the unenviable task of reading the email aloud to their section, verbatim. Others displayed the email on the class projector. Others passed out hard copies of the message to the entire room. In one section, when a black RC attempted to read the email and felt overwhelmed, a white section mate stood up and read it in the student’s place. RCs across the entire class took part in a raw, thorny, and weighty conversation during the time that faculty set aside. And then they had three case discussions, as they would on any other day.

The HBS administration, for its part, mobilized in a rapid, organized, and thorough way. Within minutes of being notified of the incident, Professor Jan Rivkin (PhDBE ’97), who chairs the MBA Program, was in the Dean’s suite to ensure Dean Nohria was informed. Rivkin, Professor Janice Hammond (Senior Associate Dean for Culture and Community), Jana Kierstead (Executive Director, MBA and Doctoral Programs), John O’Connor (Associate Director of Administrative Services for Security and Custodial Services), and others activated key HBS resources internally and communicated regularly with recipients of the email throughout the afternoon and evening, sharing new information, providing resources and next steps, and making themselves available for whatever we needed. Office hours with HBS leadership were held the following morning for students to discuss the incident. Soon thereafter, Dean Nohria sent a note to the HBS community, eloquently condemning the threats and urging us all to “stand in solidarity.”

A Community Responds

AASU leadership, knowing the importance of first supporting members who were targets of the email, held a Wellness Session for members and faculty mentors the following weekend. After making sure that all students received the support they needed, leaders focused the conversation on our response to the broader community. We knew that as a community, we were stronger than this attempt to create division and ignite fear. We would not allow hatred to separate us.  So we decided to address this incident head-on by organizing a community-wide conversation focused not on black students alone, but on marginalized people throughout our greater community. By sharing the email, asking a few students to speak, and opening the floor to the broader community, we hoped to create an opportunity to forge greater understanding and empathy.

A campus-wide community conversation was held soon thereafter. It was, far and away, the single most moving day of my and many others’ HBS experience. Words fail me in fully capturing what happened that day—what the mood was in that packed auditorium. So many people showed up that there wasn’t enough room to stand; we had to send people to an overflow room where the proceedings were simulcast. The room felt … spiritual. Supportive. Unencumbered. Reflective. Brave. Generous. Familial. Honest.

Professor Andy Zelleke (PhDOB ’03), who guided AASU leadership in planning the event, masterfully moderated the discussion. So many people spoke so very movingly—sharing their thoughts and reactions in the context of their experiences as a black person, an LGBT person, a Jewish person, a Muslim woman, an interracial spouse, an ally. Morrow and Tyson, in their comments, channeled the community’s dogged determination to use what was meant for evil for good.

This was an opportunity for all of us to listen and make a good faith effort to understand. To assume positive intent, shed our pride, and reflect on whether there were things we should do differently to be better friends, classmates, co-workers, and allies to each other. To seek awareness of our own blindness and search for work to be done.

I can’t imagine how it could have been more effective. It was deeply profound, meaningful, and impactful. I will not soon forget this day.

A World in Crisis

Sadly, this incident occurred in the context of rising hate crime in the United States, increasing ethno-nationalistic violence in the West writ large, and a global erosion of democracy and march toward authoritarianism. And from Charleston, to Orlando, to Christchurch, to the tragic bombings in Sri Lankan cities, and very recently the terrorist attack at the Chabad of Poway in California, we have seen what hatred does to our world.

But this is not the only crisis we face. Rising inequality has robbed people of their basic human dignity for more than a generation. And if left unchecked, it threatens to rob the global economy of its vibrancy as it disincentivizes participation in the labor market and erodes trust in society.

A changing climate threatens not only our way of life in the future, but also our national security in the present as it exacerbates the threat of instability and global conflict. Through phenomena including droughts, irrigation failure, and crop disease, it threatens to increase extreme poverty, harming the vulnerable the most and straining the global economy.

Call me an optimist, but I see these challenges as fundamentally solvable: we, humankind, created these problems, and if a critical mass of us decide it should be so, we can solve them. But in order to do that, we must respond.

Remember and Respond

At the community conversation, I shared a few thoughts. How the way that this community responded made me proud—proud to be black. Proud to be black at HBS. And proud to be a member of the HBS community.

I urged us all to remember: what it sounds like to hear words of pure hatred. What it feels like to be enraged by injustice. And what it looks like when a community responds.

Making a difference, I argued, is about something so much greater than profits alone. It’s about a choice. We must choose bravery. Refuse that which turns us against each other. Refuse to profit by allowing the businesses and platforms we create to spread injustice. Refuse to be spooked away from our values.

This incident has reminded me that we must respond. Respond to the ills of our world with the very real power we wield. Because the world needs a particular kind of difference to be made in these times.

An Opportunity for Leadership

But the response must not be from HBS alone.

The foundational premise of this institution is that leadership matters. The events that transpired here are profoundly instructional in this regard. The quality of leadership across HBS and Harvard—administration, students, staff, and faculty—made it possible for us to move beyond this incident. When it hit the fan, our leaders mobilized and empowered us to reach for our highest selves, and together we created value, short- and long-term, from a potentially toxic situation.

I believe that effective leaders must name difficult issues and address them head-on. Sugarcoating reality fools no one and only serves to erode a leader’s credibility and legitimacy. This is part of what made the response of our leaders so effective: we called this what it was. Dean Nohria, in his note to the community, left no room for ambiguity when describing the danger of threats such as this, saying, “Hate speech and hate crimes threaten our shared humanity.” And he was right. As leaders, we ought to not only be hyper-aware of potential threats to our organizations, but also respond decisively when those threats arise, and remind our people where we stand.

Leaders the world over, especially business leaders, ought to take note of how we responded here, and why we are so proud of it. The quality of leadership will make all the difference in our world, especially when we need to change our organizations, be they public, private, or non-profit. We will all face crises of leadership, and how we respond to them matters. We’re kidding ourselves and failing our stakeholders if we believe otherwise.

The upshot for business schools and MBAs is that even in the context of declining faith in institutions, business leaders are viewed as highly capable of effecting change: a vast majority of the global informed public expect CEOs to take action instead of waiting for their governments to act. Sizable majorities believe business leaders can solve the most pressing issues of our time, including equal pay, climate change, prejudice, discrimination, and the future of work. We must not waste this delicate hope with which we have been entrusted.

We at HBS have been uniquely equipped to deploy a tool that can address the crises our world faces, and that tool is capitalism. But despite its many benefits, capitalism remains imperfect, and like any tool, it must be inspected and recalibrated from time to time. Let us refine this tool by taking steps that include paying a livable wage to employees of our organizations, which helps to fight inequality, restore dignity, and comes with the benefit of lower turnover for our firms. Let us increase cognitive diversity in our firms by fostering inclusion after we hire, and achieving parity of opportunity across lines of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status when we recruit. This will help inject capital into forgotten communities and create a more equal society, while also helping our firms earn higher returns on capital. If we think creatively, we can create models that align the profit motive with solving the challenges of our generation. But only if we respond.

These times ask bold action of us. This world demands courage of us. The powerless beg compassion of us. And we must answer the call.

We leaders. We privileged few. We who have been lucky enough to taste opportunity. We who have the agency to act must not be afraid to choose. So to my peers, my friends at HBS, I say time is of the essence—our work begins very soon.

A Community United

As we prepare to leave this most singular of places, I am struck by the change I see. There is a heightened awareness of our challenges and renewed urgency to structurally improve our community. It’s not that the HBS community was not strong before; we have always been. It’s not that the black community here was not resilient before; we have always been. It’s not that the administration, faculty, staff, students, and alumni had not been striving for greater inclusion and understanding before; they have always been. But like iron through a furnace, we have all been refined.

And we have emerged better for it:

Our values, reaffirmed: we will respect all and celebrate our differences.
Our power, focused: we will use our positions as leaders to frustrate the efforts of the wicked.
Our resolve, hardened: we will make our difference in this world.

Let it be known that at the Harvard Business School, leaders respond to crises capably and courageously.

This community stands together. And we shall not be moved.

Kel Jackson (MBA ’19) is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and earned a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering at Auburn University in 2011. Prior to HBS, he manufactured jet engines with Pratt & Whitney as an engineer and supervisor. After HBS, he will be directing strategy at Aurora Flight Sciences, and hopes to one day run for public office.