Inspiration and progress were centerpieces of the 24th annual conference held Nov. 18 by Columbia's Black Business Students Association (BBSA), which connects current and prospective business students with industry leaders.
"Our overarching goal was for people to be motivated and inspired," said Angela Butler, an '06 business student who co-chaired the conference. Close to 400 registered for this year's gathering, entitled "Completing the Picture: Find Your Piece of the Puzzle."
The BBSA is Columbia's second largest club, with about 70 business school students of color.
Butler said that Al Sharpton, the morning's keynote speaker, fit in with the conference aims because he delivers a message of "who we are, where we came from, where we are now and where we should be 50 years from now."
Sharpton urged his audience of about 100 to honor Rosa Parks and her generation of civil rights leaders and to strive to leave an even more impressive legacy. He also railed against those in today's generation who "think an uneven playing field is an excuse not to play."
"Even if you're not responsible for being down, you're responsible for getting back up," Sharpton said, acknowledging that discrimination still exists but challenging his audience not to let that stand in their way.
"I didn't live my life based on what I didn't have, I lived my life based on what I did have," he said, referring to his own experience as a church and community leader to illustrate his point.
John Clendenin, founder, president and CEO of the St. Louis-based Inner Circle Logistics Inc., gave the lunchtime keynote address, sponsored by American Express. Like Sharpton, he stressed the need for determination to overcome obstacles. Quoting Marcus Aurelius as saying that "what we do in life, echoes in eternity," he urged his listeners to strive for success -- and to consider clearly what constitutes success for each of them.
"It's up to each of us to define the standards we are willing to strive for," he said, pointing out that money should be only one part of the equation. "You must be the change you want to see."
The conference also included eight panels with distinguished speakers discussing topics ranging from "Emerging Markets: The Rise of the Caribbean and Latin America" to "Building Wealth: Creating a Legacy for Generations." In the evening, conference participants had the opportunity to meet top players from several of the day's corporate sponsors, including Goldman Sachs, UBS, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and Citigroup, at a corporate reception -- an event less formal than the career fair the conference held in years past.
"We wanted a more intimate setting," Butler explained. "We want people to connect, to establish relationships, and to reconnect," she said, pointing out that many of the same people attend the conference year after year.
The day's activities concluded with a gala reception and dinner with keynote remarks by Dennis Kimbro, author of Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice and Daily Motivations for African-American Success, followed by entertainment from soul artists Musiq Soulchild and Eric Roberson.