MBA Students Question the Status Quo on Diversity & Inclusion

This is the first in a series of articles covering diversity and inclusion at Berkeley-Haas. Part 1 looks at the growing number of student-led inclusion initiatives in the full-time MBA program.

Race Inclusion Initiative leaders from the full-time MBA classes of 2016 and 2017

When a group of full-time Berkeley MBA students surveyed classmates on attitudes about race and diversity, they found a marked incongruity: almost 90 percent said understanding racial dynamics is critical to being an effective leader, but less than half said they are comfortable talking about race.

Not so for a group of students who decided to address issues around race and ethnicity in their program head on, launching the research-based Race Inclusion Initiative last spring. They enlisted faculty mentors, scoured admissions and demographic data, and conducted interviews, surveys, and focus groups to pinpoint areas in need of change.

“The Race Inclusion Initiative seeks to understand and improve the Haas experience for full-time MBA students as it relates to underrepresented minorities—African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans,” said Lauren Dugard, MBA/MPH 17, vice president of diversity for the MBA Association and one of the initiative leaders.

Inspired in part by the successful Gender Equity Initiative, which has helped boost the number of women in the program and continues under a third generation of leaders, the RII is among an increasing number of efforts by students to drive a more inclusive culture at Haas.

Haas Gender Equity Initiative leaders after a meeting with Dean Rich Lyons in May

They reflect a generation of students who say they chose the school for its culture, and are determined to make sure it lives up to expectations—and leave it even stronger than when they came in.

“People came in with a heightened awareness of how they want our culture to be, and we all want it to be really inclusive and balanced,” said Neha Kumar, MBA 17 and vice president of social for the MBA Association—which set its three guiding principles for the year as transparency, collaboration, and an inclusive culture. “Everyone’s eyes are very open to these conversations.”

Over the past several years, students have not shied away from confronting issues that can be uncomfortable to talk about—and which they will likely face as managers. Among the activities they’ve started are Hot Topics, a discussion series focused on hot-button issues such as accessibility to firearms; Story Salons, where students can share their personal stories; a Diversity Digest newsletter; a Haas Perspectives Blog, and a Humans of Haas podcast (a recent episode covers the politics of hair).

Affinity groups like Q@Haas, a club for LGBTQ students and allies, host talks such as “Sex, Gender, and the Tax on Being Different”; the Women in Leadership Club has an active group of “manbassadors,” who are leading initiatives to get men to stop seeing gender equity as a “women’s issue” and get comfortable talking about gender dynamics.

2nd-year students at a full-time MBA diversity session during orientation week

While some of the efforts are based around specific groups, students are also talking about “intersectionality”—the concept that race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity are interconnected and can’t be looked at in isolation. At a diversity session during MBA orientation in August, 2nd-year students spoke about parts of their identities that are both visible and unseen: one spoke about growing up gay in Texas with Vietnamese immigrant parents; a Chilean student spoke his split identity as both Jewish and Catholic, and of the assumptions people make about him since an accident in his 20s left him confined to a wheelchair.

“There is plenty of fertile soil, we just need to plant more in it,” said Dugard (left), who led the session. “Learning how to have open conversations about the diversity we bring to Haas each day is important to foster empathy, build deep relationships with individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives, and prepare us to lead diverse teams.”

Even so, it’s clear from the research done by the Race Inclusion Initiative that there are still topics that are hard to talk about for many—and race is at the top of the list. In one of the surveys the group conducted, students said they feel more comfortable talking about gender or sexual identity issues than race. Many international students said they feel like they didn’t have the right tools to approach the debate.

“Eager to learn, yet uncomfortable to discuss—bridging the gap between those perspectives around diversity is critical to our success as a top public institution in one of the most diverse states in the country,” said Monica Stevens, MBA 96, a senior vice president at Wells Fargo Bank who chairs the Haas Alumni Diversity Council.

And while non-minority students say Haas does a better job of talking about race than the business world at large, underrepresented minorities feel there are still too few discussions about racial diversity at the school. Perhaps not for long, as students continue to lead the charge on conversations about diversity and inclusion. This week, for example, the Black Business Students Association—which recently organized a Black Lives Matter demonstration that attracted more than 200 students, staff and faculty—is hosting a lunchtime session called “Ask Me Anything: An Open Discussion with the BBSA.”