Steven Rogers started Harvard Business School's first class featuring black business leaders this spring. (Courtesy of Harvard Business School)

After three decades of successful franchise ownership, Valerie Daniels-Carter, co-founder and chief executive of one of the country's largest food service franchise operators, was weighing a new business venture. Instead of adding another Burger King or Pizza Hut to her portfolio of 120-plus restaurants, should she invest in a national seafood chain and expand the dining options in urban communities? Or should she create new opportunities for other black entrepreneurs by starting her own restaurant franchise? Could she profit from both?

For the first time this spring, Harvard Business School students are learning about Daniels-Carter’s career — and those of other African American executives — in a new course focused exclusively on black entrepreneurship.

Less than 1 percent of the 10,000 case studies published by Harvard Business School feature black business leaders, said Steven Rogers, a former lampshade manufacturing executive who is teaching the course — even though black-owned businesses represent 9 percent of all U.S. firms.

The gap is evident in the first-year curriculum. Of the 300 case studies taught to first-year students at this top training ground for future business leaders, only two showcased black protagonists prior to this semester, Rogers said.

“We have a curriculum that is not inclusive. We’re like a doughnut with a big hole in the middle — the absence of black men and women who have had business success,” said Rogers, a 1985 Harvard Business School graduate who returned to Cambridge five years ago after teaching at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University for 17 years.

A new course from Senior Lecturer Steven S. Rogers explores 14 new case studies all with black protagonists, including Ebony Magazine and Johnson Publishing Chairman Linda Johnson Rice. (Harvard Business School)

“This is bigger than just the black students," he said. "Our non-black students need to see black brilliance as well, to counter the narrative out there that the only things black people can do is to entertain and play sports.”

So Rogers decided to write his own case studies, and has so far highlighted 14 black executives in a wide range of industries from fast-food franchises and publishing to venture capital and cybersecurity. Executives who, despite their success in the corporate world, are not household names, he said — “the hidden figures who have been ignored.” He chose them not only for their business acumen but also because they have used their monetary success to help lift their own communities.

Through these case studies — and the executives themselves who attend Rogers’s class in person or via Skype — students learn about unions and the labor movement, how private equity works, and how a company that manages affordable housing can remain profitable while serving the community.

Rogers had envisioned a small class of 25 students, but 45 registered. They include students from Harvard’s schools of law, divinity, design, engineering, government, as well as undergraduates. All of them are black, even though his syllabus specifically states “this course is not only for black students.”

“This is not a course about race, per se,” said Rogers, even though students discuss how executives' racial identity may inform their business decisions. “It’s about black businessmen and women dealing with everyday business problems.”

In Daniels-Carter’s case, the fast-food franchisee was trying to decide whether to branch out and become a franchiser.

The former college basketball star had turned down an opportunity to play professional ball to become a banker. She used her savings and an investment from her brother to open her first Burger King restaurant in her home town of Milwaukee in 1984, after the Rev. Jesse Jackson pushed the hamburger chain to increase African American participation in its business.

By 2016, her company, V&J Holding, owned more than 120 restaurants that made $90 million a year in revenue. Her franchises include Pizza Hut, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Coffee Beanery and — with co-owner and basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, the pretzel store Auntie Anne’s.

Daniels-Carter also helped fund a community center in Milwaukee, named in honor of her late mother, that houses a Boys and Girls Club, a credit union and an affordable health clinic.

“There are very few people in America who have done what Valerie has done, be they black or white,” Rogers said. African Americans make up just 3 percent of franchise owners, given barriers such as lack of knowledge about franchising and access to capital.

But Daniels-Carter said she felt driven by God to do more, seeing financial potential in the black communities of Milwaukee and Detroit and opportunities for others like her to follow in her footsteps. Would it be buying a seafood franchise? Or starting her own franchise with the frozen-yogurt store or soul-food restaurant she already owns?

Rogers's class debated the business merits of each option, as the professor outlined the pros and cons on the chalkboard. For 45 minutes, Daniels-Carter fielded questions via Skype to help students determine the best scenario.

There was no right answer. It was more important that students be able to go through their own analyses of the problem and explain the reasoning for their conclusions, Rogers said.


Students in Steven Rogers's black entrepreneurship class say it's valuable seeing business role models who look like them. Prior to this year, just two of the 300 case studies read by first-year Harvard Business School students featured black protagonists. (Courtesy of Harvard Business School)

Nkem Oghedo, a 26-year-old business school student, said she applauds Harvard’s decision to diversify the protagonists featured in case studies.

“It’s nice to see yourself reflected in successful business people, to see people like you who have broken these barriers,” said Oghedo, who will work in management consulting in New York upon graduating this spring. “One thing telling and a bit sad is I didn’t know most of these stories beforehand. I didn’t know Valerie Daniels-Carter’s name." 

Rogers said one of the reasons students are not exposed to a more diverse group of business leaders is because only 3 percent of the faculty at Harvard Business School are black, on par with the national average for black business school faculty but far below the ranks of black executives. (Five percent of the school’s graduates are black.)

Many of the case studies he’s written are about people from his own professional networks.

Nationally, African Americans are nearly three times as likely to serve as directors of the largest 200 S&P 500 companies than they are to teach in business schools, according to the PhD Project, a Montvale, N.J.-based nonprofit organization that focuses on increasing the diversity of business school faculty.

The impact of Rogers’s course could ripple far beyond Harvard, because business schools around the world purchase Harvard case studies. Rogers said he would gladly share his syllabus and course content with other business school professors. He has an upcoming meeting with a business school dean in the Washington area about replicating the course.

Rogers would also like to see his case studies integrated into the general curriculum taught by his Harvard Business School colleagues.

“Eventually the goal is to not even have a need for my course,” he said.

As for the question presented in Daniels-Carter’s case study on high growth entrepreneurship via franchising?

“The students thought it was an either-or answer. Actually, I ended up doing both,” Daniels-Carter said in an interview with The Washington Post.

She said she expects to soon close a deal on a seafood franchise. And she plans to create a franchise opportunity for entrepreneurs interested in her yogurt store as well as soul-food restaurant.

“There is a hesitancy sometimes to developing brands within urban markets because of the challenges involved,” she said, referring to higher operating costs such as increased insurance, repair and maintenance, and security.

But entrepreneurs can reap financial rewards as well as benefit the community, she said.

“Whether as a franchisee or franchiser, you can reflect to people who live in that community that you can be successful within your own territory,” Daniels-Carter said. “You can offer jobs and provide an economic base for a community.”