Roger H. Brown's lifelong passion for music and entrepreneurial vision have enabled him to lift the college to a new heights during his first decade as Berklee's third president.
By Mark Small '73
One would not automatically conclude after reading Roger H. Brown's résumé that becoming Berklee's third chief executive was the inevitable next step in his career. Actually, it's his first job in the world of higher education. Yet it is a natural progression in a life of rich experiences that include working as a math teacher in a small village in Kenya, playing drums on jingle sessions in New York, creating and administering massive food relief operations that saved tens of thousands of lives in Southeast Asia and Africa, and taking the company he and his wife founded from a start-up to a publicly traded corporation employing over 24,000 people. Brown has accomplished much in his career, but most importantly, with each pursuit, he has made a difference in the lives of others.
While music was Brown's profession only briefly, it remains a brightly colored thread woven throughout the tapestry of his life. Since he was a child growing up in small-town Gainesville, Georgia, he has always been drawn to music and musicians.
"My family used to go to the Scottish Highland Games up in the North Carolina mountains to hear the pipe and drum corps play," says Brown. "I was very excited by that music and I think this may be where the idea to play drums came from. I formed my first band, Junior and the Jailbirds, as a sixth grader-I was Junior. When I went to middle school, I got turned on to the Allman Brothers. That band was ubiquitous in Georgia back then. I discovered jazz when I was in high school and got more interested in it at college, but I was really more of a rocker. Steely Dan and Frank Zappa were a bridge to jazz for me." These days Brown's musical tastes are fairly eclectic. These days Brown's musical tastes are fairly eclectic. Topping the most played list in his iPhone are Pat Metheny, Bonnie Raitt, the Civil Wars, and Oliver Mtukudzi
Growing up in the South in the midst of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and experiencing the desegregation of his own school had a big impact on Brown. "I was a small-town idealist who wanted the world to be a better place," he recalls. "Living through school desegregation in the South influenced my life profoundly. It taught me that adults could sometimes be very mistaken. Fortunately, my parents were not in that group. But there was talk back then among some people about how desegregation was a bad idea, that it would be unfair and ruin the schools by bringing in black teachers who would not be qualified.
"I was only 12 then, but the best teacher I had at middle school was an African-American man. He went on to get his Ph.D. and later became a professor at Morehouse College. So reality seemed out of sync with what the doomsayers had predicted. I think that changed me. I became more skeptical, more of a contrarian, and more willing to challenge tradition and the status quo."
In high school, Brown was an athlete and drummer in several bands and intended to continue these and new pursuits in college. "I dreamed of going to Georgia Tech where my father had gone," Brown says. "I hoped to be a football player and a drummer in a rock band there. My godfather, who was a college counselor, told me that I should go to a small liberal arts college instead. I was good in math, but he told me that I hadn't yet learned to read and write very well and I'd get more attention at a smaller college. So I enrolled as a physics major at Davidson College in North Carolina. I had a great college experience and learned more in those four years than I had in the previous 12. I read a lot of great books, learned to write and to think, and studied philosophy and economics. I was in some great bands too, playing jazz, fusion, and swing. I also wrote a musical comedy, an irreverent look at college life that included about 12 tunes. It was a success and led to a tradition at Davidson that a senior would write and stage a musical."
Just before receiving his bachelor's degree in physics in 1978, Brown attended a presentation by a representative from a small school in rural western Kenya who had come to Davidson to recruit math teachers. A thirst for adventure combined with his social conscience prompted Brown to accept a teaching position. After committing to teach in Kenya for one year, he packed his bags and headed to Africa. Staying alternately in a hut, a grain warehouse, and a laboratory under construction, Brown lived without electricity and running water and depended on moonlight or a kerosene lantern to read books at night.
"It was a fantastic experience," Brown says. "I wanted to live like the average villager in the community even though the headmaster of the school was very uncomfortable with that. My standard of living was lower than that of most of the teachers there who were generally pretty wealthy vis-à-vis the community. I really got a feel for what life was like for Kenyans. I went to weddings and funerals, and even played gospel music with local musicians. That kept music in my life."
The Arithmetic of Entrepreneurship
Witnessing the impoverished existence of the Kenyans in his village, Brown sought ways to help them improve their economic condition. "My Kenyan students all wanted to grow up and become bureaucrats or teachers," he says. "They wanted a guaranteed job with a steady paycheck that would be unaffected by the vicissitudes of the economy. I knew that in a modern economy, it's not the bureaucrats who make the money; it's the entrepreneurs. So I started business ventures with my students. We farmed exotic vegetables that we sold to a hotel in the town that served tourists. Our first batch of summer squash sold for a higher price than people were getting for beef. That opened their eyes, because it's a lot easier to grow a pound of squash than a pound of beef. Other ventures included making and selling concrete blocks. The kids making the blocks began earning more than the teachers at the school. That opened their eyes too."
In Kenya, Brown thought much about economic development in third-world societies. He wanted to show the people how to take initiative in their lives rather than just wait for a great job to come along. "I felt a need to do something good and be active in the world," Brown recalls. "Before leaving Kenya, I decided that I would go to graduate school to study management and leadership and focus on international development.
"Yale had a great program for those wanting to be leaders in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. The head of the business school then was Bill Donaldson, who has been a big influence in my life. He founded Donaldson Lufkin and Jenrette, one of the most successful investment banks in the country, right after he got out of Harvard Business School. Now he heads the Securities and Exchange Commission. He inspired me as someone who was successful in business and then went into other kinds of leadership."
Brown enrolled at Yale where he made many important connections intellectually and personally. One of the most important acquaintances made during his Yale years was that of his future wife and business partner, Linda Mason. She had arrived at Yale after studying classical piano at the Rachmaninoff Conservatory in Paris for two years.
Brown says he can relate to the Berklee students who get so excited by what they are learning that they leave college for a year or longer to test their newly acquired knowledge in the marketplace. Similarly, Brown and Mason became so anxious to delve into international development that they left Yale after the first year of Brown's program.
"We got summer jobs working on the Cambodia-Thailand border after the Khmer Rouge holocaust," Brown says. "The work was so compelling that we stayed on. I was put in charge of the Land Bridge, the largest food distribution that had ever existed. The Vietnamese had ousted the Khmer Rouge and were controlling Cambodia at the time. They were hostile to international relief and would not allow it to come in through the normal channels. We developed a plan to go to the western border of the country and infuse food, seed rice, and planting implements into the country."
The Land Bridge served as many as 25,000 people a day. It was the major focus of all the relief efforts going on in the world at the time and operated on a scale that had not previously been attempted. Within six months, the program had helped turn the starvation problems inside Cambodia around. Working under the auspices of CARE and UNICEF gave Brown access to high-level officials at the United Nations and the U.S. Embassy. The work was so compelling that upon returning to the Yale School of Management, he and Mason cowrote a book about the operation titled Rice, Rivalry, and Politics.
After graduation from Yale, Mason got a job offer in Boston, so Brown began looking for work in the Bay State too. "I got an interview with an upstart management firm called Bain & Company," says Brown. "Mitt Romney [former Massachusetts governor] interviewed me. I liked him and the company and thought it would be a great way to pay off my student loans and learn about the business world. I took the job and worked there for two and a half years. The place was crawling with very smart, very driven people. I learned a lot by working with the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies on their strategies. It was a very exciting job." It was good work for good pay, yet Brown didn't see it as his life's calling.
By the end of 1984, Brown and Mason (who was also working for a management consulting firm) were getting restless again when they got a phone call from someone with whom they had worked in Cambodia who was now working for Save the Children Federation. The organization was focusing its efforts on the famine in Ethiopia and wanted to establish another program in Sudan with Brown and Mason as its codirectors. "Bain was fantastic when I said I wanted to take a leave of absence to do this," Brown says. "Bain gave me a computer, raised money for us, and even gave me a promotion in absentia."
By January of 1985, Brown and Mason were headquartered in Khartoum, Sudan, the place that would be their home for the next year and a half. They set up and managed what became Save the Children's largest relief program. The opportunity to launch an innovative humanitarian program from scratch was something Brown had dreamt of in his student days. The challenges went far beyond merely managing a structure with an operating budget of $14 million; Brown needed to develop a strategy to turn people away from instinctive patterns of behavior commonly found among those struggling for survival.
"Typically, when there is a drought in an impoverished country and food runs out, the people take their families and farm animals and begin wandering," says Brown. "It's not a healthy response, because it takes a lot of energy to wander and often there is no food where they end up. Generally, they move toward the cities in hopes of finding food and menial work. Next, a relief organization comes to the city and sets up a feeding center. Once the word gets out that food is available there, people from all over the country start flowing into the city. Then you have hundreds of thousands of people in an area that doesn't have adequate housing or sanitation facilities. The minute it rains, the place turns into a big sewer and people get sick with cholera, measles, and other diseases from which they have no immunity.
"Our premise was to keep people from coming to the big towns and cities by making food available within a 12-kilometer radius of where they lived. Any family with malnourished children or adults was given enough food for a month. That meant they could walk to a place nearby, get food, and return to their homes. Then when it rained—as it eventually did—they were on their own land, and the agriculture of the country didn't suffer because the people had not abandoned their farms for the cities."
The innovative program served more than 400,000 people and is estimated to have saved over 20,000 lives. Additionally, it provided international relief agencies a new successful model for efficient food distribution from many local, rather than a few central, locations. This minimized the disruptive effects of both the original crisis and the humanitarian intervention.
Mason and Brown returned to the United States in July of 1986 with aspirations to start an entrepreneurial venture involving children and education. They wanted to apply their experience and energy to something that would benefit American society. At this point, Brown had spent nearly five years of his life in other countries.
"When we got back to America, we visited Mitt Romney at Bain Capital," Brown recalls. "He told me about a guy named Jack Reynolds who had an idea for setting up child-care centers at work sites. Mitt said he thought it was a good idea. We met with Jack and thought it was a pretty exciting idea. With increasing numbers of women in the workplace, there was a huge demand for high-quality child-care. It made sense that parents could commute with their children and have more time with them. Plus, at the end of the day, they wouldn't have to rush home from work to pick up their kids before the neighborhood child-care center closed. So many mothers and fathers would feel secure knowing that their child was nearby. We later demonstrated that if you have a worksite child-care center and a family enrolls in it, the odds of those employees leaving the company go down dramatically."
Brown and Mason had the business skills to start a company and knew their humanitarian work would testify to their sincere interest in helping families. (It was important in the early-childhood education field not to be perceived simply as businesspeople with an idea for a new venture.) Brown and Mason approached Romney's Bain Capital and other venture capital groups and ultimately secured $10 million in funding. They launched Bright Horizons Children's Centers in November 1986 and, within a year, had opened a center in Boston's Back Bay and another in Cambridge.
After an encouraging start, however, Brown and Mason experienced several very difficult years because of the recession that hit the New England economy during the late 1980s. The first two facilities had done well, so the company opened another in Billerica to serve employees at Wang and Apollo Computer. "At the time, those companies were raging successes," says Brown. "But Wang subsequently went bankrupt and Apollo was bought by Compaq, and they laid off almost everyone at their Chelmsford site. We found ourselves with a child-care center that no one wanted. After that happened in two or three places, our growth slowed."
Some businessmen would have figured the venture was a no-go and cut their losses. That approach doesn't fit Brown's philosophy though. "My wife and I are very tenacious people," he says. "If we had been looking at it from a purely economic point of view, maybe we wouldn't have stayed with it. But we saw it as something we wanted to do with our lives and that the benefits would be more than economic. We were trying to change the work environment for families. We were making the country more family-friendly by helping children get the early education they needed. It became a mission for us. I had gotten my teeth sunk into this deeply and felt so much hope that I was determined to make it work. It helps to be mission driven. When you do something because you believe in it, you do it whether it is working perfectly or not because you think it matters."
Bright Horizons began making progress by opening high-quality child-development centers for corporations, hospitals, universities, and real-estate developers. By 1991, Brown understood what was needed to grow the company, and things began taking off. In 1996, Brown and Mason received the Ernst & Young/USA Today Entrepreneur of the Year award, and other awards and accolades soon followed. Bright Horizons became a publicly traded company in 1997 and merged with its biggest competitor in 1998. By 2000, they were opening centers in the U.K. Growth was so steady that the company hardly felt the recession of 2001. Brown even found a way to utilize his musical talents within the company by writing, producing, and playing drums on six CDs of children's music. (The profits of the discs went to a foundation aiding homeless children.)
After 16 years at the helm of Bright Horizons, Brown again began looking for a new challenge. "I felt I really understood the business and was good at it," he says. "As well, I knew our company made a contribution to a new outlook on families and work. I figured that if I was going to do something else with my life, this was a good time to do it. I had a very strong team of people at Bright Horizons and wanted them to get a chance to lead. We promoted two of them to become CEO and president and Linda and I became cochairs of the board."
Brown then set out on his quest for something to which he could dedicate his energies and skills. "Initially, I had thought about doing more with homeless children or starting a charter school," he says. "I decided that I wanted to be rooted in Boston more than I had been at Bright Horizons. I also missed having contact with the creative and artistic communities. The business world has some wonderful people in it, but they are not necessarily the most creative, forward-thinking people. Linda and I started discussing ways of reaching out to the artistic communities of Boston."
"One day while reading the Chronicle of Higher Education, I saw an ad about Berklee's presidential search. I had played with a lot of Berklee musicians through the years, and having a music background, I revered the place. I thought it would be a fantastic job. It would get me involved with the artistic community and help me to sink my roots deeper in Boston."
The excitement of the prospect of being around great musicians and people who love music ignited Brown's enthusiasm. "I think most people enter a search somewhat cautiously," he says. "You hold back a little bit not wanting to make yourself vulnerable in case it doesn't work out. But I decided not to hold back in the interviews at Berklee. I made it clear that I really wanted to do this—provided I was the right person for the job.
"If the college wanted a leader like Gary Burton—a preeminent figure in the music world—or if it wanted a very experienced music educator, I felt it shouldn't pick me. But if Berklee was looking for someone with entrepreneurial skills who cares about music, has a commitment to social justice, and knowledge about creating a great workplace, I could potentially be the right person." After a 16-month search process, Berklee's Board of Trustees announced that Brown was the right person for the job and would take office on June 1, 2004. He was inaugurated as Berklee’s third president on December 3, 2004.
For more on Brown’s accomplishments at Berklee, see his biography.