It’s not hard to see where Roniesha Copeland’s interest in business has come from. Her father owned a plumbing company, her late mother was a district manager for a large Burger King franchise group based in the Detroit area; when the group was sold, both parents collaborated on a construction business, VLC Contracting. Watching them navigate a complex landscape through shifting fortunes became Roniesha’s foundation “for what I understood about business growing up.”
Business management might have remained Roniesha’s exclusive interest had she not heard a special speaker at her college: NBA legend, Magic Johnson. “He talked about his urban development enterprise,” Roniesha says. “He partnered with businesses that put storefronts in neighborhoods they previously didn’t think would be profitable. His talk gave me a window into the role the private sector could play in addressing social needs, in bridging a community’s economic gaps.”
Balancing two compelling interests
Throughout college at Howard University and in her subsequent professional career, Roniesha sought to develop skills relevant to both interests – business management and social impact – without allowing one to overwhelm the other. Seeking economic development experience, she became an analyst at Fannie Mae. Then she allowed the pendulum to swing the other way, assuming management roles at McMaster-Carr Supply Co., a leading distributor of industrial supplies. “It was a really interesting place,” Roniesha says, “very flat, entrepreneurial – we had lots of autonomy to explore ideas and test operational improvements.” In fact, McMaster allowed her to gain management experience early in her career, giving Roniesha responsibility for leading a nine-person team in resolving payment issues with the company’s suppliers.
Seeking a pathway that would enable her to have even greater impact, Roniesha began to consider her MBA options. “I knew I’d go to business school,” she says, “but when I learned about Harvard’s joint degree program with the Kennedy School, that’s when I saw a great opportunity to bring social impact back into my career.”
Beyond the familiar
In between her first year at HKS and her RC year at HBS, Roniesha served on the staff of Sacramento, California Mayor Kevin Johnson where she worked on issues related to education reform, one of her major interests. While Sacramento was fascinating, HBS opened Roniesha to new worlds. “I grew up in Detroit, a predominantly African-American city, and went to school at a historically black college,” Roniesha says. “But at HBS, I sit next to, and have conversations with, people from drastically different environments.” FIELD 2 led her to an even more dramatically different landscape: Vietnam. “The amazing thing about FIELD and the case study method,” Roniesha believes, “is the breadth of companies, industries and regions of the world you’re exposed to. They open your eyes, not just to specific management concepts, but to a broader understanding of global business – how things work together in ways I had no idea about before. By participating in cases every day, you indirectly absorb how businesses work across a broad spectrum of industries and regions.”
Roniesha anticipates she will be balancing business and social impact throughout her career. “I’m still exploring,” she says, “but I suspect I’ll go directly into business right after graduation, then enter the public sector later.”