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To celebrate this Black History Month, we sat down with Duane L. Hughes (G’88, WG’88, L’91), a trailblazing member of The Lauder Institute’s Advisory Board and a graduate of Lauder’s Latin America (Portuguese) program. Duane is a Managing Director at UBS* and the Chair of the UBS Americas Advisory Council. Duane started his career at Wall Street law firms and has held leadership roles at Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan.

The recipient of numerous awards for leadership in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I), Duane’s advocacy for inclusive workplaces is celebrated in his TEDxTalk, “Check Your Preference and Improve Your Results”. As an angel investor in 20 different companies with primarily underrepresented founders, Duane has spent his career increasing inclusion in law and business, as well as among entrepreneurs.

In this personal and candid interview for The Lauder Institute, Duane talks about his experience as a Black leader in business and some of the lessons he learned along the way.

In so many ways, you exemplify a true Lauder graduate–you speak multiple languages and you’ve spent time abroad throughout your life. How has this international perspective informed your view of the Black experience in America? 

It’s an outstanding question. When I was 17 years old, I went to Germany on a summer exchange program. The experience changed my life. I had taken German when I was young and realized I had a strong ability to comprehend and speak a foreign language. Ever since, I have been on a mission to learn foreign languages and experience foreign cultures. It’s the reason I ended up at Lauder years later.

The amazing thing about being abroad was that I felt more ‘American’ than ‘Black’. I noticed that others perceived me as an American, with all the costs and benefits of what being an ‘American’ means: being part of a superpower, a colonial power, and to some, part of ‘the evil empire’. But it also meant being part of an admired power in terms of democracy, liberty, history, dynamism, and innovation.

Internationally, I noticed that the concept of ‘Black America’ was not well understood. Often, that lack of knowledge was a good thing because many countries outside the US have not stigmatized race the same way we have in the US. Historically, many Black Americans have felt that same sense of relief I felt while abroad. Among them, James Baldwin, Eartha Kitt, Maya Angelou, and most recently, Dave Chappelle. The other realization was that other parts of the world had other issues or problems that we don’t have. In a way, that knowledge was quite liberating and reassuring — that humankind cuts their costs and benefits differently. That is, the unchosen bundle of pluses/minuses and tailwinds/headwinds that you experience can change depending on where you are in the world. So, it is important to avoid internalizing them as if you created them yourself.

What has been the most surprising thing to you as a Black leader in business? 

I’m encouraged by the qualitative progress, but find the quantitative progress slow.

From a qualitative perspective, over the last 35 years, senior executives in corporate America have significantly upgraded their understanding of the objectives of inclusion. Back in the day, conversations in the U.S. about diversity would unfortunately devolve into politicized discussions about Affirmative Action and racial quotas. Now, the business case for diversity is commonplace and well-articulated at senior levels. And people are no longer offended by words like ‘unconscious bias.’

Still, I am often surprised when I find myself to be among the few that look like me in the room (referring to my skin color). I’m also surprised at how comfortable I feel in my own skin; I feel my self-growth over the years. I didn’t always feel comfortable. I used to feel lonely – yet nothing like my father who went to segregated schools. And my kids feel even more comfortable than me. That’s progress!

At the same time, I feel a sense of duty and responsibility to make sure the environment around me is as inclusive as possible. It’s a case of lifting while you climb. I feel a constant need and desire to mentor and develop relationships.

On the quantitative side, looking at pure numbers of Black Americans, especially at senior levels, the lack of progress can be frustrating.

When you say you’re frustrated by the level of progress, how do large corporations get past ‘the talk’ and implement real institutional change?

Generally speaking, it would be helpful for companies to look carefully at how their employees are incentivized, compensated and rewarded, to determine whether their structures could further drive inclusion.

For example, we all have a ‘similar to me’ preference. It is like a muscle memory encouraging us to work with people who look like and talk like ourselves. Consider whether your compensation structure unintentionally motivates employees to rely on their ‘similar to me’ preference to generate sales. If you were to make changes in the compensation structure, carefully over time, where individuals are incentivized to partner with people outside of their ‘in-group,’ would such a modified compensation structure naturally lead to more inclusion? In the case of my company, UBS, our Group Executive Board Members and their leadership teams across the firm are evaluated on their efforts toward achieving the firm’s DE&I goals. Diverse teams drive innovation and improve decision-making.

Black History Month is very much about honoring the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout US history. I know you are involved in preserving that history with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Yes, I’m on the African American Affairs Committee and a Cabinet Member at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. I’m proud to be a descendant of the plantation of Thomas Jefferson. My grandfather’s great-grandfather was Wormley Hughes, the enslaved head gardener responsible for Thomas Jefferson’s plantation at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. In fact, Wormley dug Jefferson’s grave in July 1826.

I’m glad the Foundation has put in a major effort over the last 25 years to document the stories of enslaved people, which are told through the exhibits at Monticello, and online at their website. I’m also proud to be on the committee to help preserve the memories in a fair, balanced and authentic way. We need this type of well-rounded view of U.S. history in order to bring us together as a country.

Duane Hughes (BHM)

You’ve talked about replacing color with culture as a strategy for change. Could you explain that?

Race, the pigmentation of one’s skin, should have no meaning whatsoever. To facilitate the transatlantic slave trade, Europeans created the concept of race to advance apartheid-like systems in the United States and elsewhere. The concept of race has since been adopted, amplified, and nurtured as a sense of identity – where whiteness is good and blackness is bad. So, in an ideal world, racial identity would disappear, but the positive elements of our culture and customs would remain.

My message to my Black brothers and sisters: it’s culture that binds us, not race. In addition to contributions in art, entertainment, math, science, civil rights, and other fields, there are so many aspects of our culture about which we should be extremely proud. Jazz, blues, soul, R&B, rap, hip hop, tap dancing, break dancing – just to name a few – all have roots in Black America. Certain sports have been dominated by Black Americans. Then there’s also the Black linguistic tradition that is evident in certain words or vernacular. But at the end of the day, the race element of it should disappear. In fact, there’s a movement calling for race to be dropped from the census, and for people to simply declare their cultural or ethnic identity, for example, as African American, which relates to one’s ultimate origin. So, in my view, we will evolve in this regard, but not without significant debate. Our culture will ultimately be the defining factor.

And in terms of studying and valuing ‘culture’, Lauder has an interesting connection to that.

Yes, it does. Since I was 17 years old, I have been focused on language and culture. At Lauder, I studied Portuguese, and spent time in Brazil. I also met my wife, Santa Cruz Hughes (G’88, WG’88), at Lauder – may she rest in peace. Lauder is really important to me for those reasons.

The connection between business and culture was so interesting that it led me to defer law school, just to focus on Lauder and my MBA. I went to Penn Law afterward. I’m still very involved because of the broad perspective of Lauder students and alumni. The Institute has grown tremendously over the last 35 years. I was delighted to see the addition of an Africa program some years ago. It means a lot to me, as I found love again and married a woman born and raised in Ghana.

I could not be more proud of the student body and the activism by the student body to create an inclusive class and cohort environment.

What’s the best lesson that you’ve learned in your career that you could share with others?

Life should be ordered as follows: Health first, family/friends second, and career third. Instead, there is cultural pressure to put career first, family second, and health last. Yet it is your career, as opposed to health and family, that is the most adaptable. Your career can actually respond positively to distress, disruptive change, and failure. In your career, your toughest moment may precede your biggest breakthrough.

Consider your career like a game. Always focus on whether you are in the right sport, on the right team, playing the right position, with the best strategy. Failure happens in sports all the time; and, yet, you get better if you practice, adapt, and don’t take it personally. So, for every type of negative experience or failure you have in your career, depersonalize it as much as possible. Run it through the rubric of sport, team, position, strategy. Constantly reiterate, and know that disruptive change can be really, really good for you. ■

Duane is a member of the Lauder Institute’s Alumni Association’s newly launched Black@Lauder affinity group. If you would like to get involved, contact getinvolved@lauderlove.com

Learn more about The Lauder Institute’s commitment to diversity here.

Interview by Lauren Treutler

*Opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily express the views or opinions of UBS