Talent Development: From Migrant Workers’ Son to CEO

May 1, 2012 2:32 pm

INROADS CEO Forest T Harper JrTalent development and early identification of future potential hold the key for INROADS’ aspiring low-income students. And if anyone understands what it takes to pull yourself up from poverty and reach the highest levels of corporate America, it’s Forest T. Harper.

Read personal stories from two INROADS interns: Talent Development Creates Ability for INROADS Students to Succeed.

The president and CEO of INROADS, who spent 28 years at Pfizer (including his last role as vice president of capability development and stakeholder relations), started life as the son of migrant workers in Fort Pierce, Fla.

“My parents worked in the fields, harvesting vegetables and fruits … we lived in the projects, and from the top of the roof, I had two views, the drive-in theater and Cape Canaveral,” recalls Harper, who now heads the nonprofit that helps low-income students find and succeed in corporate internships. Most of those students are Black, Latino and American Indian.

For more on talent development and diversity in education, read Rutgers Future Scholars Enhances Talent Pipelines With Corporate-Student Outreach and PhD Project: Getting Diversity to the Next Academic Level.

The Power of Support

His family, friends and teachers recognized that the bright child and gifted athlete had a chance for a better life. He excelled at football and basketball, and as starting quarterback, he led his high-school football team to a state championship. Harper won a full scholarship to Morgan State University in Baltimore, but a serious knee injury put it at risk. The school let him in on a conditional scholarship: If the knee got better and he could play, he could stay.

He boarded a Greyhound bus for Baltimore, not knowing if he had a real future or if he would return to the fields. His knee got better and he made the team—and then he was injured again.

“Before I was hurt, I was at football practice and a tall gentleman in uniform came over to me,” Harper recalls. “He said: ‘Maybe I can talk to you about how you can leave Morgan State with two degrees, no matter what happens with football.’”

The gentleman was with the Army ROTC, and his suggestion and mentorship changed the young man’s trajectory. Harper went on to major in social work and then went in to the Army, where he achieved the rank of captain in the 82nd Airborne Division.

Harper loved the structure and opportunities of the military, but his family was having tough financial times, so he decided to seek employment in private industry. His first and only corporate employer was Pfizer, where he was hired as a salesman.

For more on veterans and talent development, watch Diversity Web Seminar: Veterans in the Workplace Webinar.

Recognizing Potential

“My district sales manager, Richard Matthews, asked me what my aspirations were. I said, ‘I would like to grow up and have your job.’ He said, ‘Then that’s what you’ll do,’” Harper recalls. “I owe him a tremendous amount for just being able to tell me I could reach for this. Leadership is not about you but what you do for your people.”

Harper spent almost three decades at Pfizer, becoming a senior executive with major leadership positions in sales, public affairs and public policy. He helped start the company’s African-American resource group and served as its president—and he was deeply involved in the company’s efforts to reduce healthcare disparities. He also was a member of Pfizer’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Committee. Along the way, he broke a few barriers.

“I was the first and only in eight different positions at Pfizer. I could do nothing about being the first, but I could always do something about being the only,” he says.

Harper spent two years as an executive on loan to the National Urban League and the Executive Leadership Council, which works to get Blacks into senior positions in corporate America.

Pay It Forward

In his mid-50s, Harper decided he wanted to share the business and leadership skills he had learned in corporate America with nonprofits, and his strongest goal was to mentor and educate students.

Thus the fit to lead INROADS was perfect. INROADS has found spots for more than 2,000 student interns with more than 200 major corporations. With nearly 24,000 alumni, Harper sees great opportunity for expanding the organization’s potential to help young people gain the first foothold to corporate success.

“My one-year plan is to work with the national board of directors and key stakeholders and ensure we have the financial stability to help our 2,000 students. I want to enhance the awareness and benefits of INROADS so we are no longer the best-kept secret in corporate America,” he says.

Beyond that? “Our goal is that companies tell us over and over that they value the partnership because it is a part of their overall talent blueprint,” he says, adding, “Talent is a continuing life cycle, not just a one-time thing.”

Follow INROADS on Twitter (@INROADS), Facebook and LinkedIn, or watch video interviews with INROADS alumni on YouTube. Read this profile in DiversityInc’s June 2012 digital issue.