INSPIRATION THROUGH TRAGEDY
After the death of George Floyd and the waves of protests that followed in 2020, Professor Paul Harper was inspired to use his position to expand understanding of racial justice—both among business students who will be tomorrow’s leaders, and among colleagues in the field. As one of the very few Black business school faculty members nationwide, he felt a personal responsibility to step forward and show leadership.
Harper, who serves as a clinical assistant professor at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, has a career portfolio that exemplifies a unique blend of teaching and mentoring with a strong record of public service, inclusive innovation, global venturing, and social entrepreneurship.
“As a new Black professional to the City of Pittsburgh, Paul immersed himself in our city’s cultural and social organizations,” says Arjang A. Assad, Henry E. Haller Jr. Dean.
“This environment allowed him to use his doctoral research which had focused on how Black entrepreneurs have been marginalized in literature, thereby losing opportunities to shape meaningful public policy. Paul set out to remedy this by finding ways to link his work in the community back to the business school.”
Harper’s community service is exemplified by his ability to forge partnerships between the classroom and the community. Through his research and findings, Harper sought out local Black entrepreneurship leaders to discuss ways to connect that ecosystem to Pitt Business.
This led to his invitation to join the City of Pittsburgh’s Equal Opportunity Review Commission (EORC). The EORC serves as the oversight mechanism for the city’s contracting activities and conducts due diligence to determine whether any specific contract over 50,000 dollars meets the desired diversity participation levels of women and minority companies. His role on the EORC enabled Harper to build strong relationships with Black business networks, such as the African American Chamber of Commerce, that he subsequently leveraged in his teaching and experience-based learning offerings.
Harper’s graduate-level social entrepreneurship course remains primarily concerned with growing Black businesses in the Pittsburgh region by developing strategies for connecting them to the emerging technological innovation core of Western Pennsylvania.
He was the driving force behind a new undergraduate course focused on race and business ethics at Pitt Business, as well as a series of presentations by top business scholars that examine issues of racial justice at the intersection of business and society with the Academy of Management. His new course addresses the questions of structural racism, justice, and capitalism and was offered for the first time in the fall of 2020. Highly rated by students, Harper’s course will continue to be offered each semester and allows the class to learn more about their own family histories, as well as to conduct interviews with recent minority graduates from Pitt Business.
“The last thing I want to do is have students graduate unprepared for dealing with the awakening giant of race consciousness.”
A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF RACIAL JUSTICE
Harper, whose research and teaching are focused on business ethics, international entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship and inclusive innovation, believes that a deeper understanding of racial justice is increasingly important to business students’ success.
“The last thing I want to do is have students graduate unprepared for dealing with the awakening giant of race consciousness,” says Harper. “You’re seeing a moral reckoning going on here. The increasing occurrences of global social movements around migration, sexuality, and economic inequality provide fertile ground for teaching on the topics of leadership and strategy. I couldn’t see how any quality business school could proceed without that.”
While business schools traditionally have addressed race in the context of interpersonal relations, Harper’s course takes a much broader perspective, starting with how U.S. business as an institution has been complicit in the racial exploitation that brought the nation to this point in its history. With a goal of “historicizing the business curriculum,” he presents his students with ethical and timely questions that can be viewed through a business lens. For example, within the past year Harper spoke of sports teams and their players’ right to protest, as well as racially-tinged logos and branding. Alongside these topics, he discusses how many current management practices have their roots in past practices that were designed to segregate women and racial minorities away from the economic benefits of commercial capitalism.
“My interest is in making capitalism more inclusive moving forward,” says Harper. “I do not believe this can happen without first acknowledging the ways minoritized communities have been disadvantaged in the past and how that has unfairly benefited small segments of our current society.”
A CHAMPION FOR PUBLIC SERVICE
Harper believes that businesses and universities alike are being forced to examine their role in history, how they’ve been complicit in the creation and maintenance of the systems that propagate and legitimize racial bias, and how they plan to make a more equitable world for all.
“Moving forward, corporations will need new leadership who are trained to understand, recognize, and affirm calls for social justice emerging from the stakeholder ranks, and there will be fierce competition for the alumni of those schools who can provide that kind of strategy and business ethics training,” says Harper.
Harper continues to be a champion for social justice and public service—and never fails to bring his work in the community back to the University. Most recently, he joined the Board of Trustees at The Frick Pittsburgh Museum and is looking forward to creating community-facing partnerships throughout the region.