Gratitude, greatness and groove at the 20th annual Celebration of African American Alumni Achievement
The Foster School’s 20th Celebration for African American Alumni Achievement was just that—a joyous celebration, beginning in song and ending in dance.
The in-between was just as jubilant, too. At this annual event, established in 2003 by the late Foster Professor Thaddeus H. Spratlen, nearly 300 students, alumni, partners and friends gathered in a spirit of fellowship and inspiration. Among them were Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and his wife, Joanne Harrell (BA 1976, MBA 1979), the Foster School’s current Fritzky Visiting Chair in Leadership.
Together, the audience cheered remarkable Foster student scholars Solyana Tesfai and Bob Agiro, and lauded the recipients of the 2023 Spratlen Legacy and Emerging Leader Awards, Clyde Walker and Esther Uduehi.
Cee Adamson, a UW doctoral candidate in voice performance, launched the proceedings with a soaring rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem.
Taking the stage to introduce the night’s honorees, Michelle Purnell-Hepburn (BA 1979, MBA 1982), the Foster School’s new associate dean for inclusion and diversity (and 2021 recipient of the Spratlen Legacy Award), required a moment to take it all in. “I just need to take a look at you,” she said, beaming at the assembly standing before her across a packed HUB ballroom. “What a beautiful site.”
That site included many current Foster students. The event’s emcees were Olivia Garcia, the vice president of diversity in the MBA Association and a member of Foster’s Graduate Student Diversity Committee, and Abdul Ali, the co-president of Black @ Foster.
Also on hand were the recipients of two prestigious Foster scholarships.
Solyana Tesfai was awarded this year’s Association of Black Business Students (ABBS) Scholarship. Tesfai, a marketing major at Foster, is a Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America scholar and a Management Leadership for Tomorrow career fellow. The youngest of five children in a family that emigrated from Eritrea to the US through a lottery system, she remarked that “money has always been at the forefront of the barriers I feel when I’m dreaming of my future. The ABBS Scholarship has allowed me to dream bigger by providing me with some financial stability this year. And being a recipient from my own community at Foster has encouraged me to continue amplifying my voice and to continue being an agent of change.”
Bob Agiro received this year’s African American Heritage Endowed MBA Scholarship. With a bachelor’s degree in aviation and a master’s degree in systems engineering, the Kenya-born Agiro works to advance aircraft reliability at Boeing as he finishes his Foster Evening MBA—and engages other Black and minority engineers through affinity groups that encourage growth and advancement. He is an Ascend Fellow at Foster.
Agiro said that the scholarship signifies that there are “people who care about the experiences I’m having. It means that there are people who understand what I’m going through and willing to understand that, at some point, someone like me probably needs resources to get through a certain hurdle. It really means a lot to have that recognition and to have the support that comes from this community.”
Speaking of community, Dean Frank Hodge offered examples of new initiatives at the Foster School designed to “enable and amplify opportunity for those who have not traditionally enjoyed opportunity in our society.”
In other words, to expand its impact on DEI progress nationwide.
One is the Inclusive Product Management Accelerator, created to bring new talent into the product management space. In the two years since it was founded, the project has raised over $1 million and recruited marquee corporate partners such as Microsoft, Salesforce, T-Mobile and Starbucks. It received 3,600 applicants from across the nation and accepted 234 fellows in its first cohorts. Hodge added that 90% of fellows are professionals of color, 60% are Black, and 70% are women. And half of the initial cohort are newly employed in product management roles.
The second initiative is The Tenure Project, co-founded by Esther Uduehi, an assistant professor of marketing at Foster. The Tenure Project is designed to welcome and engage Black, Latinx and Native junior faculty in programs, events, dialogue and mentoring that addresses important issues facing them as they strive to earn tenure.
The goal of diversifying business faculties is challenging. Hodge reported that only 155 Black, Latinx and Native junior faculty are currently employed across all US business schools. The good news is that 106 of them participated in the inaugural Tenure Project Conference, hosted by the Foster School last summer. The project—and the pipeline—is growing. The Tenure Project has attracted a long list of powerful partners, including the Wharton School, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, USC, UCLA, Michigan and many more.
“This has become a movement,” Hodge said.
One of the chief architects of this movement is Esther Uduehi, recipient of the 2023 Emerging Leader Award.
A former Rhodes Scholar, Uduehi has accomplished much in the early days of her academic career. Her inclusive and accessible teaching of the undergraduate core marketing class earned her a place in the Poets & Quants “Top 50 Undergraduate Professors of 2022.” Her research on identity, stereotyping and diversity has won many awards, including the Association for Consumer Research Best Working Paper and the AMA Valuing Diversity Award. And, of course, she co-founded The Tenure Project with Wendy de la Rosa of the Wharton School.
Uduehi recalled the vivid loneliness of wrapping up her doctorate work in spring of 2020, just as the world was becoming “uncertain and undone,” and wondering where she would end up. “Like many people, I was sad and afraid, and just hoped to make it through the scariness,” she said. “Because of this, I feel so grateful for this moment. When I felt alone, I dreamed of days when we could be together again. It means the world to me to know that I’m at an organization that sincerely cares. I’m so grateful for this award, and even more grateful for our time together.”
Gratitude was also top of mind for Clyde Walker, recipient of the 2023 Spratlen Legacy Award.
“What we as Black people have that’s most important is our name,” he said. “And to have my name associated with the Spratlen family is a great honor… I’ve been blessed with a community of special people that have loved me, supported me, and kept it real over numerous decades. Professor Spratlen was an important part of that community.”
Of course, Walker has built up his own immense family name, and created enormous value in his community.
After landing a series of internships at the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory while studying at Foster in the mid-1970s, he forged a trailblazing career as an HR leader in the aerospace industry and then at Continental Mills (now the Krusteaz Company). He currently chairs the board of First Choice Health and serves as Sire Archon (president) of Alpha Omicron Boule of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity. At the UW, he chairs the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee of the UW Foundation Board and is a past president of the UW Alumni Association Board of Trustees. He also serves on the Foster School Advisory Board, advises its Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking, and has been instrumental in helping the school create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive learning community.
“As a tribute to Professor Spratlen,” Walker remarked in closing, “I encourage everyone in this room to find a purpose that’s greater than yourself, both personally and professionally. His lasting message to me was that service is critical. And while leadership is a skill and capability, it is more importantly a responsibility. We have a responsibility to lead, to support, to uplift. But we also have a responsibility to be honest, to keep it real, and make sure that things are better for those who follow us.”
In that spirit, the multigenerational gathering was encouraged to engage in small group discussions and offer advice for the futures of Black students at Foster.
And then, as DJ Anzo turned up the volume and turned down the lights, the evening’s networking broke out into joyous, spontaneous dancing, just in front of the stage. A most celebratory ending to a memorable evening of celebration.
-Photography by Paul Gibson.
This year’s Celebration of African American Alumni Achievement raised nearly $80,000 to support the Association of Black Business Students Scholarship and African American Heritage MBA Endowed Scholarship.
Equal Opportunity Schools
Clark Nuber PS
The Celebration of African American Alumni Achievement featured the following local Black-owned businesses:
Black Box Gifts – The Ally League
Ill Will Media
Lanier’s Fine Candies
Métier Brewing Company
Miss Marjorie’s Steel Drum Plantains
Rain City Catering