Recruiting: One (and Only One) African American's Perspective

It is easy to conjure up negative thoughts during these challenging economic times of the 2001-2002 recruiting season, particularly as you question your decision to attend one of the most expensive schools out there in HBS. From the mouth of Denzel Washington during his chilling portrayal of Malcolm X, you may think that you were “had, took, lied to, bamboozled, hoodwinked…”, as you think that the promised riches that were waiting for you post-HBS are now a distant memory. Hopefully, I can help alleviate some of these concerns by offering some perspective. With that same notion, I offer my humble personal take on HBS recruiting as an African-American in the year 2001.

Career Services may appear to some as just trying to pacify you with their “I’ve seen worse” response to your concerns. Trust me, as a former recruiter and someone that graduated right after the recession of ’91 (okay, I just dated myself), things HAVE been much worse. I remember students applying to MBA programs during their undergrad senior year mostly due to lack of job opportunities, and students coming out of the once very popular 5-year BA/MBA programs interviewing against 4th year bachelor degree candidates with similar work experience, vying for the same jobs. THOSE were very challenging times.

As with any major life-changing event, regardless of the economic landscape, recruiting season is often hectic, stressful and even down-right scary. Now, more than ever, concerns over issues of race and ethnicity, as well as war and terrorism, can exacerbate this process to the nth degree. In the words of Tupac Shakur (R.I.P.) “You gotta’ keep your head up” and stay focused and positive during the 2001-2 recruiting season. Remember, the opportunities are still out there, but you are just going to have to put a little more sweat equity behind your $70k plus HBS investment. FOCUS is still the key.

To get started you should probably answer one or both of these two questions that a large number of your confident classmates are asking themselves (whether they admit it or not):

1. “What do I want to do with the rest of my life”?
Or more appropriately, the next three to five years, to further develop my skills and position me for my long-term goals. This is typically the most essential, and for some, the hardest question to address. Yet, you should still start here. In terms of minority issues, more of the traditional post-HBS firms (investment banking, consulting, operations) are making greater strides in hiring and promotion practices of talented, highly qualified candidates, and the expansionary economy arguably created more opportunities in the non-traditional areas. Fortunately, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and don’t have to confront many of the historically more overt forms of discrimination. (H. Naylor Fitzhugh, for whom the AASU conference is named, was shunned by recruiters when he finished HBS in 1933 as they scurried after his classmates, and many of our active alumni produce images of seclusion created by tokenism and limited opportunities for advancement.)

Quite frankly, we still can’t afford to let concerns over racial matters obstruct the identifying and pursuing of a good job opportunity. Unless you are prepared to go through the Michael Jackson “it doesn’t matter if you are black or white” transformational experience and opt for costly cosmetic surgery, (a much riskier emotional and financial proposition than a HBS MBA), you should put racial concerns out of your mind until they matter, i.e. when you have determined your desired industry and function, when you are at the offer stage, and/or when you are employed.

2. How can I make the most of the recruiting process?
Once you have answered question one and begin to narrow your focus, you now can begin to look at opportunities in more depth. Attend company functions and presentations! These are valuable opportunities to interact with actual employees and recent graduates (in most cases), and to get the “real” scoop. Firms will often identify minority-recruiting representatives to answer more specific questions. This is often a good way (but by no means the only way) to assess a firm’s level of commitment as it pertains to these matters. However, don’t limit your attention to just these employees. Make as many contacts as you can, and dazzle them all with an attentive ear. Once you get to the later rounds of interviewing and the offer evaluation stages, ask the tough questions if racial matters concerns you. Be tactful in these matters, but don’t let things linger in your mind. Some of those questions may include:
a. Will I be treated fairly once I join the firm?
b. How do I raise concerns in the recruiting process and after?
c. Do I need to worry about race or ethnicity at all (this is of course the new millennium)?

HBS rewards people that speak their mind, so do it!!! This is, after all, the rest of your life. You may or may not desire to be the trailblazer for racial equality in a new firm, but you need to know upfront if that will be part of your job description.

The answer to question (c) is typically a resounding yes! If a firm answers “no”, then you may want to raise the “proceed with caution” flag and step up your due diligence to obtain as many different perspectives as possible. Remember, just because a firm has a minority CEO doesn’t mean that everyone is getting treated fairly, particularly in the area that you are considering. Let your judgment and wealth of experience (remember those wonderful HBS essays) serve as your guide.

Another item to consider as you strive to get the most out of the recruiting process is to remember that you are now part of an extensive support network, which includes classmates, second-years, and faculty. Use them, and in the spirit of the true efficient market economy, allow yourself to be used! More specifically to HBS than other business schools is the strong, 1,000-plus African-American HBS alumni network. (Note: When I say African-American, I mean all people of African descent – Bajans, Trinis, Nigerians, you know who you are.) That number sounds minimal when compared to the 60,000 plus HBS alumni in the advisor database. However, a large number of these successful African-American alums are significant leaders in the many HBS-populated fields of investment banking, consulting, marketing, and venture capital. They comprise an arguably tighter and more intimate network. As minority representation at HBS has increased tremendously over the past ten years, the more recent classes are especially well connected and eager to assist you, as many of them remember their struggles and triumphs when they attended and graduated from HBS.

3. Am I prepared to maximize my efforts?
Finally, no matter what the economic and racial climate, FOCUS is still the key. Whether attending a company function, completing an interview, or extending your network, nothing substitutes for preparation. Research the company as much as you can and show your audience that you know the company as well as any candidate if not better. Now more than ever, know your resum‚, your background and your experiences backwards and forwards, as I promise the competition will know their documents. Conduct your job search and your interview preparation as if you are the CEO of the greatest company in the world: Yourself, Inc..

Most of all, remember that this is an exciting time in your life. You have everything you need to make this pay off for the rest of your life. Don’t worry, ACT! Good luck and happy hunting! BTW, when you captains of industry do get those jobs, can you hook me up…(smile)