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Emerging Professionals Summit Aims to Close Opportunity Gap

Donnie Johnson '00 and Vincent Benjamin '04
Donnie Johnson ’00 (left) and Vincent Benjamin ’04 (right) formed the Emerging Professionals Group in 2005 to help prepare minority students for job opportunities.

Over lunch in 2005 Donnie Johnson '00 and Vincent Benjamin '04 contemplated how a football player from small town Virginia and an English major from Sewanee, Tenn., had made their way into investment banking at Wachovia Securities. Realizing their unique paths shared variables-parents who practiced tough love, passionate mentors, rigorous preparation and support from Davidson alumni-they made a pact to create a program that would prepare minority students for job opportunities by giving them the tools, connections and motivation to succeed.

"We wanted to bridge the information gap and decided to make the program as broad as possible," said Johnson. "We enlisted guests and alumni with different skill sets that were more expertise specific than industry specific."

In February, what began a decade ago as the Emerging Professionals Group (EPG) blossomed into the first annual Emerging Professionals Career Summit. Hosted by Davidson College and sponsored by Red Ventures with support from Wells Fargo, the weekend summit consisted of sessions on resume building, LinkedIn, networking, recruitment and diversity in the workplace; industry panels with employers; one-on-one mock interviews; and a networking reception.

Students also attended a candid EPG alumni panel featuring Kevin Wright '07, Keneyá Edwards '12, Derrick Thompson '07 and Whitney White '08, and a keynote speech from Ric Elias, CEO of Red Ventures.

Positive Peer Pressure

Employers such as LinkedIn and CIGNA were represented, and 72 students came from 16 colleges along the east coast. "The summit was magical," said Benjamin. "The students were inspired and their passion was palpable. While our primary focus has been to help Davidson students, the summit demonstrated that exposing them to their peers is a powerful way to build one's professional network and create a competitive sense of urgency."

EPG Summit
The weekend-long summit was filled with a variety of sessions and exercises that helped students develop their personal brand, job search process, and interviewing and networking skills.

Agnes-Scott sophomore Joushlyn Jaes said she saw the summit as an opportunity to gain insight into the work force and learn about new tools that she didn't already have in her own network. "The alumni panel was especially helpful," she added. "They gave honest opinions and advice for people of color and minorities-advice that applied to us directly and felt real and encouraging."

Biology major Bruna Siqueira '17 said that she found a session in which they divided into male and female groups most informative. "We were able to ask gender-specific questions and learn the nuances of how you dress and present yourself," she said.

Belk Scholar Whitney White '08 is a member of the first EPG class and returned to Davidson for the summit. She reflected on how EPG had helped her with résumé critiques, mentorship, interview preparation and even business suit shopping.

"That hands-on coaching and feedback propelled me into my career," she said. "EPG opened my eyes to how important relationships are and how you can both receive help from someone and find ways to help them when building relationships."

Climb to the Summit

During the past decade EPG has evolved from Benjamin and Johnson spending one-hour monthly sessions at Davidson and Sewanee to per-semester sessions to the current summit involving students and alumni from across the nation.

As a graduate student at Harvard Business School, Benjamin spent a semester researching the history of minority achievement as part of an independent study and learned that the most successful minorities originated from high expectation environments where-for better or for worse-success was not optional.

EPG Summit
Students participating in the summit had open and honest discussions with professionals in industries ranging from finance to healthcare.

He explained, "My research confirmed that children and young adults on average rise and fall to the expectations in front of them. Donnie and I both came from tough love environments and saw the value of that combined with high expectations and exposure, and we wanted to maximize that for students. As the years have passed, we've realized that emotional support is also important when dealing with students, and we've worked to be more sensitive-to the amusement of some of our original EPG participants."

The idea for the summit originated this past summer when Johnson met with President Carol Quillen and pitched the idea.

"I was all in-it's an innovative way to enable our students to build the bridge between college and career and the summit underscores our commitment to educational excellence and access for all of our students," said Quillen. "Many successful alumni and close corporate partners made this summit a success by providing hands-on, real-world mentoring and guidance to our students. Huge thanks to Donnie and Vincent for creating this opportunity and to Ric Elias and the entire Red Ventures team for their generosity and support."

Johnson explained, "This is a way to deliver technical skills to students, and doing it through the diversity lens gives Davidson something special to highlight as a unique initiative-an example of us being proactive about providing chances for underrepresented students."

Johnson also pointed out that the summit was a great opportunity for Davidson's Center for Career Development to engage with some of EPG's corporate partners in a more personal way. He added that Director of the Center for Career Development Nathan Elton was instrumental in collaborating with them to organize and execute the event.

When asked about Davidson's willingness to host the summit and provide support through the college's relationship with Red Ventures, Benjamin responded, "Davidson continues to be an institution that provides a space for powerful and positive things to happen in my life and the lives of others. Davidson's support of the EPG Summit is another example of the college providing an environment for passionate people to be impactful and help others."