by Elaine Bennett
Milton Irvin, one of the few African American executives at Salomon Brothers, came to me for help one day in early 1993. He was speaking that afternoon in Washington, DC, at a forum designed to bring diverse candidates to the attention of the incoming Clinton administration—Bill Clinton, that is. He had 20 minutes before he left for the airport. Could I help turn his notes into a speech?
One sentence stood out immediately. He had written something like, “We hope you’ll consider diverse candidates.” I grabbed my pen and said, “It’s 1993. We’re long past hoping for diversity. We expect it.”
He looked at me, amazed that the whitest of white girls (seriously—I can get a sunburn from walking under a light bulb) would understand such a thing. He even said, “How did you know that?”
“Expect” stayed in the remarks. And Mr. Irvin turned to me whenever he had a major speaking engagement.
A return engagement
In the second speech I wrote for him, I was able to blend the personal and the political into a strong piece of oratory. The National Black MBA Association had asked him to speak about “African Americans in the financial industry”—a fairly broad topic that could have easily turned into a recitation of facts and figures. Instead, Mr. Irvin used the opportunity to take a stand. The speech turned out to be one of the highlights of the conference, and one of my all-time favorites.
Eleven years later, long after Mr. Irvin and I had both moved on from Salomon Brothers, he tracked me down and asked me to write for him again. He was speaking at the 31st anniversary of a conference he had helped to organize when he was a student at Wharton Business School in the 1970s. The conference was named after civil rights leader Whitney M. Young, Jr.—who was quite a speaker himself. I found a speech Mr. Young had given to the American Institute of Architects in 1968 and was so impressed with it that I used it as the backbone of Mr. Irvin’s speech. (If you’d like to read Mr. Young’s speech, email me and I’ll send you a copy.)