Remembering Robert Holland Jr.

On December 22, Robert Holland Jr. passed away. Bob was a corporate groundbreaker, a marvelous fellow Spelman College Board of Trustees chair, and a wonderful role model and philanthropist who always wanted to open doors for others. He was especially dedicated to making sure more young people had the chance to follow his example and pursue their own dreams.

He grew up in Albion, Michigan, with devoted parents who were not formally educated themselves but prized education for their five children. His close-knit neighborhood also encouraged his academic success: “When grades were issued, everybody knew you were carrying a report card. I learned very, very quickly: Do not bring bad grades through the gauntlet.” He wanted to study engineering, but the guidance counselor at his segregated high school suggested he apply only to trade schools. When he tried to apply to the Air Force Academy his school refused to forward his transcript. But that didn’t stop him from finding a way to reach his goals.

A college professor he met at a track meet encouraged him and gave him a list of universities offering engineering programs and scholarships. Bob only had enough money for two application fees, so he decided to apply to just the first and last schools on the alphabetical list: Cal Polytechnic and Union College. This was how he ended up leaving Michigan for the first time in his life to take a 26-hour bus trip to Schenectady, New York to enroll at Union. He said later, “That was not the last blind journey I would take, but the first of many.” Bob quickly proved his high school’s bigoted low expectations wrong by excelling at Union, where he was class president all four years, a three-letter varsity athlete, and the recipient of a special prize given annually to a senior of exemplary “conduct and character.” He followed his B.S. in mechanical engineering with an M.B.A. from Baruch College and then began his groundbreaking career in business.

Among his many trailblazing roles he was an associate and the first Black partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and became the first African American CEO of a majority owned franchise company after being appointed CEO of Ben & Jerry’s. During the year he was being considered for the Ben & Jerry’s role, the company was holding a widely publicized contest inviting anyone interested in being their CEO to submit a 100-word application explaining why they wanted the job. Bob had already been identified as a candidate, but still provided a poem called “Time, Values, and Ice Cream” describing his own experience being kept out of segregated ice cream parlors as a child. As he said in a speech at Wake Forest University years later, “I am not looking for sympathy or a badge for the challenges of my childhood; I share it to provide some context to show, as my parents would say, ‘what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.’”

Bob served on many corporate and nonprofit boards, including serving at Spelman for 25 years, where he was a treasured colleague and friend. He had a lifelong dedication to education and providing opportunities for underserved children and young people. As a college student he volunteered at a children’s hospital and a camp for at-risk children. He founded the Make-A-Difference Dropout Prevention Program in Detroit, and served on the Advisory Board to the NCAA, the Board of the Harlem Junior Tennis Program, the New York City Board of Children’s Aid Society, and as chair of the Northeast STEM Starter Academy in Mount Vernon, New York.

In a 1997 commencement speech at his alma mater Union College, he told graduates: “If you decide to have a positive impact on one poverty-stricken child’s life, one each year until you come back for your thirty-fifth reunion, you will have a meaningful impact on a body of people the size of New York City . . . You can check my math, or you can get busy making a difference.” Throughout his life Bob Holland stayed busy making a difference. I am so grateful for his legacy and service.