Through the human thicket of 30,000 accomplished women packed into the Atlanta Convention Center in 2016, I had found Hettie Simmons Love—an honoree at the Alpha Kappa Alpha annual boule. As the nation’s most prominent Black sorority, the AKAs typically attract an impressive array of women who span the generations. What was exceptional about Ms. Simmons Love wasn’t the award she was receiving, but rather the heft of a particular accomplishment cited in her introduction: Wharton MBA Class of 1947.
In that jarring moment, my past and future collided. There she stood, pint-sized and proud, as she walked to the podium—with only the assistance of a cane—to speak about her remarkable life. I couldn’t imagine the pressure she had endured as one of the first African-Americans to graduate from the world’s preeminent business school. I was witnessing a trailblazer, a Rosa Parks, an academic ancestor. In the same year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Hettie Simmons Love made her own history by graduating from Wharton—opening the door for both minorities and women in the study of business management.
At that sorority convocation, Hettie spoke with wit, perspicacity and an endearing sense of common sisterhood, but it was through her resonating strength that I recognized myself as standing on her shoulders. And I understood that all my fellow alumni of color, both immediate and remote, did so as well. Before I had discovered this pioneer, I already had found sufficient motivation to promote and support my alma mater. Yet hearing her life story yanked me back to the present with heightened determination to perpetuate her legacy by continuing to create a minority presence in that incubator where both our journeys began—The Wharton School.
But there was some detective work to do. Wharton archivists validated the 94-year-old as among the first African-Americans, regardless of gender, to graduate from the MBA Program. It is important to note, however, that many schools did not catalogue the race and ethnicity of their students as a standard practice before the 1960s. While it is possible that others may have come before her, it is highly unlikely based on a search of available records. And as I dove deeper into Hettie’s story, I realized that we had parallel paths, albeit 40-plus years apart.
Besides the obvious comparison that we were both short in stature and had to maneuver in a male-dominated world, we also both attended historically black colleges: Hettie attended Fisk University, and I attended Florida A&M University, which coincidentally is located near Jacksonville, Florida, where she was born. And, of course, we are both AKAs. Likewise, we both were valedictorians. Hettie attributed her decision to apply to Wharton to her mother’s strong encouragement. Mine offered the same encouragement, if not an outright push. Each of us also had a transformative experience at Wharton.
Regarding her time in graduate school, Hettie spoke to me about the uncomfortable world outside of Locust Walk. Coming from the Jim Crow South, still feeling the economic and sociopolitical constraints of a country divided by segregation, she felt that Wharton had truly opened its doors to her. Not only was she the sole Black student in the program, she was also one of only two women in the class. Undaunted, she summoned Southern grit and her intellectual horsepower and, fortunately, was judged at Wharton not by the color of her skin, but only by the accuracy of her accounting analyses.
Hettie recalls three Jewish men who invited her to join their study group during her first semester. Those classmates didn’t deem her academically inferior because she was Black or a woman. They didn’t traffic in the stereotypes that limited interaction between the sexes and races. They simply accepted her as a fellow student who was smart enough to earn admission. To this day, she told me, “I wonder what happened to those three kind men.” And having heard that anecdote, I can easily imagine that her tenure at Wharton could have been entirely different if she hadn’t formed those friendships.
In retrospect, my time at Wharton in the late 80s mirrored Hettie’s in some ways. As one of 32 African-Americans and 11 women of color, I felt challenged by the academic rigor, yet found a welcoming home among peers. I felt encouraged by my ability to do the work and the potential I possessed as one of a very privileged few selected to join a great academic community. Although these parallels allowed me to see myself in Hettie, it was our respective paths after Wharton where the similarities ended. As a graduate in 1990, I was able to pursue a career that fully utilized my studies; she was not. That divergence of outcomes was the unfortunate indictment of race relations in post-World War II America.
Hettie spoke sanguinely about her myriad difficulties finding a job, even though she carried the Wharton pedigree. In contrast, I was able to take full advantage of my Wharton credentials, its network and its resources. Nevertheless, one motivation endures for the two of us: We are both committed to a robust minority presence at the Wharton School.
That brings us to the present—with an active vision of the future. In the service of the Wharton MBA Admissions team, those unsung gatekeepers of this global institution, I host an event in my brownstone in Harlem to celebrate African-American graduates and allow accepted minority applicants to socialize with alumni of color. This past April, our honored guest was that same Hettie Simmons Love. Attendees networked while Hettie held court in the parlor, with a pianist setting the mood. Her smile was echoed in the laughter and enjoyment of alumni meeting newly-admitted candidates. Old friends exchanged pleasantries and hugs; classmates who hadn’t seen each other in three decades reconnected with surprise and nostalgia.
However, at the peak of the festivities, the music softened and the crowd quieted. After introductory comments, Hettie was escorted to the front of the audience. Taking my hand for support, she spoke with the same wit that had first caught my attention. “Oh my goodness,” she said with a demure grin. “When I was walking the halls of Wharton, I never saw this many Black folks.”
As a proud member of the class of 1990, I am focused on diversity at the school, from the class of 2020 and beyond. Although there were more African-American students in my class than those of some previous years, the community remains small but tightly knit. Yet, our numbers have grown progressively. It has been my personal mission to assist the MBA Admissions Office with expanding that community in a competitive talent-recruitment market. My pursuits led me to uncover Hettie—a diamond honed by the pressures of the incessant, and often tortured, struggle of Blacks for advancement in the American economy. With a nod to the Hollywood movie about the unsung heroes of NASA’s space program, I uncovered a “hidden figure” of our own.
I thank Hettie Simmons Love for paving the way for countless women and men who came after her. Wharton shared my vision and we honored Hettie at the school’s annual Whitney M. Young Conference in December 2016. 70 years after she earned her degree, Hettie was still a source of inspiration for the alumni who gathered in my home in April.
So what should Hettie Simmons Love mean to all Whartonites, regardless of their ethnicity? She should serve as a model of perseverance in the face of difficulty. She should serve as an example of the power of hard work and academic excellence. She should inspire pride that the school surmounted the pressures of a racist and sexist America to embrace a talented, gifted woman.
When I met Hettie for the first time in Atlanta and suggested that Wharton should honor her, she was reluctant. “I didn’t do anything with my degree,” she told me. Her humble words were both heartbreaking and motivating. Those of us blessed to come of age in a more enlightened America know that Hettie Simmons, a Wharton MBA and accounting major, would have been an asset to any corporation. Only the racial and gender barriers of her generation held her back from achieving success, at least by traditional standards. In the end, by paving the way for women and minority professionals, what Hettie did was far greater than anything measured by a corporate balance sheet or a resume.
Lana Woods WG90, formerly Lana Williams, concentrated in finance and real estate at Wharton. After a post-graduate career in management consulting and the financial services sector, Woods left a position as Vice President for International Acquisitions & Business Development with GE Capital Services to pursue her passion for the fine arts. She launched the Lana Woods Gallery, which represents a distinguished array of African-American artists whose works hang in the world’s great museums. Her passion for the visual arts was nearly equaled by her support for various causes and non-profit institutions, including The Wharton School. For eight years, Woods has partnered with Wharton’s MBA Admissions office to host a reception for newly-admitted candidates of Wharton’s MBA program and punctuated the event with the popular Alumni Soiree.
Published as “Wharton’s Own ‘Hidden Figure’” in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Wharton Magazine.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article identified Hettie Simmons Love as Wharton’s first African-American MBA alumnus. Although she had at least one predecessor, her legacy as a trailblazer endures.