Terrill Drake ’01 was recently appointed the Harvard Business School’s first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. An innovator in higher education, Drake’s journey began in North Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the UNC Greensboro Bryan School of Business and Economics.
How did you find your way to UNC Greensboro?
I’m originally from Augusta, Georgia, and had moved to Asheville, North Carolina before middle school, so I had done a college tour across several states. I had seen all the big schools in North Carolina, and for me what was really important was not just being a number at a big institution. When I went to UNCG, and I had gone to a couple of the tour weekends, I just got a feeling I couldn’t explain. But it felt like UNCG was supposed to be home. It also didn’t hurt that I had some classmates and some good friends from other area high schools that were planning to attend UNCG as well.
Did you know exactly what you wanted to do right away?
Business was always in the back of my mind, but not initially to pursue as a degree. What I came to UNCG for, my initial path, was biology. I was thinking about dental school as a next step so my initial exposure to Bryan was through introductory business courses as electives.
Though science always interested me, I quickly realized biology/dentistry was not going to be the right career path for me. I felt like part of the undergraduate experience was supposed to invigorate that fire for what you want to pursue. As I mapped my courses for second semester freshman year, that passion was missing and I shifted to thinking about business. Prior to a conversation with an advisor, I hadn’t thought of business as a career necessarily but decided to switch. I thought studying business could provide lots of exciting opportunities.
It’s one thing to identify a career path that interests you, it’s another to find this kind of success on that path. Can you talk a little about the steps you took after leaving North Carolina?
My higher education career began in 2004. I’m closing in on 20 years. One of the fondest memories, as I look back on my time at UNCG, was my participation with the ambassadors, a student organization that hosted tours, alumni events, donor events, and worked closely with alumni staff. Those folks were really great and it seemed like a really awesome career getting to mobilize alumni in support of the university and provide alumni the opportunity to learn about what was happening on campus.
As I was looking for potential careers I knew Washington, D.C., was an area I always wanted to go to, but not for politics. I just loved the city itself. I happened upon an open position as an event coordinator at the University of Maryland Alumni Association. After about five months I was promoted to Director of Corporate and Community Events, and after several years of success with the alumni association, I was recruited to the business school, at Maryland, as the Director of Special Events within external relations. After an initial period of time, the dean spun my team off to not just plan alumni events but to plan all the events for the school as a part of a newly-established office.
In 2010, I started to be interested in a possible master’s degree program. After some initial research and discussions with my boss, my family, and others, I was encouraged to enroll in the executive MBA program. After starting the program in 2011, I began to explore possibilities for growth. The goal was not to leave but to look at possible career opportunities and plan for the next steps. You wouldn’t do yourself justice if you didn’t go through those motions. I received a promotion in 2011 during the program but still wanted to do more. As a result of coming out of that program, I had lots of conversations with the dean and vice dean, taking on additional projects related to branding, strategy, data and diversity, equity, and inclusion work. I worked closely with our vice dean and went on to establish and chair a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee. If you think about where we are at this point, this was in 2012 and 2013, and really ahead of the game thinking about inclusion to ensure people who were within our community of faculty, staff, and students felt welcomed. That’s not to say other institutions weren’t engaged in the work, but I feel really proud to have been one of the first movers in the space related to DEI work. We established an office of diversity initiatives and made DEI a priority of the institution.
And that led to how I was recruited to my current role as associate dean of strategic initiatives and head diversity officer at the Villanova School of Business (VSB). The VSB Dean was the former vice dean and my boss at Maryland. During her time at Maryland, we were able to develop a wonderful working relationship and worked closely on a number of initiatives. Once she left for her role as dean at the Villanova School of Business, we kept in touch, as she hoped she would be able to find a place for me at Villanova. Many of us may have heard that from bosses in our career but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll call. But she did call and said we may be able to create something great. I’d never had an interest in leaving D.C. but, I thought I should keep myself open to exploring opportunities. She created a role for me, an associate dean role, and becoming some sort of dean had been a goal of mine. I visited and fell in love with Villanova and I felt I was walking toward this new opportunity — it became this out-of-body experience. After landing the role of Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives, I had oversight of six areas, with diversity, equity, and inclusion being one of them. In 2020, we launched the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion after 18 months of planning and laying the groundwork.
What was your initial reaction to the news you’d been named Harvard Business School’s first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer?
This process actually started in late January, so it was about a six-month process. I entertained the initial conversation because it was Harvard, to be quite honest. Things were going really well at Villanova and we had a lot of work to do, but I wanted more information for two reasons. The first was, what is Harvard doing in this space? What can we learn? And secondly, you’d be crazy not to take a call for a potential opportunity at Harvard.
Throughout the process, I had the opportunity to interact with a number of stakeholders across the HBS community, which I felt was a good thing. Coming in as a change agent with the tall task of helping to change the culture around DEI, it was important for those stakeholders to have input into the decision.
When I learned I’d been selected, there were a lot of emotions. This, sort of, reaching a goal after working so hard to establish these initiatives at two really highly-ranked institutions was humbling. It was a little bit of pride, and not just my educational background and professional success, but my upbringing. The values I was raised on. Who I am as a person and the work I’ve done to ensure many voices are heard.
I was excited. Humbled. I thought, “Wow, an opportunity to take what I’d been doing and really move it to the next level.” At Harvard Business School, you have the ability to impact HBS, other business schools, industry, and higher education in general. I knew it would be an amazing opportunity to lead the charge. On the other hand, it was bittersweet. There were a lot of things we had going right at Villanova, a lot of plans we had, and I was working for someone I consider to be a mentor. You don’t get those opportunities often.
Have events from the past few years created a sense of urgency or impacted any of your career goals?
So from a personal perspective watching what was happening around the world, I felt we could be doing more and should be doing more in many ways. But what I experienced was there were more people ready to be a part of these conversations. Prior to 2020, and over the last few years, you have seen more non-marginalized, non-brown people who want to be part of these conversations. That has been a welcome change when we think about everyone’s responsibility to share in the work of DEI.
One of the most important things in thinking about the culture of institutions and our organizations is belongingness and making sure everyone is part of the conversation. It is also important to convey everyone’s responsibility to impact culture in a positive way for everyone else. As a result of increased racial tension in 2020, you had people thinking, “What am I doing, what am I not doing?” From an industry perspective and anti-racism work, if you’re not anti-racist and you’re apathetic, you’re racist to some extent. You can add that thinking to any marginalized people. If you’re not supporting, you’re supporting oppression, and what I think I’ve been especially grateful for is watching our majority populations want to be a part of this. It’s been exciting to watch and I love having conversations about responsibility and it’s certainly created a new sense of urgency. In the last year, our students have also spoken out in different ways about their experiences and we’ve heard them differently. They are holding us more accountable for the environments we create and we are committed to creating positive change.
I want to do whatever I can to help those who really want to be active in this work. There are so many elements of this work, inclusion work, belonging, anti-racism — one person can’t do it alone. So I’m enjoying watching these things begin to converge. Villanova has put resources behind it, Harvard Business School has also committed resources to anti-racism and DEI work, and I’m even more committed to the work and utilizing the vast amount of resources available to me to push this forward.
Do you have any advice for current students?
To remain open to opportunities beyond what you think you may want to do. Initially, I was set on dentistry and biology, but quickly asked: “Is this really what I want to do?” Which showed me that sort of open willingness to pause, take a step back and see what I was really interested in.
So, my advice would be, and what I’ve told myself throughout my career and what I’ve told countless other colleagues, team members and students is to remain open to opportunity.
That doesn’t mean you have to explore everything that comes your way. But, when you’re open and you find that something intrigues you, by all means, you should take the time to explore. If that intrigue builds as you explore, why not take a chance? There have been two things that have been pinnacles for me: being open to exploration and not being afraid to go in and build things. In a lot of these instances, I’d been the first to do the jobs I’ve done, using an entrepreneurial mindset to grow things from infancy to mature operations and not being afraid to do the hard work early on to net the success of that later. Hopefully, from building those things, you’ll find greater success in the middle of and toward the end of your career.