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Harry L. Williams is the president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the largest organization exclusively representing the Black college community.

When companies announce a commitment towards achieving more corporate diversity, what do they really mean?

For too many young African-Americans, these commitments seem more like empty promises. To date, there have only been 14 Black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, and according to Fortune, there are just three in 2019. So how can corporations remove barriers and create access for emerging, multicultural leaders?

Since 1987, Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) has prepared and identified students at 47 publicly supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to thrive in the business sector. When Hennessy, the world's best-selling Cognac, approached TMCF with an innovative idea involving HBCU graduate students, especially those earning MBA degrees – there was an immediate organizational alignment to improve the current corporate narrative. Together, TMCF and Hennessy conceived the Hennessy Fellows program with the goal of building a pipeline of diverse corporate leaders from HBCUs.

The Hennessy Fellows initiative is the latest example of Hennessy's commitment to supporting African-American communities. In 1794, Hennessy arrived in the U.S. and has consistently demonstrated a progressive vision to amplify multicultural voices since. As an early supporter of the Tuskegee Institute and the first corporate sponsor of the NAACP, the brand continues to champion those who “Never stop. Never settle.” with its new fellowship program in partnership with TMCF.

Yet, ascending to the highest levels of corporate leadership requires having access to more than just an ivy-league education. African-American leaders need opportunities to learn development skills, build their network, develop business acumen, and gain tangible professional experiences. Not to mention, the unspoken corporate rules that many HBCU students don’t have ready access to. Hennessy Fellows is designed to unlock the C-Suite’s secrets by equipping leaders with access and mentorship.

To see our success, we often seek someone who looks like or can relate to us; especially African-American students, who often desire mentors who resonate on both a cultural and personal level. With approximately 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies offering formal mentorship programs, corporate America has embraced the idea, but are these programs effective?

The inaugural cohort of Hennessy Fellows is comprised of 10 MBA students from HBCUs, who were recently invited to New York City to engage with executive leaders at Hennessy and other national corporations as part of the program. The intensive Boot Camp welcomed students from Florida A&M University, Howard University, North Carolina A&T State University and Morgan State University. The results? Fellows built strong relationships and were made to feel validated, supported and championed in their individual career trajectories. 

Beyond mentorship, the Hennessy Fellows program aims to increase the number of African-Americans in corporate leadership through financial assistance. To achieve this, Hennessy has pledged $10 million to TMCF that will extend over the next decade, providing students with up to $20,000 per academic year, a $10,000 annual stipend for educational expenses, as well as VIP access to various professional networking events. 

Unlike their counterparts, student loan debt weighs more heavily on students of color, which can often present barriers for things like applying for unpaid internships or frequenting professional events. An estimated 86.8 percent of Black students borrow federal student loans to attend four-year public colleges, as opposed to 59.9 percent of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Hennessy Fellows seeks to offset these financial burdens – focusing on graduate-level candidates who don’t have as many financial assistance opportunities – with an investment designed to maximize students' full potential across educational, professional and personal pursuits. 

Over the next decade, Hennessy and TMCF will continue to provide the tools, knowledge, and insight necessary to change the trajectory of minorities in Corporate America. And together, our organizations have the unprecedented opportunity to diversify the talent landscape and make an immeasurable impact. 

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