Understanding Identity

Three schools take very different approaches to discussing race and identity in the classroom.
Understanding Identity

MANY BUSINESS SCHOOLS have launched leadership initiatives designed to enroll more minority students or encourage more women to pursue their MBAs. These schools might partner with The PhD Project or the Forté Foundation to amplify their efforts, or they might bring alumni back to campus to share their stories in speaker series.

It’s not quite as often that schools address issues of race and inclusion in the classroom itself—though that’s becoming more common as those issues continue to grow in importance. BizEd spoke with representatives of three business schools that are having students explicitly consider race and identity in specific courses or initiatives. While their approaches are wildly different, they all share one outcome: Students become more aware of ways in which diversity deeply impacts not only the business world, but also their own lives, educations, and careers.

What's Your Story?

Authentic discussion defuses racial tension in an EMBA classroom at the University of Cape Town.

While South Africa became a democracy in 1994, racial tension stemming from apartheid has continued to endure, making itself felt in neighborhoods, workplaces—and classrooms. Kosheek Sewchurran frequently observes it among students he teaches as director of the executive MBA program at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business.

“Normally it’s people of color versus people who are Caucasian or European,” says Sewchurran, who teaches business model innovation, strategy-as-practice, and leadership-as-practice courses. “The conflict arises mostly because they haven’t been socialized into each other’s cultures and customs. They see time very differently, they see the act of greeting very differently—the social norms we take for granted in business are viewed differently between different groups.” As members of both races engage in “shaming and blaming,” he says, “people lose the capacity to own racial problems.”

In a recent EMBA class on leadership as practice, where the tension between students seemed to linger much longer than usual, he took the bold step of addressing it directly through a classroom assignment. His approach was to have students share their own personal experiences, both with the whole class and then within smaller groups. After describing how it felt to experience “racial disharmony,” students were required to develop frameworks for how to manage it.

He first held an open discussion to give students a number of perspectives to work with. “It was quite a risk,” he says. “I was conscious that either this could explode into something unmanageable or it could be a rich learning experience.” Anticipating emotional outbursts, he hired two facilitators, one a professor of peace and global studies, another a UNESCO expert focused on issues of disarmament, peace, and human security. These facilitators guided discussions and made sure to “hold the space” for speakers—a phrase used by coaches and counselors to describe a way of listening deeply to other people without judgment and without trying to guide or fix them.

“Where real transformation has to happen is in open dialogue in which we can receive others’ views and offer ours in return,” says Sewchurran. “The facilitators insisted on sufficient empathy and listening for everyone. Even though students might label some perspectives as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ nonetheless these are perspectives they will see in business, social life, and the classroom. That was an important lesson for them to understand—that reaction is one of the easiest things they can succumb to, but holding space for others is a more powerful stance to adopt.”

After the open discussion, he divided the class into six groups of between six and seven students each. The classroom was diverse—60 percent nonwhite, 40 percent female—and Sewchurran made sure each group incorporated diversity along the lines of race, gender, and age. He also provided students with two working papers, including one on authentic leadership, to give them a process framework. He purposefully framed the assignment as an exercise in leadership development, with the result that the papers explored problems that arise when managers lack empathy or authenticity.

Working in their small groups, students studied racial tension through the lens of phronesis—a Greek word for wisdom or justice. They prepared a concept analysis of racial tension and the factors that drive it, defined the multiple perspectives that contribute to the situation, and discussed the learning experiences of the group members. The deliverable was a group presentation and an abstract of between 1,000 and 2,000 words.

“I was blown away by the creativity they attempted with the exercise and the rigorous answers they produced,” says Sewchurran. “EMBA students usually try to achieve deep transformation, but in this case, even the naysayers who thought they would get nothing out of it—both black and white students—were truly overwhelmed by how the discussion made them feel.”

For instance, one group collected each member’s individual perceptions of racism, aggregated these perceptions into themes, and explored how unconscious bias on each student’s part affected how he or she responded to racial tensions. The group’s final paper included these thoughtful observations: “Racial tension is really in its simplest form grievances from people, groups, and societies crying for others to see things from their lenses. … If we decrease the amount of fear in each one of us about the perceived threat of one race over the other, we will soon begin to see progressive collaboration and engagement.”

This group closed its paper with a group photo enclosed by a sketch of a heart. “The picture below was an emotional acceptance of each other despite our different views on the issue of race. We all pledged to take responsibility to address racism in our societies going forward.”

A second group also collected observations from their own experiences, discussed the tension points that they identified, and used those discussions to gain even greater understanding of other students’ perspectives. In their notes, they wrote, “We found that sweeping in multiple, diverse perspectives was instrumental in our ability to identify these tension points. … We conclude the most important question to ask to engender more phronesis is, ‘What’s your story?’”

Sewchurran notes that the class achieved two outcomes. First, it provided students with an understanding of racism that they can work with in the future. Second, it caused them to shift from being victims or perpetrators to taking ownership of the issue—even if previously they had not been aware of some of their attitudes and behaviors.

He didn’t introduce the assignment until late in the course, because he wanted students to have developed the ability to think reflectively “on multiple concurrent truths.” He says, “They were asking for such a conversation from the second or third module of the course, but I waited until they had enough empathy and metacognition about their own behavior.”

EMBA students are the perfect candidates for such an exercise, he believes, because they not only have the maturity to be profoundly reflective, but they are in the program because they’re looking for deep transformation. Undergraduates might be too young to realize all the benefits of such an assignment, he says, and ambitious MBA students might have too little empathy. “But given the way South Africa is now, I do think we have to find formulations that work on the MBA level as well,” he adds.

For such an exercise to be successful, Sewchurran believes, the professor has to treat racial tension as “a problem to which students have to find answers they believe in. They have to take ownership of the issue rather than abdicating responsibility. It has to be treated as a learning gap, not a knowledge gap. The students have to produce the knowledge for themselves.”

Race In The Case

New Harvard business cases tell the stories of black entrepreneurs.

Chances are, if you’ve taught or studied business through case studies published by Harvard Business School, you’ve been talking about white male business leaders. “Harvard has published approximately 10,000 cases, and fewer than 100 have black protagonists,” says Steven Rogers, the MBA Class of 1957 Senior Lecturer of Business Administration at the school in Boston, Massachusetts.

He’s on a mission to change that. He recently wrote 14 new HBS cases, and they all make it clear from page one that they’re about black business leaders. “There’s no obfuscating, no intimating,” he says. “The introduction might say, ‘This person is one of the few blacks in the private equity industry. This person won the Black Engineer award.’”

While traditional case studies don’t necessarily mention the subject’s race or ethnicity, Rogers notes, “most of the protagonists are on video and some come to class, so the reality is that students get the image. Their expectation is that business greatness is being achieved by whites only. Part of my objective in writing cases with black protagonists is to help change that narrative.”

Rogers’ cases differ from traditional cases in two other important ways. First, each one features a protagonist who has given back to the black community. For instance, one focuses on Valerie Daniels-Carter, president of V&J Holding Companies, which owns more than 100 fast-food franchises across several states in the U.S. “She built a community center in the heart of the black community, with job training programs and credit unions. She built a hospital in Africa,” says Rogers. Another case study focuses on John Rogers of Ariel Capital, the largest minority-owned asset management firm in the country. “He’s created his own elementary school in Chicago—Ariel Academy—so black children can learn about personal finance investing.”

Second, Rogers’ cases all include some element of black history. A case about housing developer Otis Gates discusses the fact that he is descended from Pullman porters, who not only held prestigious jobs but also spread news among black communities as their train travel took them across the United States. Aside from these differences, says Rogers, “they’re just the same as other Harvard cases in that they follow men and women faced with business problems they must solve.”

A large percentage of the protagonists are entrepreneurs—which makes these cases the perfect foundation for a new elective that Rogers has designed. Called Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship, the class was offered for the first time in the spring 2017 semester, and Rogers is planning to teach it again soon. While the first class was filled with African Americans, Rogers makes it clear that all students are welcome.

“I think it’s a topic that everyone needs to have some familiarity with,” he says. “African Americans need to see role models who look like themselves, but non-African Americans need to see black men and women as business geniuses just like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.”

Rogers is taking additional steps to make sure more classrooms adopt material featuring diverse business leaders. For instance, he is encouraging all the HBS department heads to include in their courses at least one case study featuring an African American protagonist. He also has offered to work with professors who want to write their own cases featuring black business leaders but might need help identifying individuals to feature.

“I tell them, ‘For whatever topic you want to write about, I will find at least three potential subjects,’” he says. Not long ago, Rogers had planned to write a case study about Stacy Brown-Philpot of the tech company TaskRabbit, but instead he turned it over to a colleague who teaches one of the school’s required courses. “Now he gets a chance to teach it to 900 of our students in a mandatory course versus me teaching it to 43 students in my elective,” Rogers says.

Rogers also would like to see his case studies taught at schools other than Harvard—particularly in black entrepreneurship courses. To that end, he is willing to share his syllabus, teaching notes, and study guide questions with any school that wants to introduce similar courses to their curricula.

Meanwhile, Rogers is working with a team of co-writers to produce 14 additional black-themed cases, with the support of a six-figure donation from an alum. His goal is clear. “If Harvard has 10,000 cases, 500 or 600 should have African American protagonists,” he says.

But he has a longer-term vision as well. He hopes the inclusion of cases featuring African Americans follows the path of cases featuring international business leaders. Ten or 15 years ago, they were almost nonexistent; today, they’re firmly entrenched in the curriculum. Ten years ago, globalization was a specialty subject at business schools; today, it’s incorporated into virtually every course.

Rogers believes that courses like his are still far too rare at business schools, but he hopes that will quickly change, as more professors write and teach cases that highlight the success of nonwhite business leaders. When the general business curriculum includes case studies with minority protagonists as a matter of course, he’ll know his goal has been reached. “My ultimate objective,” he says, “is that my class will not even be needed.”

See a video of Rogers discussing his course Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship.

Exploring Identity

At Michigan Ross, students learn how identity shapes both individuals and organizations.

The business world is more global and interconnected than ever before, and organizations want employees who can thrive in an intercultural environment, explains Taryn Petryk, director of diversity and inclusion at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor. “Developing the leaders necessary to change the world is made possible when we bring together people with unique perspectives and ensure they have a voice in our community,” she says. In that spirit, she adds, Ross has long worked to cultivate an environment of people with diverse backgrounds, identities, and thought. This includes addressing the needs of many often marginalized populations, such as women, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and veterans, among others.

Last fall, as part of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the school released a five-year DEI Strategic Plan. One key part included an expansion of its Identity and Diversity in Organizations (IDO) Milestone Requirement, which was launched two years ago to address the need for exploring identity and culture through a business organizational lens. Identity is defined as a multifaceted construct that “includes people’s concepts of who they are and how society describes and affects them. This can encompass race, ethnicity, gender, citizenship, sexual orientation, social class, ability status, veteran status, and more,” says Petryk.


The IDO program is considered a graduation milestone degree requirement—which, at the University of Michigan, is defined as a course or non-course-related activity that students must fulfill to obtain their degrees. Says Petryk, “IDO prepares students for working, managing, and leading in businesses and societies that continue to become more diverse and intercultural.”

Each year of IDO has a specific focus and set of learning outcomes:

Sophomore year: identity. In these sessions, students develop an understanding of individuality, saliency, and self-awareness as they think about their identities in new ways. Afterward, they are expected to understand why identity is important; how identity and cultural background influence values, perspectives, life experiences, and leadership practice; and how they might apply the concept of identity to their personal lives and future professional roles.

Junior year: diversity. In these sessions, students consider how businesses and cultural settings can benefit from bringing together diverse individuals in ways that serve clients, employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders. After completing the sessions, students are expected to be able to explain how individual identities and cultural backgrounds affect group relations. In addition, they should be able to include multiple perspectives in their discussions, decision making, and problem solving.

Senior year: organizations. These sessions teach students how businesses can leverage identity and diversity to improve performance and have a positive impact on society. After attending these sessions, students should be able to explain how identity-based access to resources can influence the success of an individual or an organization; they also can discuss how diversity among teams and business leaders can improve both business and society.

BBA students must complete sessions in all three focus areas to graduate. However, to meet their IDO requirements, they can choose from a wide range of options. These include interactive educational workshops that cover understanding personal, social, and cultural identities; cultural intelligence assessments and workshops; global experiences; training on unconscious bias; and presentations from corporate partners who share their firsthand experiences with identity and diversity issues. Each year, students must participate in one session on that year’s theme. Then they write reflection papers that consider why these themes are important to them, to society, and to business. The Office of Undergraduate Programs tracks student participation throughout the course of the program.

In the 2016–2017 school year, 42 sessions were offered to more than 500 juniors and 600 sophomores. As the school enters the third year of the program, it will present the first sessions for seniors.

A Multifaceted Approach

The expansion of the IDO requirement is only one part of Michigan Ross’ new DEI Strategic Plan. For instance, in the summer of 2017, the school launched Ross Summer Connection (RSC), a fourweek residential program for incoming Michigan Ross freshmen from all backgrounds, including students from underrepresented groups, first generation students, and students who may have attended underresourced schools. RSC students participate in identity and cultural seminars, attend prerequisite courses in subjects such as economics and writing, and are mentored by current undergraduates and alumni.

The school also is increasing its emphasis on cultural intelligence (CQ). The orientation for the Global MBA now includes a CQ assessment and workshop, while the orientation for the full-time MBA has a session on understanding how identities and cultural backgrounds affect the way students view themselves and others. In addition to these student-focused activities, the school is facilitating a CQ discussion for faculty and providing certification training for staff.

What should other schools consider when designing programs that help students directly address diversity and identity? First off, Petryk advises, it’s important to involve businesses and corporations in these initiatives from the very beginning to establish validity for the skills and competencies students are learning. She adds that it’s just as important to start small, so that faculty and staff can better identify the most effective strategies. By experimenting with pilot programs, Petryk says, schools can gain stronger insights into what DEI goals they’re truly trying to accomplish.

Learn more about the IDO program.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's November/December 2017 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].