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Russell Simmons: Face of Modern American Business?

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The 2011 American Business Awards were presented in front of a room of American business people by The Stevie Awards last night. Representatives from companies like Overstock.com, Apple and Groupon were in attendance to accept their accolades among the clattering of diners. Then there was a special honor bestowed upon the entrepreneur and philanthropist, Russell Simmons. The Difference Maker award was presented to Mr. Simmons and was described as "the first of its kind," and was "presented to Simmons for his groundbreaking vision and influence on music, fashion, finance, television, film, as well as the face of modern philanthropy."

It was the use of the term "modern" as a preface to philanthropy that truly resonated with me given the fact that in a room full of upper management and c-level suite business-gladiators, if you will, Mr. Simmons stood out as one of few Black men. Indeed, he was one of the lonely potential minority honorees in the venue altogether. Recent data suggests that the respective numbers for Blacks in blue-collar jobs and at senior pay levels in the Civilian Labor Force were 34,877 (1.8 percent) and 1,477 (0.07 percent), respectively, according to a new report from the Office of Personnel Management. Mr. Simmons' career has spanned from the 1970's to the present and noteworthy achievements include co-founding Def Jam Records. Still, the data suggests that the opportunities for recognition among Blacks and other minority groups for their contributions to "American business" is limited from the onset because few will ever be in a position to establish leadership.

There's a school of thought that would argue that America's meritocracy will reward those with the ability to advance to leadership positions. They posit that hard work will lead to good grades and recognition by those "in the know" about the potential that these "educated" people possess. This channel for success is limited by factors like issues of acculturation by those of diverse backgrounds from whatever the "normal" or dominant group's is, in any given environment. For example, a Hispanic student from Hialeah in Miami, Florida might be unable to successfully integrate at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. This student could then miss the opportunity to make the necessary friends, connections or even excel academically due to issues of not "fitting in" rather than their lack of ability. All this to suggest that access to success often hinges on relationships, as noted by George L. Wimberly in the American College Testing Program's study, School Relationships Foster Success for African American Students.

In honoring Mr. Simmons, the American Business Awards tipped its hat to the aspirations of so many minorities with a lack of role models in areas that are of interest to them, like hip-hop music and "urban" fashion. Mr. Simmons' trajectory to media and fashion mogul is void of the higher education that is usually associated with such success stories. Through his personal journey toward changing notions of "acceptable" musical tastes and influencing American culture via his endeavors, Mr. Simmons serves a "modern" success story, offering hope to Blacks and other aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs facing the opportunity gap in contemporary American culture.

Thankfully, in the field of public relations, there are organizations like the LAGRANT Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to increase the number ethnic minorities in the fields of advertising, marketing and public relations. Through helping students establish relationships with companies like Burson-Marsteller, that they might not otherwise have access to due to factors like provenance, the LAGRANT Foundation is addressing one of the core issues facing minorities today. The changing demographics of the U.S. will hopefully lead to deep rooted changes in the current concentration of those in leadership positions. I'm not holding my breath.

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