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Remembering a “pioneering leader”: Robert Holland, 1940-2021

Firm colleagues and alumni remember Bob Holland, McKinsey's first Black Partner.
Headshot of Bob Holland
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Mentor, friend, sponsor, leader, loving father and husband—these are just some of the ways McKinsey colleagues and alumni remember Robert “Bob” Holland, who passed away December 22, 2021, after battling Parkinson’s disease.

A giant in our field, Bob was known for his dedication to young talent, many of whom are now leaders in their own right, and his passion for impact with clients. Bob was a role model throughout his distinguished career at our Firm and beyond, including his 1995 appointment to CEO of Ben and Jerry’s.

His journey at McKinsey led him to become our first Black partner and inspired the creation of the McKinsey Black Network (MBN). His impact was an inspiration to many, including Dame Vivian Hunt, a Senior Partner based in London and a current leader of the McKinsey Black Network. “MBN now has nearly a thousand members with many active allies, and this is in large part due to the hard work and sacrifices that Bob made throughout his career,” she says.

Vivian first met Bob when she was a summer associate in 1994. Beyond his client work, she remembers Bob as a pioneering leader who believed in the importance of giving back. “Bob dedicated much of his time and energy to serving vulnerable communities, particularly in the education space, motivated by his own personal experiences and childhood,” she says.

Those personal experiences included growing up in Albion, Michigan, the third of five children, raised by parents who were not formally educated but believed deeply in the importance of education. Bob’s experience and memories of a segregated ice cream parlor in Albion inspired him to write a poem before becoming CEO of Ben & Jerry’s.

He earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Union College in 1962. “I got on the bus to go to Union College [a 26-hour ride],” he said in an interview with Black Enterprise. “It was the first time I’d been out of Michigan. That was not the last blind journey I would take, but the first of many.”

Bob later studied at Bernard Baruch Graduate School, receiving an MBA in international marketing. He joined McKinsey in 1968, becoming a Partner and serving until 1981, before embarking on a number of CEO and board roles in manufacturing, furniture, banking and, of course, ice cream.

As Shelley Stewart III, a McKinsey Partner and leader of the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility, says: “Bob Holland’s legacy and impact on generations of Black colleagues inside and outside of McKinsey is unrivaled. There is a direct link between Bob’s commitment to make careers in consulting more accessible to Black people and McKinsey’s overall diversity, equity and inclusion platform—including McKinsey’s 10 Actions towards racial equity.”

Indeed, as colleagues learned the news of Bob’s passing, hundreds of tributes came in from those who had been inspired by him. "Thank you, Bob, for your legacy and steadfastness in leading the way. We stand on your shoulders,” wrote Makini Hughes, an EM based in New York.

“I first learned of Bob in graduate school over 20 years ago and was inspired by his journey,” wrote Claudy Jules, a Partner based in Washington, D.C. “While I never benefited from meeting him, his legacy of excellence and leadership impact continues to inspire me. Thank you, Bob, for being a trailblazer.”

Bob’s legacy also remains an inspiration to those who’ve since left the Firm.

"I was blessed to have interacted with Bob during the early days of the McKinsey Black Network,” says Margaret Brooks (CLE, DCO 96-00, 05-19, who served as program manager for the McKinsey Black Network for many years. “He was a true inspiration. He worked tirelessly to pave the way for Black colleagues to thrive at McKinsey."

Former McKinsey colleague and dear friend James Lowry (NYO, CHI 68-75) also recalls: “Bob worked hard and persevered to become the first Black Partner at McKinsey, and one of the first in the industry. He worked diligently to perform at the highest level for his many clients, while also serving as a role model for those Black and non-Black consultants that followed him. Bob Holland was a giant in the field and more importantly a giant as a husband, father and a dear friend.”