Last week, Harvard Business School hosted AASU50, a two-day event commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the African-American Student Union (AASU) with sessions and events focused on advancing African American business leadership. The conference was created to celebrate the vibrant and important role that African Americans have played in shaping HBS, the business world, and society at large.

The AASU50 team engaged HBS faculty, staff, alumni, and students in creating: a multi-dimensional event with influential speakers; a documentary, Unite-Serve-Lead: The Founding and Impact of the African-American Student Union; and a Baker Library exhibit. The exhibit, titled “Agents of Change: The Founding and Impact of the African-Student Union” showcased a limited print of the Emancipation Proclamation with President Abraham Lincoln’s signature and an original signed note from Frederick Douglass.

“In line with AASU’s mission, our personal vision for the 2017-2018 academic year has been driven by the goal of strengthening the bonds within the community by investing further in the connections among AASU members, with other Harvard organizations within the diaspora, and with our distinguished alumni network,”  said Andrew Levette and Tiana Williams, MBA 2018 HBS AASU Co-Presidents.

Seven years after the founding of Harvard Business School in 1915, Wendell Thomas Cunningham became the first black student to graduate from the institution. Cunningham was one of 27 men who received the Master of Business Administration degree in 1915. Between 1915 and 1968, there were a total 42 black graduates of HBS with many class years having no black graduates at all.

The representation of African Americans at HBS took a major turn in the spring of 1968 when 5 students, including the first black woman to graduate from HBS, joined forces to form the predecessor of the African American Student Union (originally called the Afro-American Student Union).

 “The Founders of the AASU embodied the School’s mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world. Their actions, those 50 years ago, have made a tremendous difference at HBS, especially in the lives of the 2,250 black alumni who followed them. Through this conference, we seek to honor that legacy,” wrote Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School.

AASU50 featured African American business leaders such as Ann M. Fudge, Former Chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands; Bozoma Saint John, Chief Brand Officer of Uber; and Richelieu Dennis, Founder CEO, and Executive Chairman of Sundial Brands and Founder and Chairman of Essence Ventures.

 “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reflect on our history and experience at HBS as African Americans- from the earliest graduates to the founders of AASU and to all who, as students and alumni, have made a difference at HBS, in the African American community, and in society at large,” wrote Ken Powell, President of the HBS African-American Alumni Association. “It is also a time to contemplate the next 50 years and establish new foundations for realizing our full potential and promise as alumni of HBS.”

Les Williams, Partner and Chief Revenue Officer of Risk Cooperative and 2005 MBA alumnus, noted that, “After spending the weekend at AASU50, the common theme I heard during the sessions, the dinners, the lunches, and the breaks was ‘where do we go from here?’ African Americans have made enormous strides in the United States throughout history, but several pieces of data presented during the conference showed that we still have a long way to go in terms of closing the wealth, education, and political participation gap.”

Les reflected that the HBS eductation, “trained all of the attendees to analyze a situation and then make recommendations, so I was happy to witness a small group of participants build the framework for an ‘AASU50 Fund’. The impact investment fund will focus on assisting African American causes in the United States which is not only a worthy endeavor but one that can be accomplished based on the talent assembled at this conference. I look forward to being a part of the solution.”