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James Robertson talking to a student and smiling

James Robertson ’99 Discusses Leadership and Social Change

Robertson, a global advocate for people living with HIV and LGBTQ+ communities, spoke on December 4 at an event that kicked off the school’s annual Social Impact Week.

James Robertson ’99 shared his story of leadership and social change with a Yale School of Management audience in a December 4 keynote address that launched the school’s Social Impact Week.

Robertson has had a long, global career advocating for people living with HIV and for LGBTQ+ communities. Talking with students, he encouraged those who are committed to making a meaningful societal impact to develop the leadership skills they’ll need to drive change.

“Great missions need great management,” he said.

Sponsored by the Net Impact club, Social Impact Week included a slate of discussions and workshops around the theme “Earning Your Power,” exploring ways in which students can responsibly leverage personal and professional influence to affect social change.

Net Impact partnered with a number of student clubs to host events, which included a session about advocating for values in the workplace; a workshop on productive nonprofit board membership; discussions on strategic giving planning and another on working for change in the political arena; and a student clothing swap.

Robertson served as CEO of India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi from 2010 to 2016 and currently consults with clients working to advance health equity and access for vulnerable, underserved communities in the United States and around the world.

Robertson’s activism began in the early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic was devastating communities—especially those of gay men—and governments were slow to react with services and research funding.

“As a young gay man, I had reason to be concerned, and I wanted to do something,” Robertson said. “This was the hand that history dealt my generation, and you don’t always get to decide how you use your power.” This power—wielded strategically—is what drives social change, he explained.

In 1993, Robertson joined the team of activists who created the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which has toured the U.S. and been displayed multiple times in its entirety on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The Quilt is a collection of more than 50,000 fabric panels made by friends and family that humanize the epidemic’s toll by telling the stories of the dead.

Through his work on the Quilt, Robertson said he learned that while anger and grief can catalyze communities to act, good leadership and management skills are critical in sustaining social change movements.

James Robertson speaking to a classroom of students
Student speaking and asking a question

So he decided to pursue an MBA, applying only to Yale SOM because the school’s focus on educating leaders to serve both business and society matched his own passion.

At Yale SOM, Robertson co-founded Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA), an annual national conference for LGBTQ+ MBA students and alumni. Today the nonprofit organization attracts support from Fortune 50 companies and supports a fellows program providing millions of dollars in scholarships each year.

“Pockets of queer MBAs at each school connected and created a network that has grown more powerful each year,” Robertson said. “The organization has evolved in ways that I didn’t dare imagine in 1999.”

After graduating from Yale SOM, Robertson returned to AIDS work, focusing on bringing clinical care and prevention education to vulnerable, underserved populations sub-Saharan Africa and later in India.

Partnering with local organizations and beneficiary communities, hiring from these communities, building trust, and telling the human stories behind the data were key strategies Alliance India used to develop effective programs and foster change, he said.

Collaborating closely with government policymakers and other NGOs has also been critical in his work, Robertson added. These collaborations often take place in situations where stakeholders have unequal power. This is where the power of collective action can be transformative.

“It’s easy to say no to one person,” Robertson said, “but it’s much harder to say no to a movement.”