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Wall St.and Business Wednesdays: Blacks Reaching Higher With MBAs by Shannon Buggs


For four years, Tammy Smithers spent her days and nights courting companies and their executives on behalf of the Houston Grand Opera.

The more dollars the professional fund-raiser secured, the bigger the opera's productions could be. But Smithers' own paycheck didn't rise accordingly.

Intrigued by the corporate world she visited often, Smithers quit her glamorous, albeit behind-the-scenes, fine arts job and enrolled in Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Management.

"Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a businesswoman," she says. "I always wanted to be in charge and making the decisions."

A trend toward degrees

Smithers represents the national trend of college graduates, especially minorities, pursuing master's of business administration degrees more than any other graduate or professional degree.

But although minorities are more attracted to the MBA degree than any other master's, not enough is being done to ready African-American, Hispanic and Native American middle and high school students for the academic and career challenges ahead, according to a study released last year by the Diversity Pipeline Alliance.

"The research shows that by 2015, we could be the largest group receiving MBA degrees, followed by Asians, Caucasians and Hispanics," says Barbara Thomas, president and chief executive officer of the National Black MBA Association in Chicago. "To get there, we need better preparation."

13,000 attend meeting

This week more than 13,000 business professionals, recruiters and business leaders will be in Houston as the National Black MBA Association convenes its 26th annual conference.

Of the many topics to be discussed will be methods to increase the number of African-Americans earning MBAs and elevating those degree holders into corporate leaders and successful entrepreneurs.

"People in our community have always owned our own businesses, so it's really not a tough sell to get them to think about getting an MBA," says Alvin Brown, chairman of the association's board.

As of now, only about 7 percent of the country's MBA students are African-American. Blacks make up 12 percent of the national population.

"A lot of African-Americans are the first in their families to go to college, and their parents tend to push them toward being a doctor, lawyer or teacher, the professions we all know about," says Peter Veruki, executive director for admissions and career planning at Rice's management school.

And business schools are at a disadvantage in countering that message. They require their applicants to have work experience. Other graduate programs generally take applicants straight out of college.

"The students who have the kind of academic potential we want get picked off earlier by medical schools, law schools and other professional programs," Veruki says.

Many took own paths

But the black MBA association has found strong interest in the degree from professionals who want to round out their résumés and improve their businesses.

"Doctors, lawyers and engineers are asking themselves, How can I expand my intellectual capital to compete in the global economy?" says Brown, president of the Willie Gary Foundation in Jacksonville,
Fla.

Although Smithers is the first in her immediate family to earn a bachelor's degree, her parents didn't pressure her to pursue a certain career.

She earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin and spent 10 years at nonprofits.

And their support helped her imagine herself as the CEO of her own company.

With that vision in mind, she went to the black MBA conference in 2001 and started preparing to go to school full time the next year.

Smithers graduated in May and joined Southwest Bank of Texas as a credit analyst. She's learning how to evaluate businesses' ability to make money in their markets and repay loans — skills she'll need whether her ambitions lead her up the corporate ladder or out into the small-business arena.

"As a fund-raiser, I learned how to sell," she says. "Getting the MBA enhanced my skill set, and the job I have now is making me a more complete businesswoman."


Shannon Buggs can be contacted via e-mail at: shannon.buggs@chron.com


Note: This article first appeared in The Houston Chronicle

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


Wednesday, September 15, 2004

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