UNCF Launches Annual Student Leadership Conference

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Brianna Davis, a 21-year-old finance major at Howard University, says she has been to her share of educational conferences, but none quite like the newly inaugurated UNCF Student Leadership Conference.

“I’ve been to different conferences in different corporate settings where we had executives speak with us, but not on the level that we got here,” Davis said during the final day of the UNCF conference, held May 30-June 1 at George Washington University and the tenth-floor office of Booz Allen Hamilton, a global strategy and technology consulting firm.

Davis and 33 other UNCF scholarship recipients were selected to attend the conference in order to better prepare them for the internships they are set to work this summer at a variety of firms and organizations.

Davis’s internship will be at Pershing LLC, a firm that provides business solutions to financial institutions.

The internship experience is one that Davis says she will be able to better maximize because of the various lessons imparted at the UNCF Student Leadership Conference.

“We got more of the ethical side of the business, a lot of the nitty-gritty things that we need to do well in our internships,” said Davis, explaining that the advice she got helped her resolve some of the conflicted feelings she had about working in the financial services industry despite its reputation for being predatory.

Diverse writer was invited to sit in on some of the sessions where African-American senior associates and principals at Booz Allen Hamilton shared information, tips and occasionally candid personal advice on how to navigate the corporate landscape.

Mark Tate, a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton, touched on topics that ranged from the need for brevity and clarity in e-mail communications to the value of being proactive about seeking out a mentor, irrespective of whether the mentor shares the mentee’s cultural background.

Tate recounted how an unfavorable performance review early in his tenure at Booz Allen Hamilton is what prompted him to get a mentor from within the company. The mentor spent a year with him building various skills, such as how to write in a corporate setting. Several years later, Tate’s mentor was reporting to him in a multimillion-dollar branch of the firm.

“Had I been taught this back then and understood the opportunity you guys have today to really take this in and start developing it, I might be in a different place,” Tate said.

Monica Lewis, a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton who specializes in global marketing, urged the students to consider their audience when writing various correspondence to colleagues and higher-ups.

“Communication is different when you’re writing to a team of your peers or the most senior folks in the organization,” Lewis said. “Vary the length and detail in business writing depending on whom you’re writing to and the need for details.”

“Very senior people are there for a reason,” Lewis continued. “They can pick up information like that. They don’t need a lot of information to make a decision.”

Dr. Karl Reid, Vice President for Academic Programs and Strategic Initiatives at UNCF, said the conference served a vital purpose for students who may not have parents who made forays into higher education or the corporate world.

“In many homes, where there are multiple generations of professionals, there are lessons being taught in those homes that are explicit and implicit. And that’s great,” Reid said. “But there are a large swath of our society who are first-generation college students whose parents either did not go to college or finish college and who may not be in the professions that we aspire,” Reid said. “And so it’s very important to us to make what is implicit in those homes where there are multiple generations of professionals, to make it explicit to a cohort of young people who aspire to these careers but don’t have those lessons that are naturally taught in the homes.”

“That’s what this program is all about,” Reid added.

Program participants were drawn from one of three UNCF runs: The K-12 Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship, which is meant to build a pipeline of talented African-American college graduates ready to apply business and entrepreneurial principles to reform elementary and secondary education; The Gateway to Leadership Program, a partnership UNCF oversees with the Money Management Institute (MMI); and the Corporate Scholars Program, which provides eligible students with both scholarships and paid internship opportunities at top corporations and national organizations.

Based on interviews with the participants, the program will likely have a multiplier effect.

“I really want to take this back to my family and friends, especially my little brother who is in middle school,” said Christopher Kohn, 20, a computer engineering major at Johnson C. Smith University. Johnson said his parents went to a two-year college but didn’t finish.

Kohn said that, initially, he didn’t think of computer engineers as being involved on the business side of things.

“I just thought I would be in the cubicle doing programs,” Kohn said. But he said he had to rethink that idea hearing from computer science majors at the conference who spoke of their involvement in business decisions.

Though Johnson doesn’t have an internship lined up for this summer, he said the conference afforded him the chance to lay the groundwork for future opportunities.

Johnson spent his time at the conference collecting business cards and says he has a newfound motivation to refine his public speaking skills.