to watch (see “30 for the Next 30,” August 2000). Her track record is a testimony to her intelligence, strength of purpose, and relentless drive to succeed at everything she does. For all of these reasons–and her latest career accomplishment–we recognize Pamela Thomas-Graham as the 2001 BLACK ENTERPRISE Corporate Executive of the Year.
The rays beaming through the two windows that nearly run from ceiling to floor inside Pamela Thomas-Graham’s spacious corner office cast cheery hues over the framed photos sitting atop a long windowsill. Pictures of smiling friends and Lawrence Otis Graham, her attorney-writer husband, holding a beautiful, brown baby boy (their son, now 3 years old), also find a comfortable home on her L-shaped workspace. Conspicuously missing from the room is an ominous executive desk with visitors’ chairs parked a safe distance away.
“I don’t believe in that. I spent my formative years at McKinsey sitting at a table working with people,” says Thomas-Graham, who is sitting cross-legged near me in a chair from the small, circular, marble-topped table in the middle of the room. “People shouldn’t feel afraid to come in my office, be themselves, and think.”
Thinking was definitely encouraged in the Thomas household. She and an older brother grew up middle-class in Detroit with their scout leader parents, who were active in the civil rights movement. Her father, an engineer from South Carolina, and her mother, a social worker from Georgia,
instilled in them a belief that education and hard work were the keys to success in life. “They were determined that we would have focus and goals,” she says.
An avid reader, she excelled at Lutheran High School West, a parochial school in Detroit, and was named “most likely to succeed” and “smartest” by her peers. “I also loved to dance and sing,” says Thomas-Graham, who was active in the drama club and school choir. A family friend from church–and loyal Harvard alumna–took a liking to the young Thomas-Graham and became a mentor, whisking her away to numerous Harvard functions.
Thomas-Graham later announced her own plans to apply to the Ivy League institution, her first choice, to her guidance counselor. She was met with discouraging words meant to shield her–the first from Lutheran to apply to Harvard–from “unrealistic” expectations. Still, she applied. After being accepted, she went above and beyond what was expected of her to achieve what her guidance counselor doubted she could.
At Harvard University, she was voted the student “showing the greatest promise.” She graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and was awarded the Captain Jonathan Fay prize, Harvard’s top annual honor given to a female graduate. She remained at Harvard to pursue professional degrees. “It actually never dawned on me to apply anywhere else,” she recalls. While studying in a grueling, four-year, joint M.B.A.-J.D. program, she also clocked in time as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. During that time, she met Graham–who was also studying law–whom she later married in 1992.
After Harvard, McKinsey &