Shawn Rochester ’97: The cost of being Black in America

How is that 400 years after slaves first arrived on our shores, more than 40 million Black Americans own only 2 percent of this nation’s wealth?

In answering that question, Shawn Rochester ’97 skillfully summarizes a compendium of empirical studies to help document the staggering, pervasive tax driven by conscious and unconscious anti-Black bias that has prevented and continues to prevent Black Americans from accumulating wealth in proportion to their contributions and population.

In his book, Black Tax: The Cost of Being Black in America, and in the myriad talks he has given—on Wall Street, at leading universities, and even at the United Nations—he shows how even well-meaning white Americans can have high levels of antiblack bias. The economic impact of this bias (both past and present) is “the single biggest driver of almost all socio-economic problems faced by African Americans,” costing them more than 6 million jobs and 1.4 million businesses, Rochester says.

When he adds in the estimated value of uncompensated labor through nearly 250 years of slavery and the economic deprivation from 75 years of Jim Crow, the cumulative tax penalizing Black Americans is more than $70 trillion in current dollars.

Rochester has also written a second book on personal financial management called, CPR for the SOuL: How to Give Yourself a 20% Raise, Eliminate Your Debt, and Leave an Inheritance for Your Children’s Children, targeted to African Americans.

For his efforts, Rochester was selected in 2019 by the International Human Rights Commission Relief Fund Trust (IHRC-RFT) as one of the Top 100 Human Rights Defenders.

Rochester is a chemical engineering alumnus of the University of Rochester who switched from a career in engineering to corporate development and strategic planning before founding Good Steward LLC with his wife Delores. He is currently CEO of Good Steward, which helps small- to medium-sized enterprises and individuals strengthen their financial, strategic, and operational capabilities and helps larger corporations more effectively increase the presence of Black employees and firms on their payrolls and supply chains, respectively.

His experiences in engineering and in the corporate sector were important building blocks in preparing him to address the cost of being Black in America, Rochester says.

His background in chemical engineering, for example, taught him how to solve problems. “You learn so much about how a system operates, and how it responds to factors inside and out of it,” he says. “I learned how to become knowledgeable about things I knew nothing about, in a short period of time.”

But perhaps the most important building block of all was the time Rochester spent at an elite high school in Barbados, where the standards were high and he learned the importance of studying long hours at home to master the concepts he had been exposed to in the classroom.

Those standards and lessons prepared him well for the University of Rochester.

Barbados to America, and back again

Rochester was born in Barbados, the independent British Commonwealth island nation in the West Indies where he was raised by his mother and aunts. Then, at age 5, he moved to New York City with his mother and older brother for a fresh start. His mother started out working as a domestic, looking after wealthy families’ households and children for $150 a week. She would later go to school at night, earn a certificate in nutrition from Adelphi University, and eventually became a food services manager for various hospitals in New York City.

“So, it’s an immigrant’s story, coming to the land of opportunity, starting at the bottom and working your way up,” Rochester says.

His mother remains a strong influence in his life. “She is fearless; she is confident, and that rubbed off on me,” Rochester says. “Along with the idea of working hard, doing everything you can to make a way for your kids.

“If she had the opportunities I have had, she would have been transformative,” he adds—much like Shirley Chisholm, who also had roots in Barbados, and was the first Black woman elected to the US Congress, and the first to run as a US presidential candidate.

Rochester’s initial interest in science stemmed from sheer curiosity. “I always wondered how things worked, and why they worked,” he says. “And I’ve always been good at math.”

After elementary school he returned to Barbados, where one of his aunts who was the first deputy head mistress of the Combermere School, secured him admittance. “It took me a year to adjust,” Rochester says. Unlike the schools he had attended in NYC, “there was no credit for just showing up. People assume you don’t do well because you don’t work hard enough, not because you can’t do it,” he says. 

He had to juggle 13 subjects at once. Talk about transformative. By the time Rochester arrived at the University of Rochester, he says, “it was as if I had left Sparta. I was a different person.”

“I was not going to be as vulnerable as other students who may have been less prepared and might have been told in subtle and not so subtle ways that ‘you’re not good enough.’ I had already been exposed to a high level of academic learning in a virtually all-Black environment; I knew what I was capable of and I was not going to let anyone impose their belief system on me. I had learned to appreciate brilliance in other people and was not intimidated by that either.”

A ‘very positive’ experience at the University of Rochester

Rochester says he chose the University of Rochester for several reasons. He could take advantage of New York State’s higher education financial aid for students from low-income families. He wanted to get out of the “concrete jungle of New York City; I wanted the beautiful collegiate campus,” he says. “And I wanted a school that had great engineering programs, but also a great liberal arts program, so that just in case I changed my mind, I would have other options.”

At one time, Rochester wanted to be fighter pilot, but his eyeglasses prevented him from pursuing that dream given the training regulations then in effect. “So, I thought, ‘well, if I can’t fly fighters, then I’ll build them,’” as an aerospace engineer. But when he was in high school, there had been a tremendous downturn in that industry. 

So, by the time he arrived at the University, his eyes were set on chemical engineering. It was a high-paying field and “such a critical part of the manufacturing process,” Rochester says.

His experience at the University was “very positive,” he adds. “I had a lot of great professors, including a lot of phenomenal professors in the chemical engineering program.” One of his favorite teachers was chemical engineering professor Martin Feinberg, who taught fluid dynamics—basically using math to model the circulation of a portion of air or other fluid. “He started the class by saying, ‘We’re going to start with the basics, but by the end of the course we’re going to be using equations from some of the giants of mathematics, and it’s going to be like poetry,’” Rochester recalls.

Drawing on the study habits he learned at that high school in Barbados, Rochester spent long hours in Carlson Library, mastering the mathematic concepts of fluid dynamics. “I could see the fluid in my mind; I could see how it was moving,” he recalls. Then one day another student came up to him and asked him what he was working on.

He knew he had succeeded when, after explaining fluid dynamics to her, she said, “Hmmm… sounds like poetry.”

Years later, after Feinberg joined the faculty at Ohio State University, Rochester tracked him down to share that story with him.

During his time at the University, Rochester become a DeBrine-Sager Engineering Scholar, a Peter Landberg Memorial Scholar, and was accepted into the Ronald E. McNair Academic Scholars program. He also enjoyed participating in the National Society of Black Engineers as the chapter president, working with students in local middle schools to get them interested in math, science, and engineering as chairman of the pre-college initiative and taking on other leadership roles as a member of the Mu Sigma chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

“Were there challenges? Yes. Was my experience positive? Absolutely.”

He currently serves on the Hajim School Dean’s Visiting Committee.

A career switch

The July after graduating, Rochester started working as a process engineer with International Paper. He was assigned to a project that involved rerouting hydro-pulped fibers away from a facility that produced recycled paper and needed to be shut down—and it had to be done by October. The deadline was met and while the initial projection was that the project could require $3 million of capital expenditures, Rochester’s solution would only cost $10,000 and saved the mill over $1,000,000 per year. The next year he became the youngest shift manager in the mill’s hundred-plus year history, overseeing 120 people across production, distribution, maintenance and power generation.

After earning a master’s degree in business administration with a focus in accounting, finance, and entrepreneurship from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2002, Rochester was ready to shift his career to executive roles in corporate development and strategic planning.

During 5-plus years with IBM, for example, he was part of the company’s massive internal EBO corporate venturing initiative (which helped add billions in revenue to the company), served as a corporate development executive, and then as global sales operations manager for the company’s $10 billion communications sector. During his five years with Amphenol, a major producer of electronic and fiber optic connectors and cable and interconnect systems, he served as global director of new business development for its IT and data communications business.

During this phase of his career, Rochester executed over $500 million in transactions in the United States, China, Japan, Germany, Malaysia, and Singapore; evaluated scores of potential acquisition targets; and gained a deep understanding of the global competitive landscape after traveling extensively to 25 cities in 10 countries across Asia and Europe in pursuit of new growth opportunities.

He later also worked with the New York City Department of Education (DOE), where he developed and managed a $20 million budget to accurately and effectively score 1.6 million assessments and also served as a liaison between the NYC DOE and the New York State Department of Education.

Again, drawing on his experience at the Barbados high school, Rochester says he “started to realize how much performance is dependent on the time you spend outside of the classroom focused on struggling with concepts. When you look at kids who weren’t doing well, they were spending an average of zero to 30 minutes outside of class. The children doing extremely well were doing two to five hours a day. That was the real driver. So the district was focused on what is happening inside the classroom and inside the school building, but a large part of the learning for high performers—via practice, repetition, and struggling with concepts—happens outside of the building, meaning there is a deep disconnect. And there are of course massive socioeconomic disparities that disrupt learning both inside and outside of the classroom.”

‘What can we do?’

During his corporate work, Rochester would “periodically... read articles based on research about anti-Black discrimination in a particular marketplace. And I would think, ‘There’s a cost there. At some point, I’ll go back and I’ll look at that, and I’ll see if I can quantify it,’” he told Karen McCally in an interview for the University of Rochester alumni magazine, Rochester Review.

That effort began in earnest with the founding of Good Steward LLC. Two years ago, he also founded the Institute of Intra Diaspora Advancement (IDEA) to facilitate commerce between Black business communities in the US, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Africa to create jobs and businesses on the continent and across the Diaspora.

“I realized that there are three things that prevent us as Black Americans from accumulating wealth,” Rochester says. “One is that we are lacking the knowledge to put our limited resources to their highest and best use. The next is that we (and others) do very little commerce with black businesses and service providers. The last is the massive economic cost of anti-Black discrimination both past and present.”

With better access to information, Rochester says, a significant portion of Black Americans “could actually begin to accumulate resources far more rapidly, and if we did business with Black enterprises, we could create millions of jobs.”

The problem is that “in addition to the bias that others have against us, we also have biases against ourselves, and often view doing business with Black enterprises as a cost or a form of charity,” he says.

“So, this is still evolving.”

He is encouraged, however, by the response he receives from the many non-African Americans when he talks to multiracial audiences.

“The reactions are, ‘Wow. I had no idea of the depth and scope of the problem.’ That’s what I hear continually. I think there’s also a sense of, ‘I felt this way. But I couldn’t put the words to it.’ The question I get inundated with is, ‘What can we do?’”

His answer is an economic framework called PHD which stands for Purchase, Hire, and Deposit in ways that create jobs, create and expand businesses, and provide capital in the Black community.

“The majority of the economic impact happens through the proper representation of Black employees and firms on corporate, institutional, and government payrolls and supply chains respectively, coupled with individuals and organizations utilizing their respective balance sheets to provide liquidity in the Black community via deposits and equity investments in Black financial institutions,” Rochester says.

“That way, you’re directly investing in Black enterprise, which is starved of capital, and Black communities, which are disproportionately starved of resources and opportunities.

“This framework helps us to not only effectively direct our resources but also to measure the efficacy of any policy, strategy, or program that is meant to create economic opportunities in the Black community because they are either stimulative to job creation, business development, or capital availability and affordability or they are not. That’s hugely powerful. And everyone can do that.”