As part of the 40th Annual Alfred L. Edwards Conference and Celebration, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, scholar, social activist, author and reverend, gave the keynote address to a crowd in the Ross School of Business Friday evening.

Lecture attendees included current Business students, potential students, alumni and guests.  

Dyson’s talk covered a wide range — he jumped from sharing an anecdote about receiving a call from O.J. Simpson to discussing the significance of race in professional athletes’ reputations, dropping names like Cam Newton and Serena Williams, to political responsibility in Flint, Michigan. His stories were often punctuated with bits of humor and song — from belting a line from Adele’s “Hello” to sharing a few lyrics from classic hip-hop songs. The lecture, however, mainly focused on the relationship between business and social movements and a legacy of leadership, which was the theme of the conference.

The Detroit native had a lot to say about the importance of being authentic in business and social movements; he cited himself as an example.

“I’ve got to be who I am, talk like I do, cite some blues lyrics, some Shakespeare, some hip-hop, some great poetry, some Black preaching, some country music — which I love very greatly — and that is who am and that is why I am comfortable doing what I do and expressing the full range of my identity as much as my gifts will allow me,” Dyson said.

Dyson also talked about the importance of knowing how to “code switch” as a person of color in the business world and shared with the audience advice he gave to his own son. Code switching refers to when a speaker alternates between two different forms of speech, which can mean either switching dialects or languages.

“When you’re working in business you’ve got to be the most noble sellout you know how to be,” he said.

He emphasized that he didn’t want to overstate the importance of race, noting that people are diverse in many ways, but said individuals shouldn’t be afraid to be who they are, even in professional situations.

“There is something to be said for coming from a society where the experiences of our culture have been limited according to artificial barriers like race, class, sexual orientation and gender and the like,” Dyson said. “So at the end of the day it makes a difference, and yes, business does have a role to play in the distribution of justice and the application of it, both in a board room, both in the corporate culture, and in the broader society that those corporations or businesses or conglomerates or startups affect.”

Victor Olowu, a Chicago resident attending the conference, said he thought that Dyson was amazing, albeit unconventional, and he felt he took a lot away from the talk. Olowu was especially impacted by Dyson’s story of General Motors’ actions in the Flint water crisis, where the company switched from Flint River water back to Lake Huron water in Oct. 2014 due to fear of its corrosion, much before the city itself changed its water supply a year later. The initial change to Flint river water occurred in April 2014. 

“Businesses should make their stance on ethical issues known, regardless of the financial consequences,” Olowu said. “Companies should think about the communities around them and how their actions affect them.”

The annual conference is hosted by the Black Business Students Association and is the longest-running student-led conference on campus. Business senior Giancarlo Moise, who is a member of the BBSA, said he felt that the conference was important to business students because they were able to get advice from individuals with a range of experiences.

“(The speakers) have met so many influential people throughout their life — they had been shaped by so many different things, and we can experience that by listening to them,” he said.

Business senior Christian Abney, who is also a member of BBSA, said the student organization and the conference have had a profound impact on his educational experience.

“Especially the MBA is much more than a classroom experience,” Abney said. “It’s the different people that you’re meeting, the different groups that you are involved in, the different cultures that you’re exposed to and bringing that into business.”

Moise agreed that the cross-cultural experience was an important part of business school for himself and for his peers.

“I thought it was powerful that many of our classmates who weren’t African American were there sitting next to us,” he said. “BBSA has had an impact outside of just students of color within the Ross community. When our dean, Alison Davis-Blake, talked about the Black Lives Matter vigil, that was powerful for all of us, and that was powerful because it wasn’t just the BBSA students that were there — everyone stood up in solidarity for that movement.”

Both students said they thought the talk was inspiring and made them more optimistic about finding ethical companies to work for post-graduation.

“To a certain degree, business needs to lead a lot of change, because business is given a platform,” Abney said. “Especially for successful businesses — it’s just like anything else, if you are a celebrity, or a politician or an athlete, you are given a platform and a means to reach people in order to create some type of change.”


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