An Interview with Terrill L. Drake, HBS’s First Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

Drake Terill

Katherine Richardson (MBA ’23) interviews Drake about his first few months on the job.

Terrill L. Drake, HBS’s First Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer
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Katherine Richardson, Campus News Editor

Terrill L. Drake began his role as Harvard Business School’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer (CDIO) on September 1 of this year. Drake has worked in higher education for more than 18 years, most recently at the Villanova School of Business and the University of Maryland Smith School of Business. In his new role at HBS, Drake will work across the HBS community and leadership team to develop and implement a comprehensive diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) strategy, building upon the HBS Racial Equity Action Plan created in late 2020. The Harbus sat down with Drake for an interview about his background, goals, and first impressions. 

Tell me a little bit about your background and what drew you to working in DEI. 

I’ve spent almost two decades in higher education and have loved every single minute of it. In undergrad, I was a part of a group called University Ambassadors, and we worked with alumni engagement and with admissions groups to host alumni events and prospective student events, and I really loved that. After my first job at a marketing company, I found an opportunity at the University of Maryland. I worked at the alumni association there for several years, then was recruited over to the business school for a series of leadership roles. At University of Maryland, I chaired a committee to start our initial thinking about what we should be doing with DEI, and after a few years we established the Office of Diversity Initiatives, where I was named executive director. Hopefully one of the things you’ll hear throughout my story has been a theme of pioneering and starting these offices and groups within these schools. I have loved every minute of that. I think it’s cool to be a “puzzle-piecer” to look at all the pieces and pull things together and really grow from there.

I was then recruited away to the Villanova School of Business. There, we worked for 18 months on our strategy to launch the office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion at VSB, where I was named the Head Diversity Officer. It just so happened that our launch was going to be in June of 2020, before everything that was happening. But then everything happened. The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial uprising that was happening in this country. Our community really needed support and help in this space. We felt grateful to be able to launch our office in July of 2020 with not a lot of fanfare. Just to say, “We are here for you.” We hosted community conversations just to let people talk about how they felt. Everything that’s going on in the world, the pandemic, the looming financial crisis, racial uprising, potential climate crisis. We wanted to figure out how to come together as a community.  It was really important to just create space. 

We created an action plan, held conversations pre-and post-election. We felt lucky we had a new office where we could show up for the community in a new way. 

Then HBS called, and here I am.

You’re HBS’s first CDIO in the school’s history. What made you interested in taking on the role? 

HBS called early this year. I was extremely surprised at how humble, welcoming, and thoughtful the HBS community was about creating this position, recruiting this position, and how people acted towards me personally. I was grateful enough to be offered the role, and here I am. Similarly, it was another inaugural role, where you’re really pulling all the pieces together. A lot of great work has happened at HBS. It’s a great time to be coming here for a number of reasons. Certainly there’s a lot of enthusiasm and appetite for DEI work across our entire community. I think we have leaders across our entire community focused on this, which is one of the reasons why I came here. Students are focused on it with ideas, staff, faculty, alums. And we’re getting the infusion of what’s happening at the university as well. We can ride that momentum in many ways to push that work forward.

I am responsible for moving our DEIB initiatives forward for all of our communities—faculty, staff, students, alumni, and other constituents as well—and the goal is to get us to inclusive excellence and ensure that everyone has what they need to be successful, which leads to feeling that you belong.

Before you arrived, HBS started work on a Racial Equity Action Plan. When you think about the plan, what are your initial, shorter-term goals? 

First of all, having the Dean’s Anti-Racism Taskforce that led to the Racial Equity Plan was key. It was a smart strategy for the school in the absence of a chief diversity officer to lead and guide this institution. When I think about coming onboard and the work we need to do, part of my job has been to try to understand the work that’s already taken place. We’ll be asking the entire community over the coming months for an inventory of sorts to collect a comprehensive list of all the work that’s taken place in the various pockets and departments and groups across the school to provide us all with further data. 

When I think about priorities, one thing we must think about is how we’ve led with racial equity for the past 15 months. We don’t want to take our foot off the gas there because it’s certainly an important piece of work. We need to make good on the commitments we’ve made to our Black and African-American community members. As a Black community member myself, I want to see us do well there. We also want to raise above that one level and lead with DEIB, with our racial equity work as a very important work stream. 

First, we need to have a broad understanding of DEIB and share in the creation of that definition together. We’ll work as a community to really define what we mean when we say those words so that everyone shares the same definition. We want to have shared input into defining those words so that there’s shared ownership of that. When we share the goals, we want everyone to be willing to come to the table and participate in the work.

Another immediate priority is thinking about our infrastructure. First, it’s growing the central DEIB team. Right now, there are three of us and some adjacent vacancies. We’re working to hire a student-facing director, and an assistant director tasked with diversity recruiting. Next, we want to create a DEIB Council made up of various stakeholders across our community. Last, we want to build infrastructure around strategy development and implementation.

When you think about this work longer term, what are your priorities?

There are six key things that have emerged. Creating a shared language around DEIB, communication and how to keep everyone up to speed, increasing representation of many identities across the entire community, including staff, faculty and student makeup, working on our learning development, training and dialogue for faculty and students. We’re also working on data collection so that we have accurate demographic data, as well as climate and culture assessments to really help inform our strategy and action going forward. And lastly, accountability measures to hold ourselves accountable organizationally, from a department perspective, and on an individual level. 

How do you see your role as different from that of the student-facing director? 

Because my role is really associated with the entire community, there may be times when I am pulled in different directions. Some of those times will be pulled in the student direction to talk about an issue, or interact. It doesn’t have to be when there is an issue; we want to be interacting in general. Because the student experience is such an important one, we want someone who can day in and day out be the first point of contact for our students, so that when there’s an issue there’s always someone there. I very much want to be a part of the student experience and certainly will have knowledge about that, but we all believe that it’s very important to have someone the students can go to, especially if I’m not available.

You mentioned “inclusive excellence” as a goal—what does that mean to you, and what do you think that looks like at HBS?

We need to work as a community to really define inclusive excellence. It was a part of my job description and part of my bio, but I would love to have committee input into it. In short, it means that every part of the community is working to ensure that it’s inclusive and that we’re thinking about different voices and different identities. We need to make sure everything we’re doing is representative of the identities in our community, and that none of the work related to DEIB is bolted on. Everything is integrated into what we do every single day. If we are able to do that, how we show up to the outside world will be very different. It will allow us to continue to lead in business schools and higher education. That impact is very important to us at HBS. It certainly won’t be easy, but there are a lot of things we can do. If we can commit to this work, it can channel us in the right direction. We have work to do as a community in terms of defining inclusive excellence. We need everyone to have what they need to be successful and really feel like they belong in the community.

Where has HBS done DEIB well—and not so well?

Our community really galvanized support for DEIB and racial equity. Our anti-racism task force really laid out a plan. From that was the Racial Equity Action Plan. From that, every part of our community has been able to impact racial equity. From there, many groups formed, and people were given indirect or direct responsibility for the work. As a community, people feel very proud of the work they’ve done and I’m proud of the work we’ve done. People made progress in this work without a lot of guidance. 

I don’t know that there’s a need to be critical. There are things we could and should be doing better, but the great thing is that right now, we’re in the phase of laying the groundwork. If we had a CDIO a year ago, would we be much further along? Absolutely. But as much as we can now, we should be forward looking and lay the groundwork for what we should do going forward. There’s a lot of enthusiasm. I hear every single day about this person or this team thinking about particular issues, and I love that. That hasn’t always been my experience previously. I actually feel like it’s different here, and the enthusiasm about DEIB across Harvard feels very different, not only to me but also to my counterparts from other schools. We feel like we can really make a difference going forward.  This excites me even more. I can lean on the central CDIO for resources but also lean on those folks at other institutions that have done things ahead of us. We can learn from some of their best practices and tweak them for us.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I’m really excited about this opportunity to be here, to interact with every part of the HBS community, and for us to work on our goal of inclusive excellence together. This is not about me telling us what we should do. Certainly I know I need to guide. But I want to learn from our community to hear about the things that have gone really well and enhance those, the things that haven’t gone so well and figure out how to make those better. I love the idea of all of us working together to all have what we need to be successful, we all feel as though we belong, and that all of our voices are heard.

Harbus LogoKatherine Richardson (MBA ’23) is a current RC who grew up in Southern California and is not quite ready for Boston winters. Before HBS, she worked for four years in brand strategy in New York City, working with companies spanning healthcare, CPG, food & bev, and luxury. In college, she spent four years as a reporter and editor at The Hoya, Georgetown University’s student paper, and is so excited to keep her passion for journalism and campus news alive at the Harbus.