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“Earning Your Power” – James Robertson’s Keynote Address at Social Impact Week

James Robertson
James Robertson.

SOM’s Net Impact Club hosted James Robertson (MBA ’99) for an inspiring conversation about moral leadership, spanning his time as a HIV/AIDS activist in the U.S. to his roles as the former CEO of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance and co-founder of the Reaching Out conference for LGBTQ+ MBA students.

James opened the session by recalling his 1996 work on the AIDS Memorial Quilt in DC.  He explained that he did not set out to work in HIV/AIDS, but – growing up a gay man and seeing the impact AIDS had on his community – it became his calling.  “You don’t always get to decide how or where you use your power,” he said. “This was simply the hand that history had dealt my generation.”

Addressing his decision to join SOM, James articulated his motivation, noting that while anger and grief can mobilize communities, it takes management education to effect real change. Upon joining SOM, James observed the lack of LGBTQ+ representation across MBA programs. As a result, he worked with students at HBS and other schools to organize the first Reaching Out MBA Conference in 1999. The conference continues annually and provides a key platform for driving LGBTQ+ protection and social acceptance in the workplace.

James also spoke in detail about his experience as the CEO of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance.  Learning from his previous experiences, James highlighted the importance of putting the most underserved communities front and center when driving change, particularly in situations of low social acceptance. He stressed the need to forge coalitions across civil society organizations in situations of "unequal power," recognizing that it's easier to reject an individual than a united movement.

When asked for tips for how best to respond to pushback against social movements, James underscored the value of approaching such situations with "a massive amount of humility." This humility, he explained, could range from investing significant amounts of time to build trust, to ceding one’s leadership role in specific instances to someone who has more credibility.  “Letting communities lead is important,” James cautioned. “If we don’t put communities first, then we have no business being there.”