BBSF Conference Focuses on Transformational Leadership
By Dave Hendrick
Tawana Burnett (MBA ’04) called her two years at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business an experience that gave her the tools and confidence to manage the brands of iconic consumer goods and, more recently, make a career shift to the tech world.
Keynoting the 28th annual Black Business Student Forum (BBSF) Conference, Burnett, now a global client partner at Facebook, spoke to the audience about the power of an MBA, embracing what may scare you and finding one’s unique professional talents.
The BBSF conference, titled Innovation, Investment, Ownership: Becoming a Transformational Leader, brought together more than 150 undergraduate students from multiple historically black colleges and universities, and included sessions on education, impact investing, entrepreneurship and improving the pipeline for underrepresented minorities in business schools.
Burnett, a native of Brooklyn, New York, said she never envisioned coming to a school like Darden, noting a lack of precedence among her peers and family when it came to pursuing an MBA. When the former English literature major completed her time at Darden, however, Burnett said she felt both personally and professionally transformed.
“My world was opened up in ways I could not have imagined,” Burnett said.
Although she had experience in the business world as an entrepreneur prior to Darden, Burnett emerged from the School with a marketing focus, and began working on well-known brands such as Listerine, Advil and ChapStick, among others.
The consistent thread running through her post-Darden marketing career has been innovation, Burnett said, and while the incremental innovation among consumer health products was satisfying, Facebook offered the opportunity to delve into a world of “disruptive” innovation.
Reflecting on her own journey to Darden, Burnett encouraged the undergraduates to think big when it came to plotting a professional vision for themselves, noting that — with the benefit of hindsight — she may have changed her path.
“Instead of just looking at the job I wanted to get, or the industry, I would have thought about the problems I wanted to solve, the types of companies I wanted to work for and the people I wanted to meet,” Burnett said. “Once I got here and realized what I could achieve, it felt limitless at that point, but I would have been thinking even bigger before I got to Darden.”
As potential future black business leaders, Burnett told the students to be aware of the unique and valuable perspectives they would bring to future classrooms or in their working lives, noting her own experience of sometimes being one of the few, or sometime the only, minority voice in the classroom or boardroom.
“I think about, and continue to acknowledge, the different point of view I bring in any organization that I go into,” Burnett said. “I’ve learned to appreciate my voice. I’ve learned to speak up as an unapologetically African-American business leader.”
Following her address, the BBSF presented Burnett with the 2016 Luminary Alumni Award.
The undergraduates also received personal and professional encouragement and advice from Dean Scott Beardsley; Professors Greg Fairchild, Elena Loutskina, Melissa Thomas-Hunt; and the UVA Curry School of Education’s Jennifer Chiu.
Welcoming the students to the all-day conference, Beardsley touted the value of education and personal enrichment, and noted the broad applicability of an MBA.
“We hope that some of you will decide that the way you’re going to make your difference in the world is to pursue business education,” Beardsley said. “You can go on from there to any industry, any nonprofit and almost any sector you can dream of. They all need great managers, and they all need people who know how to make a difference.”
Beardsley added, “It’s a wonderful way to invest in yourself.”
Beardsley encouraged the students to pursue a diverse course load and skill set, even if certain subjects appeared outside of comfort areas.
“You need to be able to do some quantitative analysis and you also need to be able to express yourself in writing and verbally,” Beardsley said. “Balance yourself.”
Thomas-Hunt, who was recently named Darden’s global chief diversity officer, concluded the day’s programming by helping the students “unpack” the conference themes of innovation, investment and ownership, asking how the concepts could be lived and put into practice to achieve transformational leadership.
Becoming a transformational leader involves having a vision, certainly, but also facilitating the development of others, developing the self-awareness to understand personal strengths and weaknesses and recognizing avenues for collaboration, Thomas-Hunt said.
“We have to know that there are disparate pools of knowledge that we’re going to try and leverage in transforming the world and transforming our organizations,” Thomas-Hunt said. ”When we step back and say, ‘How do we transform the world?’ we become transformational leaders.”
Deeming the students “our future global leaders,” Thomas-Hunt encouraged conference-goers to “hold high expectations for yourself.
“We’re counting on you,” Thomas-Hunt said.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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