“Good morning!” welcomed Lillian Lincoln Lambert (MBA 1969) in her address to the African American Student Union’s (AASU) 48th Annual H. Naylor Fitzhugh Conference on February 27, 2021. The conference was the central day in Elevate: Uplifting Black Leadership for an Equitable Future, the three-day virtual event that included the Black New Venture Competition and Black Tech Masters Series.

Lambert went on to recall Fitzhugh’s mentorship during her undergraduate years at Howard University; he encouraged her to apply, attend, and remain at Harvard Business School (HBS) as the first Black woman student (and co-founder of AASU). Those lonely, rigorous two years, she said, were worth it to see the many Black graduates who followed her and her five Black classmates.

The conference featured a lineup of all Black women, including keynote speakers Nikole Hannah Jones, Pulitzer-prize winning creator of the 1619 Project, and Jessie Woolley-Wilson (MBA 1990), president and CEO of DreamBox Learning. “This is the year of the Black woman,” said Lambert, noting the milestone election of Kamala Harris as well as Black women in leadership positions in the HBS African American Alumni Association and AASU. “There's a momentum going on, and we need to take full advantage of it.”

Mike Cox (MBA 2021), conference co-chair with Erica Payne (MBA 2021), suggested the focus on Black women, noting that they uniquely face both misogyny and anti-Black racism. “The first Black man graduated from HBS in 1915 and the first Black woman in 1969. That’s quite a gap. By highlighting Black women we’re hoping to celebrate their successes and push the school forward on its journey towards equality.”

The opening keynote session was a candid conversation between Hannah-Jones and Professor Tsedal Neeley, covering everything from Hannah-Jones’ inspiration behind the 1619 Project’s examination of American history through the lens of slavery, to the Black women in their lives who are sources of support and examples of excellence. Comments from the conference participants quickly filled up the chat stream, with welcomes and notes of appreciation for Hannah-Jones’ work, as well as questions that she and Neely answered towards the end of the 90 minutes.

Following the keynote were panels on topics such as becoming an entrepreneur through acquisition, investing in Black art, Black storytelling in media and entertainment, and the power of the board seat. The closing keynote featured Woolley-Wilson, recipient of the AASU 2021 Kenneth Powell Professional Achievement Award, in conversation with Professor Linda Hill. Woolley-Wilson discussed the highlights and challenges in her career in educational technology, her role as DreamBox CEO, and how the pandemic has upended pedagogy.

“There's no question that there are incredible, brilliant, successful Black women out there who should be showcased whenever we’re talking about excellence and professionalism. This should be the new norm,” said Payne. “When Kamala Harris was sworn in as our vice president, she said that she was the first Black and South Asian woman to hold that role, but she certainly doesn't expect to be the last. This is a similar message—this conference is an amazing event that highlighted Black women, but it shouldn't be the last.”

Flanking the Saturday conference keynote were two days of special programming; the second Black New Venture Competition (BNVC) and Black Tech Masters Series. Founded by MBA Class of 2020’s Tyler Simpson and Kim Foster, the initiative aims to open up the resources of HBS to the broader Black community and advance opportunities in tech, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

The BNVC, which provides Black founders with access and exposure to capital, mentors, and advisors, was organized by co-chairs Cydni Williams (MBA 2021) and Kam Phillips-Sadler (MBA 2021). As fellows in last year’s inaugural competition, Williams and Phillips-Sadler were well-versed in reviewing applications and winnowing down the finalists, but were not expecting to plan and execute the competition virtually. That circumstance, however, ended up being a silver lining. In conversations with last year’s finalists, Williams and Phillips-Sadler noted that for many, traveling to HBS was a major investment that was often difficult to justify with strained startup budgets and tight timelines.

“Our mission is to democratize access to capital, give founders a seat at the table, and really leverage our position here at HBS,” said Phillips-Sadler. “What better way to do that than to meet them where they are, and have that seat be in their own home? I can't think of a better way to invite them into our fold while not asking them to exhaust resources.”

Out of 263 applications, the team selected 22 semi-finalists, 11 of which were selected as finalists and pitched their ventures to the judges on Friday, February 26. The six winners (Sahara, Creative Critique, K’ept Health, Fleri, QuirkChat, and Agapé), received prizes ranging from $15,000 to $75,000 out of the total pool of $225,000.

The BNVC’s support doesn’t end with the competition; Williams and Phillips-Sadler are meeting with the semi-finalist and finalist teams to assist with capital funding and the next stages of their ventures, and have opened their calendars to all of the applicants for feedback and advice. “This is more than a competition—we actually care to support and see them succeed,” said Williams.

“Hopefully we'll put ourselves out of business and won't have this competition in the future because Black ventures will be funded at equitable rates,” remarked Phillips-Sadler. “Until we reach that time, we'll continue to put this system into play and deploy more and more capital, year after year.”

On the third and final day of the conference, the Black Tech Masters Series (BTMS) featured a lineup of founders and innovators in the Black tech ecosystem. For co-chairs Brian Hollins (MBA 2022) and Cary Williams (MBA 2021), the online delivery of the series was an opportunity to both offer the program for free and to reach a broader audience.

With travel to Boston no longer a consideration, Hollins and Williams reached out to undergraduates at HBCUs, public universities, and two-year programs. “Top of mind for us was creating an equitable and accessible experience,” said Williams. “Many issues related to pipeline and access to opportunities for kids from diverse backgrounds is one of early exposure. The virtual and free nature of the event really lowered the barriers to access,” said Williams.

Damien Hooper Campbell (MBA 2009), chief diversity officer at Zoom, kicked off the programming with a session titled “The Village.” He offered a straightforward, humorous timeline of his career and its challenges, frankly discussing the lack of representation in tech, the value of community, and the importance of mentors and a network (your village) in building a successful career. Following Campbell were panels on creating pitch decks, finding product market fit (taught by Professor Jeff Bussgang), the importance of authenticity, the founder journey, and a concluding fireside chat with Simpson and Foster.

Hollins and Williams built partnerships with leading organizations including Zoom, eBay, and the Takeoff Institute to help drive the BTMS ecosystem ahead for the future. “BTMS is about more than a one-day conference,” said Hollins. “In the future, we want all Black undergrads to know they can come to this community for resources, mentorship, and guidance on their journey into tech.”

“My sincere hope is that tech starts to feel like a place that is inclusive, where Black tech professionals are not only surviving, but thriving and charting out careers that feel meaningful and provide the opportunity for community impact,” said Williams. “If we learn anything around the energy around diversity and inclusion that has surfaced in the business community since the tragic and awful murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it's that the time is now. Representation really, really matters.”

This article was originally published on the HBS Newsroom website.