From the Bronx to Boston: A Virtuous Cycle

Students from WINGS Academy pose in front of the iconic Baker Library.
Akash Gupta, Contributor

Brandon Lovell (MBA ’20) brings 20 high school students from his hometown to HBS. Akash Gupta (MBA ’20) reports.

WINGS on Campus
Early March was a busy time for Brandon Lovell. In addition to the usual mix of cases, recruiting, and travel, he had been working closely with faculty and staff to plan the perfect day at HBS. After all, he was pitching business school to 17-year-olds.

A Bronx native, Brandon was ecstatic to be hosting a group of high school students from his old neighborhood on campus. Given his inner-city upbringing, he wanted to help students with similar backgrounds discover opportunities in business and tech. On March 7, he hosted 22 high schoolers from WINGS Academy (Willingness to work hard, Initiative, New ways of learning, Growth, Service), where many of them were standouts in academics and student leadership, despite having to contend with broken households and insufficient support systems. When they arrived in frigid Cambridge, the first order of business was of course lunch. Sitting with a group of WINGS students, I got a sense of their enthusiasm. They described waking up at five in the morning and enduring a four-hour bus ride from New York to Boston, which certainly put my four-minute walk to Aldrich in perspective.

Halfway through lunch, Professor Jan Rivkin (PhDBE ’97) delivered a keynote speech on the long-term impact of education. In typical Jan Rivkin fashion, the keynote included classroom polls, studies on American competitiveness, and buzz groups—the WINGS students didn’t know it, but they were already knee-deep in the HBS classroom experience. I was touched when one of the students became unexpectedly emotional while answering a question about the value of education. With all the demands of RC year, it was sometimes easy to forget the powerful feeling of stepping into a Harvard classroom for the first time. Ending on an empowering note, Rivkin encouraged the students to “aim high” and never forget the equalizing power of a strong education.

At the conclusion of Professor Rivkin’s talk, the students moved to their assigned Aldrich classrooms and attended an LCA case discussion on Nestlé’s quality issues with Maggi Noodles. Sitting in a classroom for an hour and 20 minutes straight must have been a tall order for a high schooler, but after the case wrap, the WINGS kids reconvened in the hallways for their own discussion. One student commented, “It’s cool how you’re allowed to just debate in class.” Others remarked, “I never thought noodles could be so interesting.”

The WINGS students finally had a chance to stretch their legs as Brandon, Leila Meliani (MBA ’20), and Jonathan Mason (MBA ’20) took them on a campus tour. Between the named buildings and grandiose pieces of art, Leila and Jonathan managed to fit in some words of advice: “All of you can get in. Your story matters … and don’t worry about the loans!”

An hour later, the students again found themselves in the same chairs for dinner with Professor Steven Rogers (MBA ’85), who created the Black Business Leaders & Entrepreneurship course at HBS. Having dedicated “much of his own life to uplifting the black community,” Professor Rogers instantly agreed to speak when he heard Brandon’s proposal to invite students from the Bronx to HBS. Addressing the WINGS group, Professor Rogers spoke of a “different kind of world” for low-income kids. Someone like himself, raised by a single mother on the South Side of Chicago, had to overcome his circumstances through hard work and grit, but he was able to become a top-rated HBS professor with a successful family. His two daughters’ résumés included several Ivy League schools, teaching math at Urban Prep in Chicago, founding a real estate company, and patenting high-tech heels capable of turning into flats at the push of a button. Clearly, Professor Rogers expected nothing less from the 22 teenagers who would be returning to their own world before the day was over. He emphasized, “You’re here today because you want something more.”

Seeing the students’ excitement, Professor Rogers decided to send them into the deep end with a mini-case. After presenting a simple problem statement, he utilized the entire case toolbox, cold-calling and pushing back on students as their hands kept shooting up with ideas. When they reached a satisfactory solution, he smiled and left them with a parting thought: “I’m proud of all of you … our communities need you to be successful.”

“All journeys are different!”
To finish off the WINGS visit, Brandon candidly discussed his own realities growing up in the Bronx, striking a chord with many of the students. “I saw a lot of negative activities and didn’t think that I had a future.” Having lost friends and seen his father walk out at an early age, Brandon was at once somber and grateful for his education in the streets. “When I got matched with a corporate internship through the Year Up program, I realized that it was all the same skills, just used in a different way … from the charisma to the ambition to the ability to grind.” (Year Up is an educational non-profit that “focuses on students’ professional and personal development to place young adults on a viable path to economic self-sufficiency.”)

Brandon also touched upon his personal philosophy, which stemmed from the years spent chasing his dreams alone. “One person at my internship asked if I had just seen The Pursuit of Happyness when I told him that I wanted to be a management consultant. He abruptly laughed and walked away … But I can’t focus on someone else’s energy. The only thing I can do is control myself. Who knows? Maybe that person had something he never got to fulfill.”

Brandon also invited several other HBS students to share their stories. Triston Francis (MBA ’19) recounted his journey to investment banking, which allowed him to provide a house for his brother and support his mother. Jonathan Mason talked about entering Harvard College and preparing for a career in finance. Holly Fetter (MBA ’20) expressed her passion to empower low-income communities after growing up and witnessing the vast disparity in wealth between different communities.

With a remarkable day at HBS coming to a close, the students gathered for a final group picture and made their way back to the bus. As I said goodbye to the WINGS students and walked out of Aldrich, I kept thinking about the way Professor Rogers described the “need to be successful.” Considering the HBS Class of 2020, I knew there had to be other individuals facing the immense pressure of lifting up their communities and supporting their families. After spending an afternoon with the WINGS group, I was even more thankful for students like Brandon, who provided a healthy dose of perspective and a much-needed sense of humility to the HBS bubble.

Akash Gupta (MBA ’20) is from Houston, Texas, and worked in the petrochemical industry before coming to HBS. His interests include renewable energy and social enterprise.