Rene Jones, Chairman and CEO of M&T Bank, Harvard Business School, Summer Venture in Management (SVMP) alumnus 1985

In April, I was honored to join over 70 Black leaders from a variety of industries who signed a letter that supported our democratic values and the fundamental right to vote, in response to Georgia’s bill that sought to restrict voting access. One other name on the list stood out to me: Dr. James Cash.

Dr. Cash had been a mentor to me a long time ago, though I didn’t fully realize the impact he was making on me at the time. Seeing his name made me reflect on how our experiences and identities shape the possibilities we imagine for ourselves, and how Dr. Cash and Harvard Business School helped me become the person I am today.

My father was a military man who continued working at Fort Devens even after he retired from service. So I thought that joining the military was probably what I’d do, too. But my sister had a different idea for my future. She pushed me to go to college instead—and I listened—which is how I ended up studying accounting at Boston College.

But even though I was on a path different from my father’s, there were still invisible boundaries in my head. For Black people like me and other people of color, many of those limits are internalized from the messages we see reflected back to us by society. It takes a certain amount of audacity, and some help, to push past them.

For me, that help came in the form of education and mentorship. In the summer of 1985, I was given the opportunity to participate in the HBS Summer Venture in Management Program, or SVMP – a one-week crash course for Black and other underrepresented college students to experience what a graduate business program would be like.

I’d never even heard of business school before then. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but as always, I was open to the opportunity to learn. It was then that I met Dr. Cash for the first time. He was a respected academic, a keen business mind … and a man of color.

This was an eye-opening moment for me. I had never seen or imagined someone like me in a position like that. I remember him as such a commanding presence, in both stature and demeanor. He expected a lot and accepted no excuses. I quickly went from having no concept of business school to analyzing and debating business case studies with students and faculty from different places and cultural backgrounds. We stayed up all night studying together, then got grilled all over again the next day by Dr. Cash and the other professors.

That week was intense—and life-changing. It revealed new possibilities to me, ideas about the kind of life I could live and the impact that I could make that were so different from anything I’d ever imagined for myself. Maybe I could be like Dr. Cash.

What my experience at HBS taught me is this: These programs are a long-term investment. The impact takes time to see, so you might not know the difference they’re making right away. But the difference is real, and it ripples outward, touching the lives of others and helping us build a better future.

I know this because I’ve lived it. Without this program and Dr. Cash’s tough love, I’m not sure I would have ever attended business school. Quite possibly, I wouldn’t have ended up at M&T Bank, let alone become its CEO. And I wouldn’t have had the chance to join in the historic action that led me to sign that letter standing up for the rights of other people of color alongside Dr. Cash.

Now, it’s my turn to help people see new potential and use what power I have to help dismantle the barriers and biases that stand in the way. I’m proud to say that M&T is laying the groundwork for this with a four-point approach that includes access to education, access to capital, development programs, and diversity in our workforce and leadership. We’re committed to doing what it takes to make a difference in people’s lives and uplift our communities—even if the payoffs are well on the horizon.

So, with my most sincere gratitude, thank you HBS and Dr. Cash for making a difference in my life and helping me make a difference in the lives of others. Where before I couldn’t imagine being who and where I am right now, today I can’t imagine being anyone or anywhere else.