What Do Students Think About Diversity?

Four students share their views on the importance of diversity in business education.

To what extent do students seek out diversity in their business programs? We asked four individuals who are either currently enrolled in or recently graduated from MBA or undergraduate business programs to describe their experiences with diversity at their business schools.

What do they appreciate most about the ways business schools integrate different perspectives into the learning experience? They point to opportunities to learn alongside students from a wide range of nationalities and educational backgrounds. They also value faculty who were willing to weave questions about diversity and difference into class discussions. As Vance Lewis, a student at Yale School of Management, puts it, these are conversations that “need to constantly happen” as part of the study of business.

Here, these four MBAs talk about what diversity means for them as students and what they think business schools could do better.

Having the Conversations

Vance Lewis

Vance Lewis, MBA ’18
Yale School of Management
New Haven, Connecticut

After working as an administrator in Philadelphia’s charter school system, Vance Lewis came to business school through the Consortium for Graduate Study of Management, an organization that promotes greater enrollment of minorities in business programs. Based on his experience so far, Lewis believes that dialogues about diversity should become a more prominent part of business education.

“We often talk about diversity in class, but we tend to focus on just one type of diversity and leave out a thousand other types,” says Lewis. “For instance, I’m a black male, but even so I suffer from unconscious bias around gender, around being cis. The more we have conversations about all types of diversity, the more we can be aware of how our own backgrounds and identities lend themselves to unconscious bias.”

Lewis believes that the business curriculum offers many opportunities for these conversations. For instance, he recalls his experience in State and Society, a course at Yale that explores the social impact of government. Lewis and his classmates viewed the documentary “13th,” about issues of race and mass incarceration in America. They also discussed concepts such as “soft apartheid,” in which groups are divided not by law, but by culture. “I helped lead the discussion about the definition of soft apartheid and the ways that we see it at work in society,” says Lewis.

He adds that, while this course revolved around these important issues, in other contexts it falls on students to initiate these discussions. “That’s fine to a degree, but I think business schools need to train us in this, and professors need to bring up issues of diversity more—daily and in every class,” he says. “Professors should ask more questions such as, ‘How could unconscious bias have affected this case?’”

One factor that has been holding some business schools back from creating more inclusive environments, Lewis suggests, is a lack of shared terminology. “There’s often no common language or shared understanding of terms related to inequity, racial and social justice, or unconscious bias. People might say, ‘I’m not a racist,’ for example, but we all have different definitions of racism. I think it’s on the school to make clear that ‘This is the shared definition of these terms on our campus.’ Once people have a common understanding of the terms, it would make the conversations easier.”

Making Diversity Routine

Hila Shabtai

Hila Shabtai, MBA ’17
Fontainebleau, France; Singapore; and Abu Dhabi

As a captain in the reserves for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Shabtai, a native of Tel Aviv, has cultivated a unique perspective on overcoming bias. After she completed her two and a half years of mandatory IDF service, she was invited to co-lead an initiative in which women would be integrated into the traditionally all-male combat forces for the first time.

“When I started this pilot, I could see what this project looked like from the combat soldiers’ perspective. It’s hard to accept not only someone you think is different from you, but someone you didn’t even know was accepted,” says Shabtai. “Because this was the first time these men had seen a female in their service, I realized that the only way to overcome this challenge was if I demonstrated the same skills and completed the same physical training as they did.”

With this approach, Shabtai says, the men saw the value women brought to the enterprise—not just because they could perform the same skills, but because they also brought a different set of skills. “If you ask these men, ten years after, what they think of me as an officer, they will tell you that I bring a unique perspective. As women, we often show a greater attention to detail, we can express a sense of caring, we can be more relaxed. Men have a certain energy, and women bring something else.”

Shabtai enrolled in business school after holding positions in finance at companies such as Procter & Gamble and KPMG. While she says she never felt as if she were a target of bias, she often was “the only woman in the room.” That experience made her seek out a business school where diversity was part of the culture.

At INSEAD, Shabtai explains, MBA classes are typically highly multicultural, with no single nationality representing more than 10 percent of student body. Shabtai believes that when business schools can enroll student bodies with no dominant nationality, they can begin to create truly inclusive cultures.

“If I had studied at an American school, where the majority of students were American, I would have always felt as if I was a minority,” she says. “The INSEAD approach was to group students of different nationalities in every class, project, or group. In my study group there were no two people from the same country. The school forces this kind of diversity in the beginning, but then it becomes more routine. It becomes a habit.”

Taking Initiative

Brashai Coleman

Brashai Coleman, BA in Accounting ’18
Michigan State University
Eli Broad College of Business
East Lansing, Michigan

As president of the Broad College’s chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), Coleman has placed herself at an intersection of diversity at MSU’s Broad College. NABA works closely with Multicultural Business Programs (MBP), an organization on campus that supports more than 650 multicultural students pursuing business studies. MBP also includes the Native American and Hispanic Business Students, Women in Business, and Multicultural Business Students associations.

Because she attended predominantly white elementary and high schools growing up, Coleman says, “I wanted to go to a school where there were different races and nationalities represented.” That said, while MBP offers Coleman opportunities to promote and experience diversity, she admits she wishes she saw the same diversity in her courses.

“I still find myself surrounded by a majority of white students in class. MSU could target more underrepresented minority high schools to improve the rate of minority students enrolled,” she says. The larger university already is making headway toward that goal, she says. Last year, MSU admitted more black freshmen than any other school in the Big Ten Conference, and it reported record attendance for Hispanic students.

As a next step, she hopes that the university and the business school do more to help see these students through to graduation. “The majority of black business students at MSU are freshmen,” she says. “There are very few black seniors in accounting or even in the business college as a whole.”

Coleman also urges her fellow business students to get involved and reach out to people from different backgrounds. She thinks students have a great deal of power, not only to promote the message that business education is open to a wide range of perspectives, but to support other students along the way. “MSU does not have all the answers, so if there is a change that students want to see, we need to make it happen,” she emphasizes.

As evidence, she points to the fact that campus chapters of organization such as NABA and Women in Business often are formed because students take the initiative—the same is true for activities that aim to uplift underrepresented students. “It takes dedication and passion to achieve what we want,” she adds. “MSU is a large campus, and we have the opportunity to actually make a big impact on a large group of people. That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’”

Seeking Out Diversity

Bianca Pestalozzi

Bianca Pestalozzi, MBA ’17
Hong Kong University of Science & Technology
HKUST Business School

When Pestalozzi decided to take an educational leave of absence from her job at McKinsey to pursue her MBA, she knew she wanted to enroll in a business program that would immerse her in a completely different cultural context. She wanted to study with students whose backgrounds were far different from her own.

“I wanted exposure to different cultural heritages, and I wanted to be with students who worked as engineers, or in industries such as fashion or oil,” says Pestalozzi, who works as a consultant in Switzerland. “I knew that most students at European business schools would come from European countries, and many would have consulting backgrounds.”

Once she began her MBA program at HKUST, every interaction was an opportunity to encounter a different perspective. She studied Chinese during her program and was able practice the language with native speakers on a regular basis. Whether working in her study group, going on corporate visits, or simply having dinner with classmates, she learned about the different working styles and social customs of Asian cultures.

“At HKUST, we visited the startup parks in Hong Kong and traveled to companies in Japan,” she says. “It is amazing when students can immerse themselves in the local business context just by taking a short trip away from campus.”

Even the simple act of a hug opened her eyes to cultural diversity, she says. “My flatmate was Thai. The first time I went away for Christmas, I gave him a hug to say goodbye, which made him very uncomfortable,” she says. “By the end of the program, I think he almost wanted to give me a hug! This is a very small example of how we all adapted to the other’s way of doing things.”

Pestalozzi views the cultural and business education she received at HKUST as invaluable, but she stresses to business schools that diversity doesn’t stop with gender, race, and nationality—students value industry-based diversity as well. “Many of the business students in my program were in finance or investment banking. We didn’t see many people who were in the military or who were in the arts,” she says. “On our teams, we had a lot of people who were used to looking at spreadsheets, but few who were really creative, who could come up with more innovative outcomes.”

By choosing to go so far afield for her business education, Pestalozzi believes she broadened her perspective in a way that she could not have achieved by attending a business school closer to home—no matter how diverse the students around her. “I better understand the perspectives of people from different Asian countries—how Thai people think about business, or what the business context is for the big family-owned conglomerates in Japan and China,” she says. “Now, when I read the newspaper, I’m more interested in what’s happening in China than in Europe.”

When people ask her where to pursue an MBA, she always offers the same response: Don’t depend on business schools to deliver diversity. She encourages students to seek it out for themselves. That was her motivation for studying in Hong Kong, and she views it as a privilege to attend a school where she could have the experience of being in the minority.

“I tell potential students to look outside the typical group of business schools. Don’t go to a school in Europe. Go to Asia, because then you’ll actually get a local experience,” she says. “You’ll meet people who are very different from those you would meet in a European business school. You’ll be a part of the local culture. It’s all about student choice.”

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