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A powerful voice in challenging corporations to address justice
By Michelle Valigursky | Emory Report | May 7, 2021
A case note on racial inequalities in American history spurred Willie Sullivan’s desire for corporations to address large societal issues. The result was the inaugural John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition.
For opera singer Willie Sullivan, portraying the role of Alfredo in the Verdi opera “La Traviata” was both moving and powerful. With his rich tenor voice, he imbued awe within a hushed audience that savored his every note.
At that moment in his life, on stages and in darkened theaters, Sullivan could have no idea that he would graduate as a National Black MBA Scholar of Goizueta Business School’s Class of 2021, where his powerful voice would once again become the instrument for inspiring human emotional response — this time in the realm of racial justice.
As COVID-19 unfolded across the globe in 2020, the United States also experienced civil unrest in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and others. “We wanted to do something actionable,” says Sullivan, speaking of his MBA classmates. His inspiration came from a Harvard Business School case note on racial inequalities in American history.
“We had protested, given money and were looking for what else we could do,” Sullivan recalls. “How could we take a business case note and have students come up with strategic frameworks for a major corporation to do something about large societal issues?”
Sullivan championed the conversation, founding the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition that focused on the intersection of business and racial inequality. With naming permission from the Lewis family, Sullivan forged ahead to create the first annual case competition that would honor the late U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis (1940-2020), a civil rights icon and member of Congress from Georgia’s 5th district.
Working for a more just society
Last year, when the shooting deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery prompted outrage, Brian Mitchell, associate dean for Goizueta’s full-time MBA program, hosted an open discussion to address current events. Goizueta students of many races, genders and cultural backgrounds spoke of vulnerability, fear and courage.
Sullivan was inspired to structure and lead a newly conceived case competition that would draw into focus critical issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within corporate America. “We wanted to get students who weren’t engaged with DEI to take human capital and apply it to the big structural issues of a company,” he says. “My feeling is that it will take a large group of people of all ages and skills to solve issues of injustice.”
Sullivan quickly became the case competition’s managing director, assembled a team of 32 MBA students and eight Goizueta faculty and staff members, and pitched corporate sponsors to fast-track the event.
“Willie reminded everyone that having a Goizueta MBA was going to open doors that could lead to vast resources and reach, which could then be applied to bringing about a more just society,” Mitchell says. “In that moment, Willie challenged everyone to broaden their thinking from ‘what can I do?’ to ‘what can I get my company to do?’ It was brave, brilliant and inspiring.”
Entries came from 105 student teams from the nation’s top universities in business, public policy, public health, law, social work and medicine. Teams answered the question of how a corporation could best use its various resources (not just financial) to address issues of racial justice in at least one of three areas: wealth/income disparities, health outcome disparities and educational/skills attainment gaps.
Two dozen judges — mostly from companies with a social justice mission or from universities — screened the entries to produce the 24 semifinalists.
Fortune 500 companies including Walmart, Salesforce, HP, Johnson & Johnson, Southern Company and Truist Bank joined as corporate partners to serve as models to help their organizations address structural racism. Of the six finalist teams, Emory’s Goizueta Business School earned second place for its recommendation to HP to increase supplier diversity.
Goizueta Business School Interim Dean Karen Sedatole praises Sullivan’s tenacity and vision. “His resolve inspired me as it has inspired so many others.”
For Sullivan, DEI are vital to the success of business. He reflects on his future work as an alumnus through The Roberto C. Goizueta Business & Society Institute as he evaluates ways to put Goizueta at the forefront of the national conversation. Though the first case competition may now be complete, he says, “I don't really feel like I'm leaving it behind. I feel like we're just continuing to grow.”
In February, Sullivan was honored with the Leaders in Corporate Citizenship “Rising Star” award by the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Following Emory’s Commencement, Sullivan will continue his professional journey at Deloitte, where he interned as a senior consultant in human capital strategy.