Captain Ryan Brown ’09 never saw himself joining the military, but he always knew he was called to lead. With a degree in Communication Studies and a minor in Public Relations, he was ready to focus on those fields in a graduate program. While preparing to embark on his Master's of Public Administration from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Public Policy, he would he make a life-changing visit to the United States Military Academy at West Point to watch his girlfriend, and soon-to-be wife, graduate. That eye-opening experience, and his passion for leadership, motivated him to join the Army soon thereafter and commission as an Officer in May of 2012.
Since 2012, he has served in many roles including a platoon leader deployed in Afghanistan, a company commander, and as an Aide-de-Camp to the Commanding General of the storied 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.
Currently earning another master’s degree, this time in policy management from Georgetown University, he now lives in D.C. with his wife, Army Major Kimberly Mallard, and their daughter, Leila, 2.
After completing the program, he will spend two years working for the Department of Defense in the Pentagon for either the Joint Chiefs of Staff or for the Secretary of Defense. Captain Brown’s dissertation requires him to defend or implement some type of policy or implementation of policies. He’s chosen to focus on the lack of diversity of senior corporate leadership positions within Fortune 500 Company boardrooms.
“I chose a topic to focus on the current civil unrest in our society as I was definitely affected by the death of George Floyd,” he said. “As an African American military officer, you don’t see many people who look like you in the room. I expected that when I first began my career. Now, eight years later, I’m still not seeing very much change and it seems like as I continue to advance in my career, it continues to follow that trend.”
After seeing the New York Times article African-Americans Are Highly Visible in the Military, but Almost Invisible at the Top, he was inspired to find out why.
“The article essentially stated that the higher you go in the military, the less diverse it is,” he said. “There was also a photo of the president and his top four-star generals and admirals. There were no women or minorities in the photo. There the President was in 2020 with his most senior people and it could have been a photo from the 1950s. I started to think about the idea that if this was still going on in the military, what does our society as a whole look like? That’s when I decided to look into diversity at Fortune 500 businesses.”
According to a July 2020 Business Insider article, there are only three Black Fortune 500 CEOs: Kenneth Frazier of pharmaceutical company Merck & Co.; Marvin Ellison of home improvement retailer Lowe's; and Roger Ferguson, Jr. of insurance company TIAA. That’s just 0.6 percent and there are still no Black women leading Fortune 500 companies.
Brown hopes his research provides a glimpse into the work large corporations still need to do to address the lack of diversity, and that it will serve as a catalyst for accountability across the board.
“We’re finally starting to get to the root of the problem and more people are recognizing there is a prejudice and unconscious bias that’s part of our country’s past,” he said. “It’s apparent everywhere from the military to education and it negatively affects who is recruited, promoted and who ultimately gets to the top. I remember reading a 1925 memorandum from the Commandant of the United States Army War College at the time, Major General Hanson Ely, who stated to Army leaders that, ‘black service members were a class from which they could not expect to draw leadership material from.’ People may still have those thoughts. It gets passed down to children and generations of people still have that mindset.”
He also recognizes that women, the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities continue to be negatively affected by either an unconscious or intentional bias.
“What’s going on in our country right now is opening people’s eyes,” he said. “In the military and within our criminal justice system, there is evidence that certain races are more severely punished. For example, the military no longer posts the photo of a candidate to the promotion board because there was evidence of an unconscious bias toward that individual. So, based on their physical appearance, they would be judged more harshly.”
His dissertation is also looking at new legislation that proposes companies should be legally obligated to share their diversity statistics with the public and how companies should rethink their recruiting efforts to be more inclusive.
“Certain Fortune 500 companies only hire Ivy League (or similar) graduates, especially those in Silicon Valley,” he said. “I’ve been blessed in my career to have leaders who didn’t see my skin color and gave me opportunities. However, that’s not the case everywhere and it’s important to have tough conversations about the reality of these issues.”
These types of conversations are common for Brown to have with individuals he mentors, especially current TLU students. He’s specifically honest about the balance of merit and companies that are intentionally diversifying their hiring practices.
“I tell them to be prepared to work twice as hard and be twice as good to meet the same standards as everyone else,” he said. “You have to be an example through your performance, be able to take feedback, and separate things. I like to remind them that if they’re currently going through a difficult situation, those challenges also exist in corporate America. And if anything, they can use it as a learning experience even if sometimes you feel like you don’t belong.”
As a first-generation college student and the son of a single mother, Brown is grateful for the advice he received from older alumni. The sharing of lessons learned is what he refers to as a “pull as you climb” mentality.
“It’s about bringing the next generation forward as we continue to break down barriers,” he said. “The feeling and need to belong is the greatest human emotion. It’s important to build trust and give younger people of color the tools to succeed beyond the big picture. It’s the little things, too, like interview etiquette and work attire. When you look the part, that helps with confidence and overall success.”
Being part of the Tau Tau Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated at TLU shaped many aspects of his character, as did his involvement across campus. That commitment to service and leadership is what still motivates him.
“I never would have thought I’d be doing what I’m doing right now or that I’d have the experiences I’ve had,” he said. “The TLU leadership certification program with Dr. Robin Bisha really set a foundation for me. My personal leadership philosophy still relies on what I learned at TLU. I’m honored to be able to work with current students, to share resources, and be there to support them.”