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Black Alumni Advisory Council Presents Black History Month Alumni Career Panel

Posted in: Alumni News and Events

Group posing by podium
Left to right: Al-Nesha Jones '07, '13 CPA; Brooke Jackson ’22, ’23 MBA; Bilal Walker '16, '23 MA; Reginia Judge '89 JD; Gemar Mills '05; Dr. Saundra Collins; Taylor Jeffers '13, '16 MBA; Dr. Suffiyah Webb '04 DDS, MPH; Ni'Kita Wilson '99; Brenda Coleman-Caldwell ’78; and Joanne Bowman '82.

The Black Alumni Advisory Council (BAAC), in conjunction with the African American Caucus, hosted a panel discussion featuring six extraordinary Black alumni from varied industries at the Feliciano School of Business on February 19. The event was created in honor of Black History Month to inspire students and fellow professionals by sharing the career journeys of these distinguished alumni. Brooke Jackson ’22, ’23 MBA, a member of the BAAC Black History Month Committee, served as moderator, with panelists covering opportunities and challenges they faced as well as providing advice for those seeking a career in their field. Following the panel, attendees had the opportunity to continue the discussion and network with fellow alumni and students.

“Our panelists have truly achieved great things and we are proud to shine a spotlight on their extraordinary talents and abilities,” stated Joanne Bowman ’82, president of the Black Alumni Advisory Council. “I am certain the stories of how they faced their challenges to reach success have equipped the students here tonight along with fellow professionals with some tactics and inspiration as they strive for excellence in their career journeys.”

Reginia Judge ’89, associate professor of Justice Studies at Montclair and president of the African American Caucus, remarked, “The AAC is pleased to have worked with the Black Alumni Advisory Council to bring this event to fruition. The panelists represent Black success at its finest. Their stories were inspirational, and their advice was outstanding. When the next generation of students follows their paths, they will walk in the footsteps of greatness.”

The Alumni Panelists:

  • Taylor Jeffers ’13, ’16 MBA is a brand consultant and founder of Taylormade it, a marketing services consultancy. With a background in integrated marketing, digital media & content creation, she’s worked for & partnered with organizations like the NBA, Bed Bath & Beyond, Zappos, Pinterest and more. As a creator advocate, she specializes in helping brands thoughtfully partner with influencers & creators to launch campaigns & execute programming that supports business objectives. Her mission is to provide opportunities for creators and athletes to build their brands & fund their passions. Learn More
  • Al-Nesha Jones ’07, ’13 CPA is the founder of ASE Group, a full-service accounting, tax and advisory firm focused on empowering small business owners to build strong, scalable and sustainable businesses. ASE Group specializes in making the dollars make sense through solid recordkeeping, proactive tax planning, tax preparation and year-round advisory support for entrepreneurs in the New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania area. Learn More
  • Gemar Mills ’05 is the chief academic officer, co-founder and executive director of College Achieve Public Schools. He has been celebrated for his triumph in transforming Shabazz High School in Newark in a few short years to a school in which hope fills the halls. Mills was 27 years old when he took on the role. After the turnaround, the school was profiled in magazines, in a documentary produced by The Star-Ledger, and in the book Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith, which calls for radically overhauling U.S. high schools. Learn More
  • Bilal Walker ’16, ’23 MA is the program manager at the Newark Opportunity Network and chief executive officer at Al-Munir LLC. He is an ethnographic researcher observing the impacts of poverty and racism on Black and Brown children and families. Walker has experience in student research, program assessment, creation of trauma-informed programming, implementation of culturally responsive curricula and data analysis in schools, nonprofits and grassroots organizations. In addition, his organization, Al-Munir LLC, farms on more than 7,000 square feet of City of Newark property through an Adopt-a-Lot program. Learn More
  • Suffiyah Webb ’04 DDS, MPH is the chief executive officer at Brilliant Smiles Pediatric Dentistry and oral health coordinator for The Leaguers, Inc. Head Start. She has served as an associate professor at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, assistant professor at Rutgers University and as a pediatric dentist at Zufall Health in Dover. She received her DDS from Howard University and MPH from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) School of Public Health. Learn More
  • Ni’Kita Wilson ’99 is the vice president of Product Development at Pattern Beauty, which supports “the curliest, coiliest and tightest of hair textures” through products designed to nourish natural hair. With a Bachelor of Science in chemistry, she began as a bench chemist formulating products across all categories. She has co-founded two companies: Catalyst Cosmetic Development and Love You Unapologetically Collective, and has served in a vice president role at multiple beauty companies. Learn More

Overcoming Challenges

The panelists began with a discussion about the many challenges faced throughout their career journey, and some issues were experienced across the board. Most of the panelists reflected on coming from humble beginnings and being the first in their families to go to college.

Other panelists shared more personal issues, such as Jeffers, who lost her mother unexpectedly during her first year as an entrepreneur. She credits her multiple streams of income for allowing her to take the necessary time off to grieve.

Wilson spoke to how the intersectionality of being female and African American in a male dominated business world raised difficulties for her. She shared the challenge to find her voice and assert herself in spaces where she felt her leadership was disregarded.

In her remarks, Webb inspired hope when she stated, “Failure is never final.” She shared her story of needing to repeat the first year of dental school, adding, “I’ve noticed a trend. When I start something, it may not go the way I planned, but sometimes there is a blessing in that.” Webb noted that the extra time in dental school gave her the opportunity to do additional research and grow her knowledge.

Taking a broader viewpoint on the challenges faced by the Black community, Walker spoke poignantly. “In Newark, young people are facing socioeconomic challenges that prevent them from making the academic and post-secondary gains they need to be successful. Organizations like Newark Opportunity Youth Network are giving students access to accelerated and alternative education options.”

What Would You Have Done Differently?

When asked what they would have done differently, several panelists shared their experiences about finding a mentor or securing internships. Jeffers noted, “When you graduate, companies expect you to have experience. I would have found a mentor in the area I wanted to get into.” She urged students to be proactive, “Students, you are in a prime position to ask questions of professionals in your field of interest or even faculty. Take advantage of all the resources available at the University.”

Others pointed to the need for networking. Jones shared, “I didn’t think networking was for me because it was awkward, but networking is really just learning more about people. Business is all about who you know.”

Mills, who did not have a mentor at the time, shared his strategy for keeping focused and on track: find your accountability partner. “Designate a close friend with whom you agree to hold each other accountable. If you’re thinking about going out instead of studying, your partner will remind you to go to the library and study instead.”

Looking back, Jones shared that she would have made time to join organizations, including Greek life. She worked full-time while going to school in order to reach the needed 150 credits for her CPA exam in four years. She reminded students, “Today is the youngest you’ll ever be, so be sure to enjoy your time as a student.”

What Motivates You / Keeps You Motivated?

When asked about motivation for success, panelists talked about the importance of setting an example for their children, keeping a love of learning, caring for oneself and finding a strong support system.

Mills explained, “My motivation is legacy-driven. Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and others have given us a strong legacy, now we need to add financial resources to that. My goal is to leave a legacy for my children so they don’t have to worry about basic needs, and can go out and continue the fight.”

Webb pointed to her love of learning new things and fixing problems. “As a people, we are crippled by poverty. I am donating $50 to 100 families, and a bank will match that amount, to grow a mindset of saving.”

The importance of self-care and rejuvenation resonated across the panel. Walker stated, “I need God in my life to be able to feel refreshed each day. You need something that will allow you to nurture your spirit…a support system.” Wilson echoed, “Love You Unapologetically Collective is all about taking the time to take care of ourselves.”

Stay Connected

Brooke Jackson ’22, MBA ’23, moderator for the evening, stated, “Our goal for this event was to show Black students the success Black alumni from Montclair have had throughout their careers and showcase the opportunities available to them in various industries after they graduate. I hope this event encourages students to connect with Black alumni and BAAC so we can help support Black students.”

Capping off the evening, Brenda Coleman-Caldwell ’78, vice president of the BAAC, thanked all for attending and thanked the panelists for sharing their stories. She highlighted important takeaways and urged students to take advantage of all that is available to them at the University. Coleman-Caldwell also encouraged others to join the BAAC for fellowship, support and to help create more events like this in the future.

About the Black Alumni Advisory Council

The Black Alumni Advisory Council was created to engage Black alumni in support of the Montclair State University mission of educational, institutional and overall university community initiatives, policies and activities that strengthen relationships with the Black community and promote social justice, equity and inclusion among alumni and students. To learn more click here or contact Briana Curtis, associate director of Alumni Engagement at or 973-655-7478.

Black History Month at Montclair State University

This Black Alumni Career Panel is one of a series of events organized to honor Black History Month at the University. For a full list of Black History Month events at the University, click here.

To view photos from this event, click here.