The Faces of First Class

As a traveling consultant, I had earned elite status on multiple airlines. I flew a lot. One flight in my many over a career stands out. It was 2012. I was one of the last to board the plane. I was in a sweat rushing between gates. I stepped into the cabin and paused at the front of first class. Staring up at me was a group of men with whom I had nothing in common. In that moment, I had a flash back to 1997 wearing a new suit that bothered me in an opening ceremony hearing about how few minorities there are in C-suites, in board rooms and throughout business. Back in 2012, I was staring at a packed first class cabin and the only minority was sitting in 3C.

It was me.

In 1997, I was 17 and was surrounded by 29 other high school juniors. It was July in Evanston on the western shores of Lake Michigan. Despite Chicago’s frigid winters, its summers can be as brutal as my native South Florida. Sometimes, they were worse. The dorms were hot and there was no air conditioning. A small group of students and I were crowded around trying to figure out how to market a brand of gum. The goal was to create more appeal to young minorities. We were told that’s a target audience. The group of us likely felt somewhat ordinary in our day-to-day lives but here there was something different. We all had something in common that made us, as a group, quite unique.

We were minorities interested in business.

The program was the LEAD Program in Business and we were being hosted by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. For one month, the most revered professors in business spent time sharing with us what they taught to executives from all over the world. Marketing. Business Planning. Accounting. We were welcomed by some of the largest corporations in the Midwest to get a peek inside a world I had known little about up to that point. I consider the month I spent in the halls of Kellogg with my new friends to be one of the defining moments in my life.

At the time, it was just another leadership program for an ambitious student. As a 17-year-old, I didn’t quite realize the gravity of how much was invested in us. I was told about the lack of minority representation in the C-Suite, board rooms and across business in general but I didn’t quite understand what it meant. I didn’t even understand why it was important. Admittedly, I was most impressed when one of the well-dressed guest speakers said he had a really nice house in Evanston and would likely take home more than $500,000 that year in salary alone. I was still wearing pleated pants and came from a middle class family headed by two teachers. The suit we were required to bring with us for our business formal events, like that opening ceremony, was the first suit I’d ever owned.

While most of my experiences from high school ended up swirled into the milkshake of memory, the LEAD Program didn’t. It stood out. It’s the only reason I applied to Northwestern University – the only application I completed other than to the University of Florida. During a high school Spanish drama competition, my father, who was the coach of the Spanish drama team, told me that he and my mother believed they could afford it after loans and my work study contributions. It was then up to me to decide if it was what I wanted. I realized this was likely going to be one of the largest investments they had ever made. I had never heard of Northwestern University before that summer program but it began a journey that deepened my understanding of why the LEAD Program truly mattered.

Throughout my time at Northwestern, I was involved in the LEAD Program as a counselor. It was a good summer job and it felt familiar and comfortable. It was my first friend in college. After graduation, I tried to stay involved as well. I brought them to the companies I worked for. I joined them in the class room and guest lectured. Now, I’m realizing I attended the program before the current participants were born.

This dedication to the program is my thank you to LEAD but it’s also part of how LEAD had planted in me a mission. Bringing more minorities into the business world had to be a part of my business journey moving forward. Succeeding in business can be an isolating experience for any of us, even more so as an entrepreneur. For minorities, that experience can feel even further isolating when there are very few, if any, of your professional peers with similar cultural experiences or histories.

The relationships that began at LEAD are among my most treasured. I’ve had so much success in my career thanks to a supportive network and people willing to invest in me. I tell the LEAD students every year to email me. Connect with me on LinkedIn. Call if they have questions. Perhaps more importantly, they should stay in contact with each other and mentor other young minorities. The C-suite, the board rooms and the business world needs us. And the snacks in first class are so much better.