Hello Corporate America! Talented African Americans are being groomed for big business at Florida A&M. If you want them, get out your checkbook.
By Nina Munk

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Crystal Johnson had never heard of Florida A&M University when a phone call from its president, Frederick Humphries, roused her early one morning four years ago. A National Achievement Scholar from Memphis, she had been accepted at Notre Dame, Emory, and four historically black colleges: Howard, Tuskegee, Hampton, and Dillard. "I had no intention of going to FAMU," she says. "But then President Humphries called me. I was half asleep. I had no idea who he was. He said, 'Crystal, we'll give you $40,000 to come to FAMU.' " She accepted and will graduate next year with an MBA degree.

Kyra Massey, who came out of high school with a 3.33 grade point average, had a similar experience. "Dr. Humphries got up on the stage at my high school, called out my name, and offered me a $40,000 scholarship on the spot," she says. Her reaction was disbelief, then gratitude. "I started crying," she says. Massey graduates this August with a B.S. in mechanical engineering.

President Humphries, 62, is a superb salesman. His presence is commanding: At 6 feet 5 inches and 250-odd pounds, he stands out in any crowd. His gregarious manner, his generous laugh, and his habit of placing his hand even on the shoulders of strangers work wonders when he's selling Florida A&M. Since Humphries took over as president of this historically black university in 1985, he has more than doubled enrollment, from 5,101 to 11,018.

Humphries has also made FAMU a better school. The average SAT score of entering FAMU students has climbed from 900 in 1985 to 1029 (a perfect score is 1600). That's still below the 1300 or so needed to be considered at a top-tier school such as Stanford or Yale, but it's a notch above the national average SAT score (1016) and well above the average score for African Americans (857).

But Humphries' ability to lure talented high school students to FAMU is nothing compared with the effect he has on corporate America. When he isn't rousing National Achievement Scholars from their beds, he's on the road, calling on big companies, persuading them to recruit at FAMU and donate money to fund all those scholarships Humphries promises.

FAMU doesn't do particularly well in national rankings (U.S. News & World Report rates it in the category "least selective"), and it's situated almost in the middle of nowhere, on the Florida panhandle, in Tallahassee. Nevertheless, in part because it awards more bachelor's degrees to African Americans than any other school in the U.S., FAMU is now one of the hottest recruiting spots in the nation.

Consider Massey's recent job-hunting experience. Last November--nine months before her graduation--she accepted a $42,000 job offer from AlliedSignal to repair commercial jet engines in Phoenix. But then a few months later, in February, Massey was offered $45,000 to work in General Motors' midsized-car division in Flint, Mich. So she said no to AlliedSignal and yes to GM. A month later Massey was wooed by Hewlett-Packard, which offered her a job as a troubleshooter on its Unix networks in Atlanta. At $46,200, plus a $3,800 after-tax moving allowance, the offer was too good to turn down. So Massey told GM she'd changed her mind. She starts at HP on Sept. 14. (By the way, she received one other offer, from Prince Corp., for $34,500. "I didn't even consider that one," she says, with a knowing roll of her eyes.)

Massey isn't unusual. With the national unemployment rate for college grads at 1.7%, students everywhere are being pursued by major companies. But top black (and Hispanic) university grads are being courted with extra enthusiasm.

Smart companies value the ideas that people with different backgrounds and races bring to the table. Some firms want more minorities on their payroll to avoid the scrutiny of the EEOC and to help ensure they don't get hit with a Texaco-style lawsuit. Some want African Americans and Hispanics to help them better understand and identify with minority consumers. One way or another, companies are desperate to diversify their work forces. But there's a problem: While blacks make up about 13% of the population, they received just 7.5% of the bachelor's degrees handed out to Americans in 1995 (the latest year for which figures are available). For master's degrees the situation is even worse (6%), and for doctorates it's abysmal (3.8%).

"If it's hard to hire students in general in this economy, it's twice as hard to hire minorities," says Robert Blackburn, a director of human resources for Schering-Plough, the giant pharmaceuticals company. At big companies everywhere, the complaint is the same. Hoyle Jones, director of university recruiting for Citibank, says, "[To recruit African Americans] it takes double, triple, quadruple the effort needed to recruit whites. If the average MBA student gets ten offers, the average black MBA student could get 20 if they wanted. They're very hotly pursued."

Nowhere does this pursuit seem hotter than at FAMU's School of Business and Industry, which awards undergraduate and graduate degrees. The school's dean is 72-year-old Sybil Mobley, a compact, no-nonsense woman with piercing eyes and a light-brown Afro. To anyone who grew up in the South, she's a familiar character--the neighbor who sat out on her porch, the one who ordered you to walk upright, say "Yes, ma'am," and tuck in your shirt. She's tough with her students and tougher still with corporate recruiters, for she knows how hard it is to find qualified, well-educated minorities. She knows how valuable her graduates are; so if you want them, be prepared to pay up. Put more delicately, you can have access to FAMU's business graduates in exchange for your financial support.

"She's no shy lady," says a recruiter who asked not to be named for fear of being ignored by Mobley. "She lets you know this is her turf. She'll say, The people who do well [recruiting] here give us the following--and she'll use this language--their bucks and their time. If you do that, she'll say, you'll have my blessing."

A few years ago Mobley's pitch wasn't such an easy sell. Now, however, with unemployment at a 30-year low and companies chasing top African-American talent, Mobley (with President Humphries) is firmly in control. Looming over the entrance of FAMU's business school, on an immense brick wall, are 92 bronze plaques etched with the names of giant corporations. Among them: Monsanto, Pfizer, Deloitte & Touche, General Motors, 3M, Colgate-Palmolive, Digital Equipment, and PepsiCo. Each plaque represents a minimum $100,000 donation, but some companies give more--a lot more. Last year, for example, Ford Motor committed $575,000 to FAMU, to be paid over five years. The bookshelves in Mobley's office are lined with dozens and dozens of brightly colored hardhats, one stacked atop another, each emblazoned with the name of a company she has conquered. They reminded me of big-game trophies.

As demand for talent, and not just minority talent, soars, companies increasingly feel obliged to make donations to schools in exchange for access to the best students. By most accounts, FAMU is among the most overtly demanding, and money isn't all Mobley asks for; she demands continuing involvement and commitment. FAMU's corporate partners, as she calls them, are expected to fly their executives into Tallahassee at least once or twice a year to teach classes, advise students, and hold workshops on topics like analyzing a balance sheet, job interview techniques, and public speaking. Recent FAMU visitors have included Ford CEO Alex Trotman, IBM's Lou Gerstner, and Chase Manhattan's Walter Shipley. Mobley insists that companies offer her students high-paying, structured internships--not just over the summer but throughout the year. Corporations are also expected to provide summer jobs for her faculty, to donate real case studies to be used as course material, to help shape the curriculum, and to be available when a FAMU student or professor has a pertinent question.

About a decade ago Mobley introduced an MBA program. Not a typical two-year MBA, it's effectively an extra year tacked onto the end of FAMU's undergraduate business degree. FAMU's MBA program doesn't appear in any rankings of the best business schools, and it's not accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business or any other agency. (Mobley says the AACSB's old standards were outdated, and says she expects her school will be accredited soon.) Yet so great is demand for promising young African Americans that many companies treat an MBA from FAMU as if it were from one of America's highly ranked schools. Progressive Corp., a Cleveland-based insurance company with 14,000 employees, recruits MBAs from only eight schools: Harvard, Wharton (University of Pennsylvania), Kellogg (Northwestern), Tuck (Dartmouth), the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Case Western (the company's hometown school)--and FAMU. At Schering-Plough, the firm's prestigious management-associates program grooms about ten MBAs a year for management positions. For this program the company actively recruits from only Columbia, Stern (NYU), Fuqua (Duke), Kellogg--and FAMU.

FAMU's MBA students typically come out of school earning around $70,000. Some make more. Last year, Schering-Plough offered an MBA graduate a package worth $110,000, including bonuses. That's about equal to the $115,000 median total annual pay that Harvard's new MBAs received in 1997.

Are FAMU's MBA grads as well prepared as MBA students from Harvard? "We won't know [the answer] for years," responds an executive at a FORTUNE 500 firm that recruits from FAMU. "But for now there's no choice but to believe [Mobley]. You could opt out, but if you want to reach the talent she has there, you swallow hard and you believe."

There are many believers. Last December, as part of a commitment to diversify his work force, James Orr III, chief executive of Unum, a $4 billion disability insurer based in Portland, Me., flew to Tallahassee to visit FAMU for the first time. Greeting Orr and his group of executives at the airport were two FAMU students, who carried their luggage and drove them to their hotel. The next day, after breakfast with Mobley and a tour of the school, Orr spoke to 200-odd students in the auditorium. What so impressed him was that when he asked whether there were any questions, every hand in the audience went up. And when the students were called on, each followed a precise format: "Thank you, Mr. Orr. My name is Samantha Mellows. I'm a first-year business student from Cleveland, Ohio. I'd like to ask you...." To top it off, every student wore a suit. "It was extraordinary," says Orr. "I came away absolutely blown away."

So taken was Orr with FAMU's students that he wrote a check for $100,000, adding Unum's name to the wall of plaques. "Every dean has to raise money," says Orr. "Dean Mobley does it brilliantly because she has the school's mission so perfectly aligned with the funder's mission." In other words, Orr needs her talent, and she needs his money. It's a perfect match.

"At one time we were condemned--people said we were sacrificing our academic integrity [by working so closely with companies]," remarks Dean Mobley. "But now other schools are trying to be more like ours. Because the truth is, we have analyzed corporate America more accurately than other schools; we understand their needs. They feel we produce a product they are comfortable with."

What many big companies like most about Mobley's students is that they seem so professional, so unlike your average college kid. There are no ripped jeans, purple streaks, bare feet, or attitude--Dean Mobley will have none of that. When corporate representatives visit campus, which is two or three times a week, students observe a strict dress code: for women, a blazer with a matching skirt (no pants, no prints); for men, navy, gray, or dark-brown suits. "Jewelry should be minimal," reads the handout on dress requirements. "One ring per hand; bracelets that do not dangle or detract. Men cannot wear earrings! Women may wear small stud earrings (no gypsy hoops). Hair--no dreadlocks. Men avoid jheri curls, processed looks, and sculptured looks."

To prepare them for the outside world, FAMU freshmen are required to take a course called Professional Development, known around campus simply as PD. One PD assignment teaches dining etiquette. Another requires that every day, for 14 days, students gather the signatures of three faculty members, peers, and upperclassmen. To get those signatures, the students must look a person in the eye, shake his or her hand, and introduce themselves in a very particular way. Again, there's a formula: "Hello, my name is Samantha Mellows. I'm a first-year business student from Cleveland, Ohio. I have an assignment that requires your signature...." Amos Bradford, who heads the Professional Development program, explains PD's goal: "Lots of students come in acting as though...well, they have a tendency to wear very baggy pants and earrings. And business people are business people: They dress a certain way; they act a certain way. Our business is to socialize our students."

It's almost like a finishing school. And that's just fine by corporate America, which loves well-mannered, adaptable students. Almost every member of FAMU's class of '98 already has a job. "[We've noticed that] it's not so much the technical, academic stuff that counts toward success, but discipline. And FAMU students have a personal discipline," says Robert Kramer, Ford's vice president for human resources. "[They] listen well, they have self-confidence, and it's not because they have the best economics teachers--it's not that at all. [It's because] they have discipline in terms of the questions they ask. They're easily assimilated into a team. They don't try to convince everyone how smart they are just because they're a newly minted grad. Too many schools place too much of a premium on individual competence and brilliance, and they drive that to the detriment of teamwork. [FAMU students] don't try to be individuals; they're not individualists above all else. They don't stick out."

In late April, about 40 FAMU business students gathered in a conference room on campus to talk about their views of corporate America. They talked about how many more opportunities they have than their parents did. They spoke boldly about making it to the top, about becoming CEO of a major corporation, of building the next Coca-Cola. Their optimism mirrored the results of the FORTUNE/Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies survey of black professionals. (See accompanying story on page 140.) In that poll, 38% of respondents ages 18 to 34 say workplace conditions are getting better for blacks, but only 26% of respondents between 35 and 49 think so.

The FAMU students also said they believe big companies offer them the most opportunities to get ahead, something recruiters at those companies will be happy to hear. In our poll an impressive 67% of 18- to 34-year-olds said the company they work for makes a real effort to invest in African Americans, vs. just 55% of respondents over 50 who agree.

But be forewarned. Despite their enthusiasm, the FAMU students, who are not naive, question the sincerity of corporate America's diversity efforts. "If you look at [corporate] recruitment guides or annual reports, you see black people everywhere," said Xavier Jernigan, who has a year left at FAMU before he earns his MBA. "But then you get to the company, and you realize they've used [photographs of] the same person over and over. At the investment firm where I worked last summer, they asked me to pose for their brochures. Of course they want it to appear like there's a lot of diversity--but I think it's a lot of lip service." Around the table heads nodded in agreement. "And you know if you mess up, that's it--because they're looking for an excuse," said Phillipe Tatem, who's working for Ford this summer in Mexico City. Seated at the other end of the conference table, Marck Dorvil summed up the prevailing attitude: "I don't think any of us thinks we're hired because they love us."

After nearly two hours of debate, of discussing the pros and cons of working in American companies, the conclusion was disquieting but unanimous. "Corporate America is a great training ground. Corporate America is the vehicle," said Dorvil. "If they're playing me because of my skin color, well, I'll play them too."

"It's a game," nodded Alicia Edwards, who had just accepted a job with Bell Atlantic in New York. To which Dorvil added, pragmatically, "As long as we understand the game, that's okay. I mean, you can't change the game until you know how to master the game."

Happily, this is not a zero-sum game. At least until the next recession arrives and unemployment soars, all the players are getting what they want: Smart FAMU graduates are getting good jobs, companies are reaching a talented group of African Americans, and FAMU is receiving funding. In business, deals don't happen until everyone wins.