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Anthony Wilbon: Building a Bold Future on a Storied Past

September 20, 2021

Anthony Wilbon assumed the role of dean of the Howard University School of Business in May 2020, less than two months after COVID-19 shut down the campus and the rest of the nation. Those were daunting circumstances, but Wilbon had an ace in the hole. “Fortunately, I was Associate Dean for a number of years,” Wilbon explains. “I know who to contact to get things fixed. I understand how things run here.”

Since arriving at Howard University in 2011, Wilbon has proven an effective administrator and fundraiser—but that’s hardly the extent of his talents. He’s also a respected researcher with more than 50 peer-reviewed publications and reports to his credit; his areas of expertise include strategic technology management, tech strategy, quantitative analysis, and entrepreneurship. He holds a Ph.D. in Management of Science, Technology, and Innovation from George Washington University and an MBA from—where else?—Howard School of Business.

Dr. Wilbon’s commitment to the transformative power of teaching and education is evident in the following interview, in which he discusses his vision for the business school’s future and the online MBA’s place in it. 

What are the keys to succeeding in Howard’s online MBA and EMBA programs?

Our expectations for the online students are the same as for our residency students. We expect you to work hard to complete the rigorous curriculum we provide. We expect you to come in prepared, meaning that you’re going to have the requisite background to do the work effectively. If you struggle, we’ll try to get you where you need to be as best we can. Our goal is to ultimately help you develop the business skill sets that allow you to launch or extend a successful career. 

Our intent is to try to create an environment in which all students can find a pathway to success. That means we need to be flexible and innovative in our approach to instruction. That’s why we entered this online space: to be proactive in creating dynamic environments for student learning and providing them with the support and resources to allow that to happen. We work with students to help them develop important competencies that will either jump start their current career or find another alternative that is going to lead to their achievement.

What resources do you offer students who aren’t entirely up to speed?

People often come to an MBA program from a variety of disciplines. We have people coming from engineering, the social sciences, arts, all over. They all want to pursue a career in business and are looking for graduate education to meet that goal. 

So, we have two choices. We can say, “This is where we start, and you need to figure out how to get here, so that everyone begins at the same place.” Or, we can provide you with proper advisement at the outset of the program. That advise could take the form of suggesting prerequisite courses to bring you up to speed. Most often, these courses are in quantitative areas. If you’re coming from the arts, you may never have taken a statistics class, or perhaps you haven’t reached the level of math needed to be successful in the business world. We’ll inform you of the courses you need to take because we know you’ll need them to succeed.

Howard launched its online MBA just as the COVID pandemic forced everyone to convert to online learning. Did that turn out to be a blessing or a complication?

A little bit of both. It helped us accelerate the pace of our transition to an online format. Fortunately, many of our faculty were comfortable teaching in that space because we’ve been moving in that direction for a while. We’ve had online classes previously because our EMBA program was launched on that modality, so we weren’t totally foreign to it. However, because everybody had to pivot very quickly to teach online once the pandemic hit, we needed to figure out how to do it faster and more efficiently than we had in the past. In the end, it was a benefit. It forced us to make it work right away instead of getting there at the pace we had planned.

What does Howard do to ensure that its online MBAs receive the same level of support that in-person students get?

Many students choose Howard for the Howard experience, which until now has been associated with being on campus. We are working hard to recreate that feeling for online students in other ways. For example, in the online Executive MBA program, we require a residency where students have to come to campus two or three times a year. 

We have traditionally held a weeklong orientation in which we invite graduate students to join us on campus. We couldn’t do that last year because of COVID, obviously, but this year we can. Still, due to the pandemic the orientations will likely be hybrid, and if you can’t make it to campus, we understand. The orientation is open to residency and online students. This experience gives students the chance to feel what it’s like to be a Howard student. Networking with students in your cohort and past online MBA colleagues, as well as with residency students, is an important part of gaining exposure to Howard’s business school. So is getting to meet faculty and staff face-to-face.

We’re exploring other ways to insert online students into our residency programs. For example, we have a Global Trilateral MBA program affiliated with universities in China and South Africa. It unites three international institutions to work together on various consulting projects. That’s a good fit for an online program because so much of it is done virtually. Participants meet three times a year on the various continents, and online students could participate in the travel as well. We have other similar programs, and we’re working to integrate online students into those also.

The school business recently announced a new $3 million chair of finance and entrepreneurship. You’re also joining a $90 million initiative to promote careers in the alternative investment industry. How do these developments impact the online business programs?

Anytime you enhance the faculty, that will positively impact all the students, regardless of the platform in which they learn. Bringing in an endowed chair of finance and entrepreneurship represents a significant upgrade to the faculty. We plan for that position to go to someone with a specialization in venture capital and private equity, which is an essential need for us as we extend our curriculum into areas of alternative investments. If we build a set of courses around finance or entrepreneurship, we expect the endowed chair to bring real-world experiences and cases to drive content there.

The $90 million grant from Apollo Global Management, Ares Management Corporation, and Oaktree Capital Investment funds, in collaboration with Morehouse, Spellman, and Clark Atlanta and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, is a curriculum-building process for a financial literacy training program. Students will learn alternative investment skill sets through that opportunity as well. These aren’t typically taught in baseline finance education, and we plan to build a specialty for our students to learn more about it. Private equity, investment banking and wealth management are areas where we want to create a pipeline of students from Howard to firms that have not traditionally recruited here. 

You’re only the fourth Dean in the school’s 50-year history. Where do you hope to take the School of Business? What is your long-term vision?

My vision is to help us refocus, revitalize and innovate.

We’ve done a lot of things very well for a long time. But there are alternative ways to diversify students’ opportunities. I’ll give you an example. Howard’s business school has been very good at creating opportunities for students in the corporate world. We’ve been doing it well for years. We have an alumni base who are in almost every sector of the business world and in the highest leadership positions. 

However, one of the things we could do better is to identify opportunities for students who may not want to be part of the traditional corporate structure. They might want to go into nonprofit management, or government, or explore different entrepreneurial ventures.  My goal is to create a variety of options and access for students in our business school so they can explore their interests and leave prepared to go after any of their goals.

We’re also looking at expanding our curriculum around things like music business, data analytics technology infrastructure, and other areas. For instance, we recently received a major grant from the Marriott Foundation to create a Center for Hospitality leadership, so we’re building up that program. We also got funding from Warner Music and the Blavatnik Foundation to create a Center for Music Business. Sports management is another area we’d like to develop. 

My goal is to expand our scope of offering for students who want to consider non-traditional business career paths.

Howard is the nation’s preeminent HBCU. What is the role of the HBCU in the 21st century?

If we start with the dynamic history of Howard and all HBCUs, the missions always have been to provide opportunities to students of color who would not necessarily have had them otherwise. Howard was founded as a historically black college by the federal government to provide newly freed slaves educational opportunities. It was first led by a Civil War general who ran the U.S. government’s Freedmen’s Bureau. As people were trying to integrate into the population as freed slaves, Howard was one space where they could come to be educated and launch themselves into careers. Over the years, our missions remain the same, that is to provide excellence in education to underserved populations who want a safe space to learn and grow and succeed. The challenging social, political and economic environments our students face today makes our work just as relevant as it ever was.

Many of our students come from underprivileged backgrounds and demonstrate a high capacity for academic success, but many do not have the financial resources to attend certain institutions in this country. Howard and other HBCUs are places that have traditionally found ways to help the most vulnerable, yet high achieving, students find a way to receive higher education. These students can come into these places and feel comfortable in who they are and we can provide them, not only the financial assistance, but also the social infrastructure that can make them feel comfortable in learning and growing.

That’s what we do well and what we’ve always done. That’s not to say that our other partner and sister institutions cannot do the same thing, but it’s a much more difficult challenge to structurally adjust their environments to provide the support for students that need it the most. African Americans, for example, find themselves at some schools where they’re less than five percent of the general population and have to navigate not only the academic and the financial stresses of being in college but also the social constructs that are not always welcoming. Sometimes, even, it’s intimidating. 

To be in a space where you don’t have to deal with that and have a comfortable environment and a culture you know, and that knows you, allows you to thrive academically. There are many things in play in today’s world that make the dynamics I mentioned a reality for our students. For example, the issues of social justice and policing and all the things that we’re dealing with in this country, such as the leadership challenges at the national level, implicit racism and biases, the dynamics of globalism, and what’s happening with ever-changing technology trends is more of a mental strain and pressure on this generation of students than some realize. That all maintains a space for HBCUs to provide a very specific educational process that other schools have a hard time creating.

Why should students be excited about studying business online at Howard University?

Howard University is a very special and unique place. We have a very long history of having a major impact across all disciplines—for example, a good number of African American dentists and doctors in the country have some affiliation to Howard’s programs. Our law school is renowned for all the things it has done over the years, and continues to do, in civil rights and social justice. The business school has been just as significant. It has opened doors to place students in some of the largest corporations in the world and diversified the management levels across the globe. In the context of today’s environment, Howard University School of Business provides students with the opportunity and the access to create significant diversity and inclusion in C-suites and boardrooms. We expect our graduates to continue to lead and be the voice of change in an ever-evolving business world.

The Howard experience allows you to step into the corporate world with a great deal of confidence to share your thoughts about how corporate strategies could be viewed from a different lens. Hopefully, you’ll be reshaping the culture of these organizations, demonstrating that all people can contribute to a greater bottom line for a company.

Creating global leaders of tomorrow is our role. I think that’s exactly what we’ve been formulated to do since our founding, and we’ve done it well for a very long time. Regardless of whether you come in as an online student or residency student, we expect you to make an impact in the only way a Howard graduate can.

Highly ranked by Bloomberg BusinessWeek and U.S. News & World Report, Howard University School of Business was the first business school in Washington, D.C., to earn AACSB accreditation. Its 100% online program delivers the same excellent academics and career support for which the school is renowned, but with the added convenience of remote learning. The school’s location in the nation’s capital helps it attract world-class scholars with real-world experience in business, entrepreneurship, government, and nonprofit management. Howard graduates benefit from one of the nation’s most active alumni networks boasting connections in corporate boardrooms and executive suites worldwide. If you have at least two years of professional experience and a Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited university, you may qualify for admission to this prestigious program. Intrigued? You can request more information about Howard’s Online MBA program or, better yet, start your application today.

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