David Porter, Berkeley Haas’ new chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, believes in questioning the status quo—which happens to be his favorite Defining Leadership Principle.
“I’m not a ‘follow the rules’ kind of guy,” said Porter, who started his job July 15. But before he shakes things up, Porter is getting acclimated with the Haas campus and community, meeting with his team, and setting his priorities.
Porter comes to Haas from the Walter Kaitz Foundation, a media nonprofit, where he served as CEO. He’s also the former director of graduate programs at the Howard University School of Business and was an assistant professor and faculty director at UCLA’s Anderson School.
We sat down to interview him last week.
Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, although I was born in Nashville. Kansas City was a great place to grow up. It was a large enough city that you had access to all the city stuff, but it wasn’t so big that my parents had to worry about my safety. Of course, it was a different time, so as long as you were in by the time the lights came on, it was all good. My father was a pediatrician. My mother was an assistant dean at the University of Kansas Medical Center, where she ran the medical center’s diversity programs. I have one sister, who’s now a psychiatrist.
When did you first come out to California?
In 1981, I drove cross-country to attend Stanford, where I stayed for eight years. At Stanford, I was very active in the black community. In addition, I was elected president of the student body and later served as the chair of the student senate. These experiences helped shape my understanding of universities and honed my leadership skills. As a student activist, I was the guy who often stood in the middle working to negotiate creative solutions with the administration.
My experience as a leader helped prepare me to serve on Stanford’s University Committee on Minority Issues. This was my first opportunity to think strategically about how one might diversify an organization. The committee was created in response to student protests in the spring of 1987. Its role was to make a comprehensive review of the entire institution. We worked for two years to develop a report which made numerous recommendations, many of which were adopted. That’s where I developed a lot of the skills around exercising influence without authority which I still use to this day.
What drew you to this position at Haas?
What I was really looking for was an organization where I thought the leaders were serious. A lot of diversity roles are what I call “diversity eye candy.” These companies often hire individuals who will come in and make the organization look good, without making real change. When I saw this role, I said to myself, “Let’s go through the process and see.” And as I went through the process, it seemed like Haas was serious with the DEI action plan. The fact that Haas has responded so energetically to the issues raised was impressive. You don’t often see a dean and her senior staff say they’re going to take the next 30 days to dig into a problem and actually take specific actions to address it.
When you first read our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plan, what did you think of it?
I think it outlined some great first steps. For example, it recognized that the admissions process has some inherent biases which needed to be addressed. It also made some quick changes that were critical to impact the incoming class and it identified additional resources, including the expansion of the DEI team. These efforts helped Haas to yield a critical mass of underrepresented students in the incoming class. It is my hope and expectation that these students will have a great experience which they will be able to share with future prospective students.
What are your first priorities here at Haas?
My first priority is making sure that the students, particularly students of color, have the best experience possible. I don’t want any of them to say, “Hey, this was a bad choice for me.” Part of that will be about meeting with them, being a good mentor, being a good resource. Another part of it will be working with my team to make sure that the environment continues moving in the direction that we’re going: to become more inclusive, to make sure that we put true meaning in the word “equity.”
I’d also like to get a better understanding of all the diversity activities going on at Haas. I’ve been amazed that in almost every conversation I’ve had, I’ve learned of another diversity initiative or an individual who has taken it upon themselves to do something to make this place more inclusive. I want to know what everyone is doing regarding diversity-related efforts and I’d love to create a big flow chart, because I think that we can do a better job of telling that story. I also think that better coordination could take place. All of those people who are doing that diversity work in addition to their regular day jobs—they are instant allies.
What are some of the things that can be done inside of the classroom?
There are lots of ways in which we can make a more inclusive experience in the classroom. For example, including more cases with diverse protagonists or covering diversity-related topics or bringing in more diverse guest speakers. Hopefully, over time as our students see a broader range of individuals who are successful leaders, their view of what a successful leader looks like will change.
Will African American enrollment increase this fall and do you think that will change the campus environment?
We don’t have the final numbers yet, but we’re definitely expecting to have more African American students on campus this fall.
Every class comes in with a different mix. You can never really predict who will step up early on as leaders. But I do think that when you have a more diverse group of folks, there are more ingredients in the mix, and if Haas does a good job of creating an inclusive environment where everyone can come in and feel like they can be who they are and contribute actively, it will be a great experience for everyone.