By Jovane Marie
DiversityComm, Inc., more than 8,500 attendees, representatives from more than 250 leading Fortune 500 companies, and 45 colleges and universities attended the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA) 40th Anniversary Conference and Exposition in Detroit, Michigan, September 25–29.
Formed in 1970 as an initiative to share insight and experiences with Black professionals within the corporate sector, the NBMBAA serves as an influential nationwide organization with a multi-faceted approach to nurturing its members through innovative programs, trainings, partnerships, and career opportunities.
The conference was themed “One Voice, One Mission,” and key strategic partners, including Nationwide, FedEx Corporation Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US LLC, and Marriott International provided support and sponsorship to the week-long affair, which was praised for its organization and commitment to excellence.
Mona Lisa Faris, president and founder of DiversityComm, Inc., sat down with NBMBAA President and CEO Jesse Tyson and FedEx Staff Vice President of Operations Analysis Donald Comer to learn more about the organizations’ present and future goals, as well as how their personal and professional life experiences have impacted their approach to and influence in leading what has become the premier business organization serving Black professionals.
“We have more than 14,000 members who expect a lot from our organization, so we try to run it using the same business principles as our corporate partners,” Jesse Tyson said. “It’s important that we remain authentic and take great measures to ensure we align with sponsors that share our values. It takes an army of good, dedicated people to pull this event off, and that’s exactly what we have.”
Building and maintaining that dedicated army capable of holding the nonprofit to a high standard has been a priority for both Tyson—who stepped in to lead NBMBAA after a successful 35-year career at ExxonMobil—and Comer, also the NBMBAA Chairman of the Board.
Tyson can distinctly recall growing up in the rural, segregated South with his grandparents, working as a sharecropper to make a living. It was an upbringing that fueled a burning desire to overcome his circumstances and forge a different path for his life.
“I knew it was never a question of if I would get out…it was just a matter of timing,” he said. “I went through what I did knowing the day would come when things would change and I would be able to reposition my family and change the trajectory of where we had been.”
Tyson went on to attend a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), where he caught the attention of a professor that would change the course of the self-professed country boy’s life. Sensing his talent, the professor pushed for him to apply for an internship with the State Department—something Tyson assumed wasn’t his cup of tea.
“He hounded me for three weeks to apply, finally going so far as to fill out the entire application on my behalf without my knowledge,” he said. “When he approached me and said all he needed was a signature, I obliged—mostly so he’d leave me alone!”
Three weeks later, however, Tyson got the surprise of his life when he got a visit from the FBI to conduct a background check. He was quickly accepted into the program, where he spent three months in Washington, D.C., and five months in Dakar, Senegal. The experience, he said, was a turning point, solidifying his love for business and planting leadership seeds that would mature and blossom over the next several decades.
“What I’ve learned, internalized, and applied throughout the years is that it can’t just be about me—to be truly successful, you have to champion a greater cause—that of community,” Tyson said. “If your elevator takes you to the top floor, it’s not just to sightsee—you’ve got to not only send it back down but also utilize that further view to react and avoid potential catastrophe for those in your charge. You’ve got to use your advantage to see the broader causes that will help position you to help others. Helping others is what it’s all about, and it’s why I do what I do.”
For Comer, it has been the professional growth offered through FedEx, a company that thrives on diversity and inclusion, that has contributed to his overall view on what is important for both the business and the employee.
On a day-to-day basis, he leads a team focused on researching and implementing artificial intelligence strategies, machine learning, and big data.
“At FedEx, we believe in the business value of diversity and in the growth of our employees,” he said. “You’ll find that we’re not just on the career floor when we attend this conference; we participate in all of the areas that are focused on those goals that align with our business objectives, from sponsoring the pitch contests to investing in small businesses and hosting e-commerce committees. We also sponsor the IMPACT awards and the Leaders of Tomorrow program. We’re trying to show that diversity isn’t just philanthropic—it’s what drives business.”
Comer attended his first NBMBAA conference in 1997 on behalf of FedEx and hasn’t missed one since. As his participation has grown, so has the company’s involvement, with FedEx presenting its largest booth yet at the Career Expo in addition to their other sponsored events. Since 2016, the company has contributed close to $4.4 million to facilitate helping those needing business assistance in reaching their goals.
“When we attend NBMBAA, we know we’ll have access to the best talent to fulfill our available opportunities, from full-time professional positions to entry-level and even internships,” he said. “The main goal is connecting people to opportunities.”
The annual traditional Business Case Competition, which gives students an opportunity to pitch a business case for a chance to win scholarships, was a highlight of the conference, with both undergraduate and graduate levels represented.
The Scale-Up Pitch Challenge finals—a Shark Tank-style competition for professionals to pitch their innovative and scalable start-up business ideas to a group of judges—sponsored by FedEx Corporation—was also a huge draw.
While the conference exceeded its mission as a business opportunity for its attendees, there was also a human element at play during the week—the desire to help position the next generation to be successful, Tyson said.
“My grandmother often said that life should be lived in three phases: learning, earning, and returning,” Tyson said. “I rose above those circumstances and learned that it can’t just be about me rising above—it has to be about a greater cause, and that cause is my community.”
“We do what we do here because not only because we enjoy it but also because we know our young folks need it. We’re living in a global economy today, and if they’re not ready to think internationally, then they’re going to be behind. That’s why what we do here is important,” he added.
The National Black MBA Association® will hold its 41st Annual Conference and Exposition in Houston, Texas, September 24-28, 2019, with the theme “Transcend the Power of You: Empowered to Lead, Equipped to Succeed.” For more information, visit nbmbaa.org.
About the Author
Jovane Marie is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and freelance journalist. She is also the founder of MUSE Enterprises, which provides brand ambassadorship and event planning services for small businesses. Connect with her via LinkedIn @JovaneMarie.