In his 14 years with Trans World Airlines, Roderick K. Gaines went from ticket agent to vice president of a district that generated $135 million annually. Three years ago, Gaines chose to abandon corporate America and become an entrepreneur. He now is developing a variety of products and, according to him, he is not alone in this trend.
"Black people are at an interesting point of their history," he says. "They now know their futures are not wedded to white corporations, and the opportunities are not there, either."
Indeed, echoes of this trend were heard repeatedly in Washington last week when the National Black Masters of Business Administration (MBA) Association, met here at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. Attracting hundreds of blacks in business, the group heard speeches by business and government representatives.
Gaines, addressing a panel on capital formation at the MBA conference, mentioned his reason for leaving the corporate world almost in an aside. "I was looking for growth opportunity, for more to do with my talent and energy," he says. "So I was willing to give up material security for the opportunity to grow." That sentiment turned out to be one of the recurrent informal themes of the conference.
"Increasingly," Leroy Nunnery, president-elect of the black MBAs, said in an interview, "we're 'getting divorced' [from corporations] at an earlier stage. Kids who go from undergraduate schools to graduate business schools will tell you with a high degree of certainty that they want to run their own businesses."
By any measure, the hundreds of men and women who attended last week's sessions are among the best and brightest -- many of them graduates of the country's large and small business schools. While a majority work in large corporations and have achieved a degree of success, many have moved out on their own.
"The opportunities are much more diverse and challenging as an entrepreneur," according to Suzette Garland, 39, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School. She worked for IBM, the Bell System and CBS. But when a management consultant opportunity arose a few years ago, she did not hesitate to leave her corporate job. She says she intends to leave the consulting field eventually, but only to take on yet another entrepreneurial venture.
In one sense, this trend results from a growing understanding of one of the realities of corporate America: Only the luckiest few blacks who make it into middle management in the first place can ever hope to rise to a level beyond assistant vice president or perhaps vice president.
But many other factors play a role in the trend, as well. In today's disinflationary economy, when pay increases will rarely rise above 6 percent, more corporate employes than ever will choose to "moonlight" to augment their incomes. Some people open franchises, others invest in real estate, while others create still other money-making interests. These activities often become stage one in a stairway to even fuller entrepreneurial activity.
Helping along the trend is the increasing numbers of dual-career professional couples. If the husband opts for an entrepreneurial venture, his wife's steady paycheck means the family's future won't be risked by his entrepreneurial ventures.
But there also is an element of uncertainty fueling the trend. While many blacks feel that a corporate safety net permits them to experiment on the outside, others say their confidence in corporate security has been shaken by the spate of mergers, acquisitions and leveraged buyouts. "As MBAs, we were taught to diversify our portfolio," says Nunnery. "Now we find we may need to diversity our life style portfolio, as well."
This trend toward independence is a good sign -- almost a revolutionary one. It is yet another indication that blacks at all levels are taking increasing responsibility for their lives. But these young entrepreneurs need to have a social consciousness and be concerned about the black poor, especially the youths, and their persistent problems. For they should not forget that it was the civil rights movement and blacks all over America that changed the climate and made this new progress possible. One of the highest dividends these businesses can pay is to hire and promote their own.
Nunnery understands this. He says that "giving something back" will become a focus during his two-year presidency of the black MBAs. "What we have to learn to do is develop a double vision, [to] look at our communities and our careers as almost one experience," he says, adding, "If you're not successful in your work, the community will die because you will have no money to give it. But if the community dies, you die, because you will have no roots."