Trustee Emerita Benaree Pratt “Bennie” Wiley has been called a pioneer, visionary and an extraordinary servant leader.
Now she can add being a 2023 Howard University honorary degree recipient to her legacy as an outstanding trailblazer in business.
“To receive it from the university that you attended, from a university where you most recently served on the board, and served as vice chair... I think it is the honor of all honors in so many ways,” Wiley says of her achievement.
Wiley is well known throughout the Boston and Washington, D.C. communities for her outstanding work in the business world.
Within Wiley’s journey, Howard University prepared and gave her a foundation in the business world. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Wiley attended Howard University from 1964 to 1968, just like her sister, former mayor of Washington, D.C. Sharon Pratt Kelly.
Wiley thought that she would become a teacher, but an economics professor saw her gifts and talents in his class and encouraged her to pursue studies in business. She became a member of the Alpha chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., initiated in 1966.
After graduating from Howard University, she went on to work in IBM’s sales department.
“During my time at IBM, women were not allowed to do sales or have a sales job, so I accompanied my male colleagues to make the deal in sales while I gathered the data,” Wiley says. “There were very few women in business and especially women of color and black women. There were some of my male colleagues who had finished Harvard Business School and they encouraged me to apply. I did and was accepted.”
She matriculated to Harvard Business School in 1970, earning her MBA in 1972. She was one of 28 women out of a class of 800 to enter business school in Boston. Wiley shaped and cultivated her future in the business world at Harvard Business School (HBS). She and her daughter, B.J. Wiley Williams, who graduated from HBS in 2006, are the first African American mother and daughter graduates from Harvard Business School.
She is elegant in thought, elegant in behavior, elegant in composure, and elegant in dedication to our people and particularly in aiding people of color to make their way in the world of finance and business.”
Among the positions she’s held included president and CEO of The Partnership, Inc. for 15 years. Through the years of achievements, she also received many accolades and recognition for her work and dedication. In 2003, she was selected as one of Boston’s most powerful women by Boston Magazine and featured on the cover. Most recently, she and her husband, Fletcher “Flash” Wiley, received the 2023 Public Service Award from the Boston Bar Foundation.
One of Wiley’s dearest friends Henry Louis Gates, Jr., PhD, the Alphonso Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, calls her “elegant.”
“She is elegant in thought, elegant in behavior, elegant in composure, and elegant in dedication to our people and particularly in aiding people of color to make their way in the world of finance and business,” Gates says. “I am so glad that you (Howard University) are honoring Bennie Wiley.”
Her other well-known friend and former colleague David A. Thomas, PhD, 12th president of Morehouse College, describes Wiley as “an iron fist in a velvet glove.”
“With Bennie, the iron part is that she is very clear about where we need to go. The velvet part is, she is very attuned and sensitive to different people who have different needs and who are persuaded by different lines of logic,” Thomas says. “I can’t imagine anybody would be [uncomfortable] sitting down talking to her. That is the velvet glove part. She is very relatable, very humble, she’s empathic, and she’s going to try and work with you to understand why you might not want to go in a particular direction.”
Thomas and Wiley worked together at The Partnership, Inc. during the 1990’s and have been friends ever since Wiley hosted a reception for the newly-sponsored Harvard faculty member, Thomas, and other Partnership fellows at her Boston home where she first met Thomas. Wiley persuaded Thomas to join the Partnership, Inc. board in the mid 1990s and, later, to serve as chair, which he agreed.
“Bennie is a great salesperson. Howard should have made her president. She managed us (the board) like the conductor of a symphony orchestra where everybody is the best person playing their instrument. Bennie could bring all of us together.”
Wiley served on the Howard University Board of Trustees from 2009 to 2021, where she chaired the governance committee, and then became vice chair over the last five years on the board. She also was vice chair of the presidential search committee when Howard University was searching for the 17th president.
Wiley’s dearest friend and colleague, trustee emeritus Stacey J. Mobley, Esq. is excited for Wiley’s honorary degree and says it could not have been bestowed to a better person. He recalled moments of watching Wiley work the room as an effective leader, giving people opportunities to express their views.
“I thank President Frederick for he knows the contributions that Bennie has made, so I know that he was supportive of this, and I will be there to see her get this award because she is so deserving of it,” Mobley says.
Fellow board of trustee member Minnie V. Baylor-Henry is also very proud and elated for Wiley to receive the 2023 honorary degree from her beloved alma mater. She and Wiley have been dear friends for more than 20 years.
“Bringing her back to say not only are we thanking you for the many years of service you’ve given to us and our alma mater, we are also recognizing you with the highest distinction that we can give,” Baylor-Henry says.
When Wiley described this achievement, she says receiving an honorary degree from any institution is an honor, but one from her alma mater takes on new meaning.
“In all the things that Howard does, [they] advance the Black community and [solve] issues that impact the Black community,” Wiley says. “That is what my whole life’s work has been around. I am so proud of Howard and proud to be affiliated with Howard. This is just the cherry on the top.”