Some time ago, Michael Robinson ’01, Assistant Dean of Engagement at Columbia Business School, was sifting through the School’s archives when he made a remarkable discovery: CBS not only boasts an exceptional history of compelling narratives about Black excellence, but 2023 would mark a milestone year. One hundred years ago, in 1923, Theodora Fonteneau Rutherford matriculated at CBS and went on to become the first Black student to graduate from the School.
Fifty years later, in 1973, the School’s Black Business Students Association (BBSA) was formed.
And 50 years after that, Robinson, a self- described lover of history, along with Frantz Cayo ’00 and Starling Sawyer from the CBS Office of Development and Alumni Relations, and with the instrumental involvement of the School’s Bernstein Center for Leadership and Ethics, organized a yearlong celebration titled 100/50: Embracing Our Legacy to amplify stories of Black success and resilience and to mark these two significant milestones in CBS history.
Robinson began his campaign to mark the 100th and 50th anniversaries by creating “History Not Told, History Not Celebrated, Becomes History Forgotten,” a slide presentation highlighting key moments and figures in CBS’s Black history. He shared it with Black student leaders, key administrators, the African American Alumni Association (4A), and the leadership of the Bernstein Center, led by Professor Modupe Akinola and Managing Director Olivia Haynes. Akinola became a powerful champion of the campaign and reached out to CBS Dean Costis Maglaras, who agreed that the 100/50 celebration was in order.
“At the School, we are focused on building a diverse community of students, faculty, and staff and fostering a community that is inclusive and equitable,” says Maglaras. “I want to give special thanks to Michael Robinson and Modupe Akinola for their efforts in giving life to the 100/50. Thank you to those of you who have led the way for us.”
Adds Robinson, “When institutions like Columbia University start to document these stories in powerful ways—stories like Theodora Rutherford’s—people who have been ignored can finally get the respect they deserve. We have this really amazing history and this proud tradition at CBS that we haven’t celebrated enough. With celebrations like 100/50, we can engage young people in ways that build a sense of pride.”
CBS brought in Cayo as director of the 100/50: Embracing Our Legacy campaign. He quickly formed partnerships with groups like the BBSA and the African American Alumni Association. Together they planned a marquee schedule, beginning with the Kickoff Celebration last February. Hosted by Akinola and Hayley Mason ’24, the event featured a panel of CBS alumni, including Compass CEO Robert Reffkin ’03, Benís Reffkin ’12, and GT Svanikier ’23, who served as moderator.
Cayo says the organizing principle in building the campaign’s event series was showing students they can “forge their own path” through CBS and in their careers—just like Rutherford did.
The BBSA’s 41st annual Elevate conference, held in March, was a natural fit for the 100/50 celebration lineup. A forum for executives to share their career journeys and perspectives with the next generation of business leaders, Elevate this year honored the legacies of Black trailblazers who carved their own paths to reach unimaginable peaks of success. Keynote speakers included Robert F. Smith ’94, founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners; Cheryl McKissack Daniel, president and CEO of McKissack & McKissack; Erika Irish Brown ’98, CDO and global head of talent at Citi; and Tracey Travis ’86, EVP and CFO at The Estée Lauder Companies.
While the annual Elevate Conference is a major BBSA project, the association’s purpose and ef- forts extend well beyond it. Douglas Holloway ’78 remembers the BBSA as a “collective organizational support structure.” Nicole Pullen-Ross ’99, who served as BBSA president during her time at CBS, says the leadership position helped prepare her for one of her current roles at Goldman Sachs, where she leads the firm-wide Black Network for the Americas.
“As a former president of the BBSA, it feels very similar. The ability to take the great work I was part of with the BBSA and to have leadership positions within the Black community at Goldman is really a gift,” Pullen-Ross says.
Organizers of the 100/50 say one of the greatest benefits of a yearlong celebration is the sense of connection that grows among alumni, students, faculty, and others beyond CBS. They believe the genuine legacy of this celebration lies in reigniting individuals’ enthusiasm for their involvement in the CBS community.
To carry that feeling forward, the initiative’s organizers have been busy collecting stories and photos from CBS and BBSA alumni. The archive will be featured on the 100/50 website—now a growing, digital history archive.
As spring and summer progressed, the campaign hosted a May DEI Research Roundtable and a first-of-its-kind Homecoming event, Embracing Our Legacy. Organized as part of the annual CBS Reunion in June, the BBSA celebration drew alumni and their families spanning all five decades of the group.
This fall, the 100/50 initiative concluded with the most elaborate event of all: the 100/50 Celebration Gala, held on October 9. One of the goals for the evening was to raise money to double the number of 4A Scholarships for MBAs to four each year. Toward that end, more than $500,000 was raised at the gala.
The event highlighted two special awards, the Theodora Rutherford Award and the George Owens Trailblazer Award. Established this year, the Theodora Rutherford Award will provide four outstanding students with a stipend and the opportunity to meet and be mentored by a prominent CBS alum. The George Owens Trailblazer Award, named for George Owens ’50, the first Black president of Tougaloo College in Mississippi and known for empowering underserved communities, was presented to Portia Archer ’98, a former BBSA president who is a transformative senior leader of the G League in the National Basketball Association.
“These 100/50 events and these stories—they have allowed us to convene and reengage,” says Robinson, adding that he’s looking forward to working with the CBS community to elevate more stories of Black students and alumni.
“We’ve celebrated,” Robinson says. “Now we have to get to work.”