Rice Shares his Experience as the First Black Student Government President at a Top-ranked Business School.

by Carjamin Scott on August 27, 2018, at 9:55 p.m. CST

According to Businessweek, the number of underrepresented minorities (URMs) — African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans — currently enrolled at top-ranked business schools is 13.4 percent.

The Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt is consistently ranked in U.S. News and World Report as one of the Top-ranked business schools in the country. According to the Owen business school website, the number of URMs enrolled for the MBA Class of 2020 is 15 percent, higher than average.

Officially founded in 1969, nearly 50 years later, Cleon Rice, MBA Class of 2018, became the first black president of the Owen Student Government Association (OSGA).

In this interview, Rice will share his experience as OSGA president, discuss how MLT created the framework for his business school and career success, present the programming that he spearheaded to support the needs of students, and give advice to the newly elected OSGA president.

Cleon and friends MBA Class of 2018

Carjie: Cleon, what is life like after Owen?

Cleon: It is refreshing but I haven’t got my first paycheck yet. laughing I started July 30. I work for a biotech company commercial rotation development program in sales and in a couple of weeks, I’ll move to Providence Rhode Island. I knew I wanted to be in healthcare. I studied biology at Morehouse. I just wasn’t sure where I would fit in healthcare. My sister is a Pediatrician and my brother is a Dentist. So something healthcare related was a natural choice for me. I was in a program called MLT and the program helped me land an internship before classes began at Owen.

Carjie: So, your situation was unique because unlike most students you had something lined up before school?

Cleon: Yes, I was exposed to the biotech pharmaceutical industry and it aligned with the biomedical research I was doing in undergrad at Morehouse. I felt like this job would help me get closer to patients. I got the job through [Management Leaders for Tomorrow] MLT so I knew that I’d end up working here after Owen.

Carjie: When you were an applicant, what were you looking for in a business school?

Cleon: I was looking for exposure in finance and accounting. I was a little intimidated and I wanted to find a small school that would help me with healthcare. After meeting with Consuela, the diversity and recruiting manager, I knew that Owen was where I wanted to be. Honestly, Owen wasn’t the first school I saw. I had visited Owen over the diversity weekend. I felt a community feel and I enjoyed the small class size.

Carjie: There are a number of top ranked B-schools across the country. What led you to study in the south?

I am from rural Virginia but went to Morehouse and lived in Atlanta for 10 years. The south is home. Nashville was a big difference from Atlanta, but it wasn’t a big deal.

Carjie: Why were you interested in serving as student body President?

I wanted to create the personal scale culture in action.

Cleon: It started in mod 1, when my older brother passed from a heart attack. I went home for about two weeks and I was getting calls from my classmates. I couldn’t wait to get back to school to be with my school family. These people took care of me, I didn’t have to worry about food or anything. I wanted to make sure every student felt that same support throughout. I wanted to create the personal scale culture in action. Especially for the international students, it wasn’t that we were deliberately leaving them out, it was just hard for some to figure out cultural similarities. Business school was my time to do something different, I was able to travel a lot and experience everything I could in these two years and the opportunity to run for president was something that I wanted to experience.

Carjie: Thank you for sharing that. I’m so sorry for your loss. It is amazing that you were able to create joy for others while you were in so much pain. That’s honorable. In the YouTube video, “My Vanderbilt and Nashville experience” you mentioned how you cultivated, “a partnership with the Management for Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) program.” What is that program and why are programs like MLT valuable to top-ranked business schools?

James Murray MBA 17 pictured on the left.

Cleon: Well, James Murray was the first person from MLT. My class [class of 2018] was the first group of MLTers. MLT helped us to understand what the business school process looked like. In MLT we did a branding exercise, to be sure our personal brand was a part of everything we do. MLT helped us with developing our career and gave us a purpose. MLT has a large network with business schools across the country. We were able to call up different people at business schools to get feedback about the institutions. I participated in MLT MBA Prep. MBA Prep served to increase the number of minorities at top MBA programs. I then applied to the MLT professional development program. The PD program helped me to secure my first internship. My MLT coach helped me talk through things and told me what to do over the summer. MLT has partner business schools and partner companies. These companies hire, train, and enroll MLTers.

Carjie: Wow! MLT is a great program. Thanks for sharing your MLT journey with us. Another highlight of your video was the “Humans of Owen initiative.” Are you able to share why that program is valuable to Owen?

It humanizes people and we were able to highlight every story and not just the people who are loud and proud.

Cleon: Yes, Humans of Owen is powerful. James Murray and others put a lot of effort into that. It started the year before I came to Owen. We talk about diversity and inclusion. HOO is a celebration of everyone’s diverse backgrounds. It humanizes people and we were able to highlight every story and not just the people who are loud and proud. With such a small student body we have an opportunity to highlight stories. Chemitra Clay, Jessica Bayless, and Thayer Rosenberg kept the momentum going.

Carjie: Humans of Owen is still going strong.

Cleon: Glad to hear it.

Carjie: The Owen MBA Class of 2018 profile like most top B-schools was comprised of – 26% women, 11% minorities, and 18% international. What was it like to lead a student body comprised of a majority white male population? How were you able to support every student throughout their time at Owen?

I think that just being cognizant of what their interests are is valuable. I had to take a step back and look at the overall picture. I had to not rely on making black first or minority first decisions.

Cleon: It is interesting, and I felt that weight, you see it in every interaction. I had the opportunity to get to know classmates beforehand. A ton of the fears that we have is that we can’t relate to each other. What I sought to do is determine what their individual motives are. I think that just being cognizant of what their interests are is valuable. I had to take a step back and look at the overall picture. I had to not rely on making black first or minority first decisions.

Carjie: How did it feel to have been selected as the first black OSBA president?

I knew I had to come correct in everything I did. And although I identify as black, I wanted to make sure other voices were heard.

Cleon: I think that the feeling was, how did I finesse this. laughs It was because we have a small group of minority students so I wasn’t sure if I was going to win. When I won, I felt the responsibility and pressure to serve them. I believe that when I would speak I had to be sure that I spoke clearly. I had to make sure I was on time for meetings. I remember some of the first emails, I had to be sure my grammar was correct, I knew I had to come correct in everything I did. And although I identify as black, I wanted to make sure other voices were heard.

Carjie: Cleon, I really appreciate your honesty and the sincerity of your response. I think that those are some concerns that many minorities face everyday. Other than the Humans of Owen initiative and the MLT partnership, what was your greatest accomplishment as OSGA president?

Cleon: Our greatest accomplishment was the diversity and inclusion advisory board comprised of leaders of Owen. For change to really happen we wanted to see faculty, staff, and student supported recommendations from that committee. We wanted those ideas to be sustainable. We wanted to be sure that minorities, females, and international students were supported. Dr. Rangaraj “Ranga” Ramanujam is the chair of that committee.

Carjie: If given the opportunity, what would you have added or what would you have done differently as OSGA president?

Cleon: I would have tried to take care of myself better. I was all in. I was trying to support my student body, as a black male, and things like that. I didn’t do the best job of taking care of things for myself. It was empowering to help others and encourage other students to make the changes that needed to happen. But the job started from day one of second year, and I had just lost my brother and then we lost Nii. [Nii was an international classmate from Africa and member of the MBA Class of 2018.] I was mourning his death but I was the President at the same time. I had to be strong. But, at the end of the day, I was just the OSGA president of a business school so if I could do something differently, I would have to taken care of myself better.

Carjie: Thank you, Cleon. You dealt with a lot in business school and you left a lasting impact at Owen. What would you like to see top-B schools implement or continue to do to recruit and support minority students?

Cleon: I think it just needs to be all hands on deck to make sure an increase in diversity and inclusion in business schools is made. Relying on one diversity recruiter is just not fair or sustainable. These efforts must come from the top down. It has to radiate throughout. Students see that, so leaders have to get out and push into communities. For example, Nashville is the country music capital and people have perceptions about that. At a school like Owen, everyone needs to be all hands on deck to show what it takes to take care of its’ minority students.

Carjie: What advice would you give the new OSGA President, Emily Redfield?

Cleon: I think what Owen needs is better branding to bring the fun and the programming. I think that Emily will bring that. My advice is to sit down, take a deep breath, and listen to students. One of the things we don’t think about is how valuable it is to listen to the issues of others and hear people out. Sometimes people need an ear more than a solution. You want people to see you as this person of who they can come to and speak to. All students need help not just the loud ones.

This interview celebrates the legacy of the Owen Class of 2018, the life of Cleon’s older brother who passed during the school year, and the life of international student Nii Amarfio MBA ’18 who passed during the school year as well. Thank you Cleon. – Carjie

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Carjamin Scott can be reached at carjamin.scott@gmail.com and you can follow her on twitter @scottcarjie.


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