The sponsors were a who's who of corporate America, from financial operations like Goldman, Sachs & Company and Chase Manhattan to media corporations like Home Box Office and Time Inc. Sprint was there, as were ARCO, Nabisco and Proctor & Gamble, not to mention Chrysler Corporation, Hewlett Packard and Johnson & Johnson.
That's only part of what made the conference and job fair run by Wharton's African-American MBA Association so important.
The 24th Annual Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Jan. 15 to 18 is one of the largest student-organized business conferences in the United States, with about 750 people attending, conference organizers said. It attracted students from as far away as Stanford and more than 70 businesses eager to recruit.
"It has become the largest student-organized conference not only at Wharton but at the University of Pennsylvania," said Wharton Vice Dean W. Bruce Allen, to a packed luncheon crowd Friday, Jan. 15.
A representative from Lehman Brothers, Penn alum Ken Allen (SEAS'90) said: "The good thing about Whitney Young is they draw from schools from New York and Washington in addition to the good people you see from Wharton. From a recruiter standpoint, there's nothing better than this."
The first of four keynote speakers, Ernest G. Green, was greeted by a standing ovation for his role as one of the historic Little Rock Nine, a group of African Americans who faced guns and insults when they dared to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down segregation in Brown vs. the Board of Education.
Green, now managing director of public finance at Lehman Brothers, spoke at the Friday luncheon, paying tribute to the conference's namesake, Whitney M. Young Jr.: "His genius was his ability to show corporate America that African Americans could positively impact the bottom line."
The bottom line, however, was not the end-all and be-all.
"My parents voluntarily put everything at risk ... for the greater common good," he said. "We all have to be willing to do that for change. ... The service must go on and the struggle continues."
Afterward, first-year Wharton MBA student Eugene Wade said, "We're thinking about issues in our community, and not just about how to set free cash flow."
Other keynote speakers included the vice president of Botswana, the director-general of tourism in the Bahamas, and the head of the National Minority Supplier Development Council, a non-profit organization helping minority-owned businesses.
The conference ran like a well-oiled machine, with workshops and roundtable discussions. "High quality," was how John William, from Johns Hopkins, evaluated what he'd seen so far. Stephan Jackson, attending Johns Hopkins at night, took the day off from work to participate. Rebecca E. Williams, who had come all the way from California, said the trip was worth the effort.
Registrants received a black fabric attache case -- very Wharton -- filled with a conference survival kit, including a glossy conference program booklet with tons of corporate advertising; a phone card for one local phone call; Sojourner, an African-American visitors guide to Philadelphia; and a crackers-and- cheese packet. A black t-shirt went to anyone who filled out the evaluation form inside the briefcase.
But mostly the conference was a chance for networking, African-American style.
"It's almost a homecoming of sorts," said Jason Henderson (SEAS'89) of Henderson Dawkins, a marketing and communications firm, who was hanging out with several contemporaries from his Penn days. "We talk about finance -- and children, and wives and life."
Originally published on January 28, 1998