Damon Williams graduated from Fontbonne University in 2005 with his master’s degree in Business Administration. He currently serves as the Associate Vice President and Chief of Staff at the University of Kentucky. After having a successful career in corporate America, Williams has taken on the task of creating equitable spaces for underrepresented students in higher education. We sat down and spoke with him to learn more about his journey.
Williams studied psychology and sociology at Xavier University of Louisiana, the only Catholic historically black college or university (HBCU) in the United States. After studying the psyche of individuals and groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, age, and geographical location, he sought to gain a fuller understanding of the business side of decision-making. He decided to further his education and pursued a graduate degree at Fontbonne University. “I was a young executive at Phillip Morris. This degree would assist with having a deeper understanding of our customers.” He was attracted to Fontbonne because of the small campus environment and shared Catholic values, “I was attracted to a smaller campus with a service and justice mission.”
When asked about his work as a Fontbonne University student, Williams shared, “The case studies we did taught us a lot about diverse and ethical business. One of the things I loved about Fontbonne was that if we didn’t see it in our text, we could bring it to class. Our professors gave us the autonomy to contribute to our learning by offering diverse perspectives through case studies we found on our own or even our real-life experiences. Classes that I thought I would dislike, for example, Economics, Quantitative Analysis and Marketing, were very beneficial in my next job as a National Accounts Manager with Verizon Corporate and during my tenure in corporate America. I also use several transferable tenets and skills today in academia and diversity work.”
During his time at Fontbonne University, Williams bonded with his classmates. He fondly remembered being one of the younger members of his cohort and the unique perspective that provided. “It was great learning about workplace diversity: scope, sector, and the various levels of experiences within the cohort. One of the values of Fontbonne is serving the “dear neighbor” without distinction,” said Williams. “I saw it in the way my cohort members served each other. Our unique perspectives helped us better serve our larger communities. The goal of diversity was for us to have cultural intelligence and learn from each other.”
Williams has advocated for diversity in business and higher education. He calls himself a DEI hybrid catalyst: a bridge between academia and business. Pushing himself to build inclusive excellence in all sectors. Williams explained, “When you find your purpose, there isn’t one set path to get you there, but hard work, grit, and the expertise anchored by data will help you achieve your goals.” When asked how he feels about his journey so far, he said, “I often pinch myself and ask how a young man from Tallulah, Louisiana, has gotten the opportunity to be the inaugural person [DEI Representative] at so many prestigious institutions. My parents worked hard and sacrificed a lot for me to be here.”He feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside so many dedicated people.
Williams further explained, ” My parents were denied promotions or opportunities throughout their 30-year careers despite their graduate education and work experience. My goal has been to lead in spaces where my parents were not allowed and open the door for those that come behind me. I stand on the shoulders of many great people.”
Williams shared that he has always wanted to ensure everyone has a seat at the table. “My proudest moments aren’t about me, but about the work or systems I have disrupted to create access and opportunities for marginalized populations. I was invited to speak at the White House during the HBCU conference. To be there and meet Vice President Harris while seeing so many of my former students, now MDs and PhDs, giving lectures was amazing. When I see my students succeeding, I know I’ve done what I’ve been called to do.”
Williams describes this work as his “ministry”. He explained that he truly felt called to advocate for underrepresented students. In his current role, he creates strategic and inclusive excellence plans that provide access and opportunities for faculty, staff, alumni and most importantly, students. His office implements initiatives that provide rich diversity-related experiences for all to help ensure their success in an interconnected world. He strives to ensure that every student feels like they belong on campus.
We asked Williams his opinion on why this sense of community can be so hard to achieve on campuses across the country. He shared, “Often with DEI, there’s an event that causes everyone to react. Since 2020 we have had the death of many people like Tyre Nichols, Breonna Taylor, a UK alum, and so many others. Everyone gets excited, and we start thinking of these ways to grow and move things around, but they’re not sustainable because something else happens. Another topic or incident occurs, or someone transitions to a new role, and our ideas and excitement for change don’t last.”
Williams believes that, as educators, we are training the leaders of tomorrow. He says institutions must prioritize creating the infrastructure for diversity, so everyone feels like they belong on the campus. “The campus environment should be a place where they can learn and feel safe. Students need to hear their history and see people that look like them in the classroom and in their administration. All students should be able to learn about experiences and hear perspectives they are unfamiliar with,” said Williams.
Thinking about his experience as a student and how far higher education has come concerning DEI, Williams shares, “During my graduate experience, I don’t remember my college having diversity officers. There might have been someone responsible for multicultural affairs, but we never saw it at an executive level. Our awareness has greatly increased on the topic, but it is respected as a discipline in a way it wasn’t before. DEI more at the forefront of people’s minds.”
Williams’s passion for creating access expands beyond his current role. He shared that with the proper resources, he would “start a scholarship at Fontbonne or other business schools in my parent’s name for underrepresented and marginalized students. The scholarship would pay for their education, include professional development, and have an international component. Business schools are expensive, and many diverse students are good at business but don’t get the opportunity to pursue it.” When students don’t have to worry about money, they flourish,” said Williams. “My MBA experience at Fontbonne University made me want to share that experience with others because mentoring is so important to me.” Williams further explained, “when underrepresented students think about business, they don’t see themselves amongst leaders in that field or the MBA programs. I desire to create access so students can see themselves as leaders in these spaces.”
When asked what is next, Williams jokingly said, “everyone tells me I’m going to be a college president as I’m running around like a headless chicken at work.” He added, “I’m sure in my next steps, I will become a vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion for an enterprise and then from there, I’m open. If it’s going back to my alma mater to lead the institution or becoming the president of a university or college, we’ll see what God has for me.” Williams’s career experience and education at Fontbonne University have equipped him to serve diverse communities uniquely, and his dedication to creating an inclusive environment continues to grow daily.