28 Jun 2021

A Q+A with new HBS CDIO Terrill Drake


We caught up with Harvard Business School’s new Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Terrill Drake to learn more about his background, career, and early plans for his time here at HBS.

Q: What’s your background?
I am from the South. I was born in Augusta, Georgia, and we moved to North Carolina for my dad's job right before I started middle school. I think of myself as a traditional Southerner, although you may not hear much of a drawl. I love the values of the South. The closeness of family and friends and the value of relationships. I’m sure those values exist everywhere, but they are really emphasized down South, along with food. We’re really good at food. I'm an only child in a family that was committed to service in many different ways. Service in the community through church was a big part of my upbringing. My grandfather was a WWII veteran who served in Germany. My dad served during the Vietnam era in Japan. My mom also served in the church and did many things in the community. When I think about those family values and the importance of providing service to people who are in need, to people who aren't necessarily being heard, it ties in nicely with the work I do on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Q: How did you choose this line of work?
There were a couple of catalysts that propelled me into this work. The first was when I was at the Smith School at the University of Maryland, and I noticed that there were not a lot of people of color in the leadership ranks. I was fortunate enough to move relatively quickly into a leadership role, but I was one of maybe two out of many. It seemed that people would get to a certain point and not be able to move any further. Several people of color were leaving, which raised questions in my mind around whether we were doing enough to support everyone in our community. I was fortunate to have mentors and people who were looking out for me and making sure that I was visible and could tap into opportunities when they came about. I recognized that others didn't necessarily have those same sponsors or mentors. The first catalyst was just noticing who was rising to the top ranks of our organization.

The second was more personal. At the suggestion of my boss, I worked on a proposal for a promotion that I was led to believe would come my way. I wrote the proposal and posted the job as asked, and the job went to a white male from outside of the school. It wasn’t at all clear to me or others what value or experience he brought to the role that was different from mine. It seemed that there was a group of people, including me, whose voices were not being heard and who needed someone to speak up for them and be on the lookout for opportunities and to ensure that those opportunities were available to everyone.

Q: Describe the Villanova School of Business. What’s the nature of your work there?
We have about 2,500 students, primarily undergraduates but also graduate and executive education participants. There are about 60 staff and 115 full-time faculty and about 90 adjuncts and other associates. As the associate dean of strategic initiatives, I oversee the office of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is where I've spent most of my time, especially over this last year given the needs of all our communities. The office had been planned for some time, but it just so happened that its launch coincided with what was happening across the country last summer. It was fortunate that we were able to provide support to the community at a time when it was badly needed.

In addition to the DEI work, I also oversee strategic initiatives across the school, including strategic planning and implementation, and external relations which includes alumni stakeholder engagement. I manage our events and programs team and our data, rankings and accreditation initiatives as well as the operations of our dean's office. There's a lot in my portfolio, which sometimes means that I'm pulled in 1,001 different directions. Most of the time it's interesting, but it can also be frustrating when you aren’t able to devote enough time to make progress in a given area.

Q: Why is it important for institutions to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion?
It's as simple as ensuring that everyone who is a part of our community and who interacts with our institution is having an excellent experience. We do that by ensuring that the supports are there for people who may be different or underrepresented in any way. It's about ensuring that we take the things that are great about the experience for our majority populations and replicate them for underrepresented populations in our faculty, staff, students, and stakeholders. We want to do better and strive for excellence. That's the essence of the work. We can only achieve that by rooting out the negative experiences, acknowledging them for what they are, and then trying to close the gap.

Q: Have the events of the past year brought a renewed sense of urgency to this work?
Definitely. The past year’s events have certainly changed my mindset about how critical and urgent this is, but I also appreciate that it changed the mindsets of other folks and specifically people who generally had no interest in engaging in this work previously. I've been appreciative of the opportunity to work with folks who are hungry to learn more. People who are asking “What can I do?” and “How can I help?” and “What are the things that I should be looking at and doing?” and really taking the opportunity to sit down and talk. They are not always easy conversations, but at least there is a willingness to engage. I learn something from each one and I believe the other person is learning as well. Hopefully over time we’ll start to build a capacity to have difficult conversations and increased understanding. We're not at that point yet, but just the acknowledgement is huge.

Q: How will you get started once you’re here at HBS?
I’m really excited to get going. I can tell that there is lot of enthusiasm to get moving on this work and I want to jump on that momentum. And I can see that it’s not just talk, because there has already been a lot of activity. Initially I’ll be doing a lot of meet and greets to try to get a deeper understanding of HBS. What's it like to be an MBA or a doctoral student, or to be on the staff? What’s the experience of the faculty and the School leadership? What is it like for people who aren’t in management positions? I want to hear directly from members of the community to gain a better understanding of where we are.

I’ll also be diving right into the Racial Equity Plan. My office will be responsible for moving those things forward, so I'll be working closely with Ron Chandler, Jan Hammond, and Jan Rivkin on driving the plan forward and building on the progress already made. I know that there are a lot of things that are happening right now on the DEI front, and I’ll be gathering an inventory and building out a communications plan to let the community know what’s happening. Once I have a better grasp on things, I’ll be thinking about our strategy and how it fits with the Racial Equity Plan. It's possible the strategy is embedded in the plan, and it just needs to be teased out.

Q: What are you most looking forward to about living in Boston?
I'm really looking forward to exploring Boston and the New England area. I’m a foodie so I can’t wait to take in the food scene and see how it compares to Philly. I think that just hanging out in Boston and learning about the area will be fun. On a professional level, I want to explore the connections that HBS has across the city and how those relationships might tie into my work.

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