While critics and proponents of affirmative action have been arguing its merits, a program that began two decades ago at the Wharton School has been quietly demonstrating how affirmative action ought to work.
And in the process, its created an old boys network as effective as the ones minorities have spent years trying to break into.
The program is called LEAD the Leadership, Education and Development Program created originally to increase minority presence in the countrys top business schools.
The program began in 1979, when executives at Johnson & Johnson subsidiary McNeil Consumer Products suggested that Wharton establish a summer business institute to introduce promising minority high school students to the world of business and management. Since then, the program has expanded across the country, with institutes operating at 10 top business schools.
The key to LEADs success lies in its high standards and its intensive curriculum. The high-school juniors who participate in the monthlong summer program are drawn from the top two percent of underrepresented minority students nationwide. And they hit the ground running the day they arrive on campus, they take an exam covering corporate case studies and other material contained in the programs bulk pack, which is sent to participants in advance.
Its an initial exam that nobody passes, said Harold J. Haskins, who has been the programs operations director from its inception.
Students in the 1999 LEAD program at Wharton meet with American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault.
Photo by Keith Arness Anderson
From that challenging start, the LEAD students plunge into a monthlong program crammed with courses in all the major subjects of a business curriculum, field trips to major corporations, presentations by business professionals and recreational activities. A business plan competition and an essay contest conclude the program.
LEAD students work in teams on all classroom activities and projects except the final essay. The team members must rely on each other to succeed, Haskins said.
The team-oriented approach not only teaches LEAD students what Haskins called the habits of success, but also helps the students form strong bonds with one another that last into college and beyond.
Boston Consulting Group associate Kenna Wylie (W98), a 1993 LEAD at Penn alumna, said that the program allowed me to develop a personal network of business contacts that I remain in touch with.
Its been a great support network, she said. It also helped me when I applied for summer internships.
The connections LEAD students form with the programs corporate sponsors are no less valuable. While Wylies current position is not the result of LEAD connections, she said, I have worked with other companies that are affiliated with LEAD, and they have asked me to tap into the LEAD network to recruit new employees.
LEAD has also proven to be a powerful recruitment tool for Penn. The overwhelming majority of students in Penns LEAD program eventually apply, and more than half of them are accepted and not only to Wharton. Of the 12 students accepted to the Class of 2003, five were admitted to the College. Penn also enrolls a significant number of graduates of the nine other LEAD programs: 25 of the 31 LEAD students enrolled in this years freshman class attended one of the sister programs.
As 1989 University of Maryland LEAD alumnus O.J. Lima (C94) noted, the program imparts habits and skills that can be applied in just about any field.
I was always interested in business and politics, but when I got to college, my focus shifted, and I became more interested in books and writing, he said.
Lima is now the managing editor of Blaze, a new hip-hop magazine that launched in August. He said his LEAD experience has come in handy in his new position. I need to know how much money Im spending, how much I am able to spend, can I afford to hire another staffer, he said. Those skills I learned in the LEAD program never left me.
Originally published on September 2, 1999