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Leading The Way

Celebrating 25 years in 2005, Philadelphia-based program seeks innovative ways to expand outreach effort for talented minority students in business and other disciplines

By Ronald Roach

As a teen-ager from a working-class family in South Side Chicago, Charles Crockett had dreams of attending law school and becoming a corporate lawyer. In the summer of 1982 prior to his senior year in high school, Crockett attended a four-week pre-college program at the University of Pennsylvania whose curriculum exposed him to business fundamentals and to knowledgeable corporate professionals.

One of its earliest alumni, Crockett, who is African American, says the Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) program helped him to broaden the scope of his educational and career goals by convincing him to pursue an undergraduate major in business; he minored in political science. Exposure to investment banking professionals during the LEAD summer business institute also piqued Crockett’s interest in the field which he pursued for a time after graduating from college and again after completing law school.

Today, Crockett is one of the co-founders and a principal of a New York city-based venture capital firm. He is also on the LEAD national board of directors. “While LEAD helped me to broaden my educational options, it gave me early exposure to specific business fields,” he says.

There’s little doubt that networking plays a key role in the success of business professionals and their companies. In the case of LEAD alumni, such as Crockett, and the program’s supporters, the combination of early outreach, education and networking has helped propel the business careers of several thousand African American, Latino and American Indian students since the program’s launch in 1980. An estimated 6,900 people are LEAD alumni, typically having attended before their senior year in high school a three- or four-week intensive business institute at one of the participating campuses.

Anticipating the program’s 25th anniversary year, LEAD president Richard Ramsey, program supporters and LEAD alumni have set about to raise the program’s national profile and scope. “It’s been a 25-year push for sustainability. It’s been a long early stage because we’ve been making sure the program works,” Ramsey says, noting that 65 percent of LEAD alumni have chosen business careers.

LEAD originated at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1980 as an initiative among Johnson & Johnson executives and Wharton professors to attract top minority students into business careers. The Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization continues to run its program as a partnership between business and academe. While it is open to students of any race and ethnic group, LEAD largely targets African American, Latino and American Indian students because they are considered to be underrepresented minorities in the corporate world. Eligible students have at least a B average and high standardized test scores, as well as demonstrated leadership ability and involvement in their schools and communities.

The Basics
During the summer session, LEAD participants attend classes taught by business and economics professors and local business executives who lecture on a range of disciplines, including finance, accounting, marketing, entrepreneurship and economics. Roughly 330 students are chosen annually to attend a LEAD program at the campus of one of 10 university business schools that participate in the program. The LEAD national office works with the Educational Testing Service to identify high achieving minority students who might be eligible for the summer LEAD program.

High school administrators and alumni also help identify potential LEAD applicants. The selection process, administered by LEAD officials, assigns each applicant a composite score based on class rank and standardized test scores. Candidates are asked to write two essays, one solving a business problem and the other explaining what he or she expects to gain from the program. Applications must be accompanied by recommendation letters.

The summer business institute, which is roughly $120,000 per school, has costs covered by the host school, which handles room and board of its students, and corporate partners. This past summer, students began paying $750 tuition. Grants are available for those with demonstrated financial need, according to program officials.

Dr. David Wooten, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, says his campus gets a mix of students from the Midwest as well as from other states around the nation who are assigned to his campus for the LEAD program. The Michigan LEAD program has been in place since the early 1980s, according to Wooten, who has served since 1999 as the curriculum director of Michigan LEAD.

“I enjoy teaching in the LEAD program, and I get a good response from fellow faculty members who commit themselves to participate in the program,” he says. 
From year to year, an average of 11 students from Michigan LEAD end up as undergraduates at the University of Michigan, according to Wooten. Ramsey says that given the high caliber of students and participating schools, LEAD ends up functioning as a recruiting tool for the respective schools that host the program. While each campus has 30 to 32 students at its respective summer business institute, the University of Pennsylvania is said to attract as many as 25 of its LEAD students annually into applying and gaining undergraduate admission to the Philadelphia-based Ivy League school.

Officials at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign say becoming the newest campus addition to the LEAD program should help their college of business improve its overall efforts at bringing diversity to its undergraduate and graduate programs. The college of business organized its first LEAD summer session this past summer. Officials say the dean at the college of business has made diversity a top priority, giving LEAD a strong basis of support.

“We got an overwhelming response from our faculty. It was a great group of people who volunteered their time to the LEAD program,” says Victor Mullins, the assistant dean of the MBA program at the University of Illinois.

Dr. Vennie Lyons, a dean at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says that unlike the state schools and the private University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern does not have an undergraduate business major. However, LEAD at that campus annually helps attract about 10 students who apply and gain undergraduate admission to the Evanston, Ill., -based school. “These students may major in economics, engineering or any number of disciplines,” Lyons says.

Ramsey points out that it’s not a prerequisite that prospective students indicate that they plan to study business in college or in graduate school. He adds that he believes LEAD has helped many students planning careers in other fields, such as medicine and engineering, to consider how business education may help them in their respective careers. “We’ve seen students who’ve gone on to be doctors and engineers end up getting their MBAs,” Ramsey explains.

The Next Phase 
Champions of workplace and higher education diversity are ever mindful of the challenges to affirmative action programs aimed at bringing underrepresented minorities into professional fields. In steering LEAD to adapt to the affirmative action landscape shaped by the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Ramsey says LEAD is poised for continued growth as well as making itself an even stronger resource for corporate diversity.

The next phase of program growth for LEAD high school students is the development of specialized campus-based business education modules that will allow schools with less recognized business schools to participate in the LEAD program. Ramsey says LEAD has begun discussion with schools such as Bentley College in Massachusetts, to develop one-week seminars at which high school students who have completed a regular LEAD summer session can opt to explore specific topics in depth. He adds that officials are also talking to a historically Black campus that has interest in developing a specialized LEAD program. 

In addition to the new programs, LEAD has recently developed a database of the 6,900 alumni to make their information and credentials available to corporate sponsors and LEAD alumni. The database contains alumni information such as current status in school or the work force, contact information and current resumés.

“This effort has been well received by our supporters. Our corporate partners can now query our database,” he says. 

Ramsey says that with the track record LEAD has developed the organization can look to its alumni base as a marketing force for the program within corporate America as well as to it being a source of talent for companies. 

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