By Scott Shrake
Stepping off the elevator on the sixth floor at BET Networks headquarters in Washington, DC, on July 17, the 30 young business students from Wharton’s Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Program were greeted with framed memorabilia, including a recording contract signed by the legendary singer Billie Holiday.
While many young adults aspire to the careers of the artists celebrated on BET’s walls and airwaves, the students (LEADers, as they are nicknamed) who visited BET recently have different role models — among them, Scott Mills, WG’90, president and chief operating officer of BET Networks.
The LEAD Program Summer Business Institute (SBI) lasts for one month, and brings minority high school juniors from all over the United States to take classes at the Wharton School, hear lectures, and tour East Coast organizations such as the World Bank in New York and McNeil Laboratories in suburban Philadelphia. At these site visits they work on case studies and make important contacts with working professionals. Founded at Wharton by McNeil executives in 1980, there are now 11 LEAD programs at major universities nationally.
Fifty percent of LEAD alumni have received or are pursuing a business degree from a top-25 U.S. business school.
Alumni at Center Stage and on the Spot
After showing a video montage of BET programming that included clips from such series as Baldwin Hills and specials like the BET Awards, Mills explained how he is inspired by the creative side of the industry, even if business is his primary passion.
In a conference room with sweeping views of the Northeast quadrant of the District of Columbia, the students heard short presentations by members of the BET’s senior management team including Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development Martez Moore (a Penn Law alumnus), Chief Financial Officer Michael Pickrum (WG’98), and Matthew Barnhill, Senior Vice President of Market Research (a Wharton LEAD alumnus).
The young men and women looked sharp in their crisp business attire, and posed some equally sharp questions to Mills during a busy Q&A. Later the LEADers worked in groups on a series of challenging case studies such as a BET international launch and a media acquisition. They then shared their work with the aforementioned members of the management team. The prize for the best case study presentation was a coveted ticket to the 2008 BET Awards in Los Angeles (complete with a stroll down the Red Carpet) for each case team member.
The Power of One Key Encounter
Long Island, NY, native Mills is a LEAD alumnus himself, having participated in 1985 at the University of Virginia after hearing about the program through a small grassroots organization called LINKS.
“I knew I wanted to be successful, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what kinds of jobs were out there.” Mills decided to pursue an undergraduate business degree at Wharton, largely because he had been so inspired by his LEAD summer.
Mills had started as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers, but joined BET almost 10 years ago. Mills told the LEADers the story of how Robert L. Johnson started BET with a borrowed half-million dollar investment in 1980, and grew the business until he sold it in 2001 to Viacom for $3 billion. He related how Johnson helped him climb in his own career: “Bob is how I got to BET.” Under Johnson’s mentorship, Mills built BET.com.
Mills says the LEAD program selects “extraordinarily talented” minority students “very early in their process, and exposes them to the business path.” Each year the program receives about 1,200 applications for 370 spots.
Wharton Students Serve as Team Advisors
Five resident team advisors (RTAs) drawn from the Wharton undergraduate student body accompany the LEADers during their experience. BET offered all five of last year’s RTAs paid internships for this summer. All five accepted, and Mills says he would be happy to make the same offer again this year.
Two of the current BET interns are Tiffany Parnell, W’08, from Cerritos, CA, a Wharton senior, and Reigan Combs, W’09, a Wharton junior from Nashville, TN.
Parnell says of LEAD, “It opened my eyes to business… You get a hands-on feel for a whole bunch of different aspects.” She says she’s been given a great deal of responsibility on marketing projects for BET.com this summer.
Combs points out that the case studies completed on an SBI site visit such as this are the same ones used in actual Wharton classes. As for the internship, “I’m starting to see where my education actually kicks in, the skills that you need for a career, so that’s been fantastic,” she says. “And I also really appreciate that they’re molding my [internship] to my interests. I know that all my time and hard work here are going to be beneficial to me, but also beneficial to the company.”
2007 RTAs Chloe Wayne, W’10 (from Los Angeles), and Arthur Smith, W’10 (from Milwaukee), are both sophomores. Wayne, who completed her LEAD SBI in 2005, calls it “the best fourweek experience of my life.”
She credits the “priceless relationship that [LEADers] forge with their peers, and with the faculty and staff, and the brief relationships that they can begin to build with a lot of the professionals on these site visits.”
Rami Reyes, W’10 (from Miami), also an RTA this year, applied for the LEAD program as a way to confirm that he wanted to go to business school at Wharton. He valued meeting “so many other talented students of diverse backgrounds, and … I don’t just mean ethnicities, I’m also talking about socioeconomic [status] and ways people look at life.”
“A lot of people,” Wayne adds, “don’t associate higher-up executives with color, even to this day, and I think [changing that] is the point of the LEAD program.”
Scott Mills wants his 7-year-old son to participate in LEAD someday. As he quipped to the group of LEAD participants, “When one or two of you get rich and successful, we want you to say ‘It’s all because I went to BET on July 17, 2007.’”
View article at Wharton Magazine website HERE.
Copyright © Wharton Magazine