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Origins: How it Began

Everybody Needs to Come to the Party

September in San Francisco is a refreshing antidote to a punishing East Coast summer. The cool breezes can clear out  mental cobwebs and awaken brain cells dulled by months of heat and humidity back home.

Perhaps this explains why an idea suddenly hit Bernie Milano as he strolled the exhibition floor at the National Black MBA Association’s annual conference. At his side were Dean Stith and two GMAC executives, Julie Dolan and Nicole Chestang.

Milano had not attended this organization’s conference before. But now he was formally the head of The PhD Project, and  a convention full of African-Americans holding MBAs was a room filled with his target market. The ad campaign to reach them had recently launched, and it was just three months before the big inaugural conference.

But the exhibit hall baffled him. It was filled with booths and displays from most of the country’s major universities, and they were promoting their MBA programs. Milano said to his colleagues, “This is a national convention of people who already have MBAs. Why are business schools here to sell them what they already have?”

The group explained that many attendees at conferences like this were young business executives still thinking of getting an MBA. “Oh,” Milano thought. “Just like our conference will be for people thinking of going for a PhD.”

“We need these schools at our conference too,” he declared to his colleagues. “Their doctoral programs have to bring their booths. Let’s invite them and charge them a fee to recruit our people.”

Stith, who had stood steadfastly by Milano for months as some of his peers had dismissed and even ridiculed the idea of The PhD Project, could not resist a chuckle.

Stith proceeded to explain, in the manner a teacher  might when the class’s brightest student commits an uncharacteristic blunder, that doctoral programs didn’t have to recruit: they had far more applicants than open slots. They were too small to have recruiting budgets. And, the coup de grace: “Bernie, we’re business schools. We like to get money from guys like you, not give it.”

To which Milano replied, “Well, everything we’ve done so far has been something people told us wouldn’t work. Why don’t we try one more thing that won’t work?”

It was, he had to admit, late in the game to add a university recruiting fair to the program. December was practically around the corner, the academic year was under way and doctoral program budgets and travel schedules for the year had been set. Moreover,  the conference had been  announced to the world: full page color ads had run in Black Enterprise, Minority MBA and other publications. Mailers were going out to thousands in the targeted demographic. The decision had been made to build in a rigorous applications and admissions function: only those who appeared to possess the credentials and strengths a doctoral program required would be allowed to attend the all-expenses-paid event.

A 10-page paper application had been distributed. Ralph Katerberg had agreed to assist Milano in evaluating the applications that were beginning to trickle in. (In later years, the process would be formalized with Deans Stith and Policano and Dr. John Elliott joining). The Hyatt O’Hare had been booked for the event. A steering committee of sponsors and academics, ranging from Dean Policano to doctoral students like the late Sandra Shelton, was busily working out an agenda and lining up the panelists and presenters who would populate it.

Yes, it was late, but it was never too late to get it right. Soon after Milano departed San Francisco, a letter went out from Montvale inviting 100 doctoral granting universities to send representatives to Chicago on December 15th and 16th.

One other challenge remained, and it played out largely out of view of the principal sponsors and leaders. Many African-Americans, exemplified by Clement and Shelton and the 33 others that attended the AADSA meeting, were powerfully impacted by the opportunity to meet and network with peers and mentors of a similar background. But as some of the conference planning group reached out across academe to spread the word and solicit speakers for the conference, a pushback developed. It came from a segment of the African-American community of business scholars. Looking with skepticism at an outside group—seemingly led by white men from multinational businesses— entering their arena with seemingly substantial money in hand, they

asked pointed questions. What did these business people really know about the African-American experience in academe? Why, this contingent asked, should we join their game?

“There was a group of African-Americans who felt we should go off and do this by ourselves, and it should be a separate sort of vehicle,” Dr. Callahan recalled many years later. “There was a strong component to that.

“There was another group—and it was smaller—that said, ‘No, we need to be an integral part of the profession.’”.

Dr. Callahan, who held the respect of both camps, put in many hours to spread her message: “Everybody needs to come to the party.” It would take time to bring everyone under the tent: even several years later, with the Project and its Doctoral Students Associations well established—and with doctoral students enjoying the benefits of them—doubts lingered. Information Systems Professor Laura Trevino, one of the earliest and strongest supporters of The PhD Project, heard it: “The first few years some of the students were suspicious of The Project. They didn’t understand what the Project wanted from us and thought they may be expected to go to work for KPMG or owe some other kind of debt.”

Dr. Trevino, who worked to dispel that suspicion, nonetheless could understand where it was coming from when seen in the context of the underrepresented minority experience in business education. “After all,” she explained, “there was no other such organization where people wanted to help people of color.”

In Memoriam Sandra Shelton