Thousands of talented Black students have attended Columbia Business School in the past century, shaping the history of the School and the broader business community with their accomplishments and influence.
In the beginning, though, there was just one woman.
Theodora Fonteneau Rutherford, a Louisiana-born summa cum laude graduate of Howard University, was Columbia Business School’s first Black graduate, earning a master’s degree in accounting in 1924. She was also one of the first Black individuals to graduate from any top business school in the United States.
To honor Rutherford’s legacy and commemorate the 100th anniversary of her matriculation, as well as the 50th anniversary of Columbia Business School’s first affinity group, the Black Business Students Association (BBSA), the School has launched the 100/50: Embracing Our Legacy campaign. The campaign includes a series of marquee events that showcase CBS’s vibrant diversity and the tremendous impact and contributions of the School’s Black students, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends over the past century. It also includes a digital history archive and the stories of CBS alumni to further commemorate the Black experience at the School.
“What excites me the most is that we’re finally documenting and celebrating this history. We are connecting the dots to our history in a way that’s intentional," says Michael Robinson ’01, assistant dean of engagement.
Unlike today’s CBS graduates – entrepreneurs and leaders in fields of their choosing – Rutherford would have to wait 34 years before she could practice her desired profession. Discriminatory laws and regulations prevented her from becoming a Certified Public Accountant despite her exceptional education and aptitude. In 1958, after a distinguished career as an educator, rule changes afforded Rutherford to finally earn her CPA license, making her the first Black woman CPA in West Virginia.
“There are so many fantastic untold stories,” notes Robinson, who has served as the diversity-focused student recruiting lead at CBS for two decades, and has dedicated himself to students’ growth as an informal mentor, advisor, and friend.
While at CBS, Rutherford ate lunch alone while her classmates dined at whites-only eateries. When her widowed mother was too ill to help pay her expenses, she survived exclusively on Campbell’s soup, cereal, and milk for six weeks.
Rutherford’s legacy of perseverance and personal excellence embodies the spirit of what would become Columbia Business School’s first affinity group 50 years later: the Black Business Students Association, or BBSA. Officially established in 1973, the BBSA is one of the most active student groups in the School, providing members with academic support, professional development, career guidance, and mentorship.
“We are truly a family. No matter what important moment we may face in our CBS journeys, there's always going to be a BBSA member standing by our side,” say BBSA’s co-presidents, Reneé Sewell ’23 and Martavius Leonard ’23, adding that this year’s membership is the largest in its history. “We have 160 Black-identifying members and, with Executive MBAs and allies, we’re close to 200."
Sewell says the School’s recent membership in the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management has helped grow and strengthen the BBSA and the overall diversity of CBS. The Consortium links top-tier students, MBA programs, and corporate partners, and provides merit-based scholarships, which has helped expand BBSA membership this year.
“The BBSA is the reason I chose Columbia over other schools,” says Jennifer Randle ’06, who was first introduced to the group during an event for prospective students. “Seeing folks who looked like me, my age, ambitious, smart, and authentically interested in supporting my endeavors, that was the differentiating factor.”
Robinson, Sewell, Randle, and many others credit CBS Dean Costis Maglaras with leading the School’s efforts to become more intentional around inclusion and belonging. Maglaras has dedicated new resources to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, including new senior leadership roles, the creation of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office at CBS, and the 100/50: Embracing Our Legacy campaign.
Today, Randle, a former BBSA president and current board member of the School’s African American Alumni Association (4A), is a member of the 100/50: Embracing Our Legacy steering committee, which includes faculty, staff, students, and alumni. The BBSA, 4A, the steering committee, Columbia Business School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office, and the Arthur J. Samberg Institute for Teaching Excellence are all collaborating on the yearlong campaign.
“I agree with what Dean Maglaras said at a recent 4A event in San Francisco: This is a moment to celebrate and honor and also a moment to recognize how much further we have to go,” Randle says.
The 100/50: Embracing Our Legacy celebration includes five marquee events:
1. 100/50 Embracing Our Legacy Kick-off
Tuesday, February 7, 2023
6:00pm – 7:15pm EST (in person and virtual)
Cooperman Commons, David Geffen Hall
In-depth conversation about successfully using a CBS education in life and leadership with special guests Robert Reffkin ’03, founder and CEO of Compass, and Benís Reffkin ’12, executive coach.
Moderator: GT Svanikier ’23
Hosts: Hayley Mason ‘24 and Modupe Akinola, CBS professor of business and faculty and director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics
Networking reception featuring local Harlem vendors to follow fireside chat. Registration is required. Livestream is available.
2. Black Business Students Association’s 41st Annual Elevate Conference
Friday, March 31 – Saturday, April 1, 2023
CBS’s longest running and largest student-organized event featuring prominent speakers, panels, and networking receptions for current and prospective students, alumni, allies, and friends.
3. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Research Roundtable
Friday, May 12, 2023
Half-day convening of preeminent diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) academics and industry practitioners to discuss bridging theory to practice to enhance current DEI leadership strategies.
4. African American Alumni Association (4A) Homecoming
Sunday, June 4, 2023
Barbecue welcoming every class of Black CBS alumni and highlighting neighboring West Harlem restaurants and caterers. Follows CBS Reunions on June 2-3.
5. 100/50 Celebration Gala
Monday, October 9, 2023
This year’s MBA Gala is dedicated to the 100/50 celebration.