16 Feb 2022

AASU Conference 2022: Q+A with Co-Chairs April Weathers and Cyril Straughn-Turner


by Shona Simkin

The African American Student Union’s (AASU) 49th Annual H. Naylor Fitzhugh Conference at Harvard Business School (HBS) is a two-day virtual event on Friday, February 18, and Saturday, February 19. Kicking it all off on Friday is the third annual Black Tech Masters Series alongside the third annual Black New Venture Competition and culminating with the conference on Saturday. We asked AASU’s conference co-chairs, April Weathers (MBA 2022) and Cyril Straughn-Turner (MBA 2022), about this year’s theme, speaker lineup, and priorities for this popular event.

Tell us about the theme of the conference, Rise Up: Bolstering Momentum Around Black Excellence.
April: We wanted to capture the momentum of the last two years of renewed emphasis on racial equity. We’re trying to help the community—current and prospective students, entrepreneurs, alumni, and business leaders—to think about what it is that they can do with that momentum and how to seize the opportunities that are available to them. We’ve integrated events to highlight the issues and subjects that our community are excited about–tech, new forms of venture capital funding, entrepreneurship–as well as more traditional topics in the world of business and leadership.

Who are the keynote speakers this year, and how did you choose them?
Cyril: We focused on two things—more experienced business leaders who could discuss the concerns we’ve had in the Black community over the past two years more broadly—what they’re seeing, what is changing, how they’re finding their way and seizing opportunities—and then newer entrepreneurs who could talk about how they’ve seen things change.

Leslie Brun is the co-founder and CEO of Ariel Alternatives, which focuses very specifically on ensuring there are Black-owned businesses to help meet supplier diversity goals. Our afternoon keynote speakers are Beny Ashburn and Teo Hunter, co-founders of Crown & Hops. They’re trying to increase the number of Black and Brown owned breweries and are thinking about how to invite more diversity into the industry and seize some of the craft beer momentum, which is experiencing exponential growth across the industry. It’s an amazing opportunity for Black entrepreneurs to bring their creativity and energy as the industry continues to evolve.

A new addition to the keynote speakers is Dr. Danielle Allen, a gubernatorial candidate for Massachusetts. We’re excited about what she will share from a public sector and policy lens and the ongoing challenges and potential opportunities for Black leaders within this sphere.

What does this event mean for AASU and the HBS community more broadly?
April: The thing we think about the most is having the entire slate of speakers be Black leaders. This is something that we just don’t get to see in other portions of our time at HBS. This is when we can invite the HBS community to be steeped in this part of our world in a way that they wouldn’t normally have access to. The conference is a hyper-relevant focal point for people who have not been exposed to this many Black leaders before. While none of the sessions are revolutionary to the people in the HBS community, the wide variety of subjects (we have panels on beauty and media, art and business, leadership, and entrepreneurship through acquisition (ETA)) demonstrate that there are sufficient Black leaders in these fields. Now, when students think about how they want to develop their teams or ideas, they know that there is Black talent out there, and they can think very broadly about who they want to bring onto their teams.

Are there new or particular sessions you’re excited about?
Cyril: We’re excited for all of them! The ETA panel is really interesting—it’s a topic that is growing at HBS and is becoming a very different way to think about what wealth generation looks like in our community. The emphasis is a little bit more tactical—we’re trying to show different ways to think about acquisition as an entrepreneur—what can help move the needle for someone who wants to create wealth for themselves and those who come after them. I’m also very excited for the public sector panel. There’s a lot of emphasis on real estate and thinking about how to integrate that idea of Black excellence into many other parts of the world, not just business. We’re also very excited to hear from the co-founders of Crown & Hops because it’s a very different type of business from what we usually see in our HBS community—we want to encourage people to think about other things they can do in this consumer world.

What are your goals for this conference and those going forward?
April: We’re thinking about this suite of events as being as providing opportunity for training, funding, and inspiration. The funding opportunity is going to continue to grow—the award pool for the Black New Venture Competition is up to $275,000 from the original $100,000 three years ago. We want to think very critically about what training needs to look like and how we provide tactical skills through workshops or conversations with panelists. Finally, for inspiration, we’re asking what the future looks like and how we feel about this moment in our community—what are we healing from, or how do we push ourselves forward? These are the three pieces we’re focused on especially as we look towards next year, which will be the 50th conference.

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