Harvard Business School (HBS) case protagonist Esperanza Perez jogs along the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, weighing the pros and cons of an MBA. Questions and fears swarm in her mind—concerns of alienating family members who don’t understand the value of a business degree, of being able to support her family and community, of leaving a lucrative job, and of not fitting in.

The soon-to-be published Esperanza case is co-authored by Lulu Curiel (MBA 2010), Professor Jose Alvarez, and Eric Calderon (MBA 2013). While she is a fictional character, Esperanza’s story is deeply reflective of the Latinx culture, and is the result of years of collective effort to bolster the number of Latinx applying to business schools and thereby in leadership roles worldwide.

In 2015, a culmination of efforts headed by HBS Dean Nitin Nohria and the MBA Admissions team led to strengthened outreach and partnership within the HBS Latinx community. The school built stronger bonds with HBS Latino Alumni Association (HBSLAA), created an admissions role dedicated to Latinx recruitment, and appointed a faculty adviser. Calderon, founder of TXE Capital, took on the admissions role; Curiel, founder and president of Ivy Advisers, was then co-president of HBSLAA with Shirley Cardona (MBA 2012); and Alvarez was appointed faculty adviser for the Latino Student Organization (LASO).

“Outside of our work, we all help prospective students, so it was natural for the three of us to come together,” says Curiel. “While we’re the names on the case, the work itself is the result of a lot of people in the community. We are all Esperanza.”

Alvarez concurs. “There's a lot of leadership and passion around this issue,” he says. “It’s very personal for everyone involved—it's about ourselves and our families and broadly it's about the communities we've grown up in and this sense that there's an unbelievable untapped potential. We think there's something we should be doing about that.”

The MBA degree is not common in the Latinx culture, says Curiel, which results in a frustrating cycle of underrepresentation. Without role models, promising candidates don’t see themselves as business leaders, don’t aspire for those roles, and choose different paths.

Further, Latinx family ties run deep, and well-intentioned loved ones often discourage an unfamiliar degree, instead urging a more culturally traditional life path or the retention of a high-salaried position.

“Although business, especially in the entrepreneurial sense, is very ingrained in the Latino community, the idea of going to business school is less understood,” explains Calderon. For a young professional making a decent income, the calculation of leaving that position to take on student debt is considerable. “You almost feel guilty about putting that idea in front of your family, who has perhaps been working their whole life to make the income that you're making as a 22-year old,” says Calderon.

Impostor syndrome and the intimidating nature of elite educational institutions add to the complexity of Latinx underrepresentation. The inherent vulnerability of those issues makes them difficult to broach in standard admissions events, says Calderon. “We often get the questions about being good enough, or how to talk with family, in one-on-one sessions, or when we were walking down the hallway after a presentation. We knew these were issues on everyone's minds, so we asked ourselves how we could restructure the dialogue.”

A case about these doubts and questions, they realized, would both personalize and normalize the experience while introducing prospective students to the cornerstone of the HBS academic experience. The response, when Curiel and Calderon taught the Esperanza case at the 2019 LASO conference, Adelante, was overwhelmingly positive and strikingly emotional. Students and alumni shared their personal journeys to HBS, recounting their self-doubt, the mixed responses from family members, and the questions and challenges they still face as underrepresented minorities.

“Seeing the incredibly polished and confident student leaders of LASO be vulnerable and talk about their questions and fears and concerns changes how people think about themselves,” says Alvarez. “You think, ‘Wait, this person was up on this stage earlier this morning and they were a ball of fire—now they're saying that just a few years ago they were in the same exact place as I am now.’ That’s powerful.”

That was certainly the case for Luis Ramos (MBA 2021), who led this year’s conference. “Going to Adelante four years ago was a life-changing experience,” he says. “It was the first time that I had ever seen Latino business leaders—I'd never had a Latino manager at any of my workplaces. Seeing that many successful individuals opened the aperture for me in terms of what was possible as a Latino. It exposed me to different permutations of how my life could turn out.”

This year’s virtual Adelante conference drew its highest attendance ever, and nearly 200 prospective students signed on for the case session and subsequent Q+A panel. The virtual platform, says Brook Dennard Rosser, assistant director of diversity recruitment, eliminated some of the barriers associated with taking time off, as well as travel and other costs associated with attending a conference in person.

Conferences like Adelante, she says, bring an authentic voice to the HBS experience that might otherwise feel inaccessible. “Being able to see and hear the stories of HBS students and alumni can really change how people think about us as an institution,” said Rosser. “Seeing oneself reflected and well represented in the HBS community can be powerful for prospective students—it can expand their view of what is possible, and really highlights the many different pathways that lead to and from HBS.”

The Esperanza case itself, says Rosser, is an important step in speaking explicitly to the variety of challenges faced by applicants of color and members of other underrepresented communities. “The inherent relatability and authentic voice in the Esperanza case resonates,” she says.

And while the Esperanza case is an important advance in increasing Latinx representation at HBS, the authors also aimed for a greater potential at business schools worldwide. “We’ve always seen this as a broader mandate,” says Alvarez. “How do we change the look and feel of the corridors of power in the US and around the world? You change the people sitting in those seats by changing the look and feel of many institutions beyond our own.”

Those aspirations, for Curiel, Alvarez, and Calderon, are rooted in personal obligation. “We feel almost a sense of duty to make the most of the gifts that we've been in receipt of and the opportunities we've been able to have,” says Calderon. “And I think Esperanza would feel that way after she left business school as well. We all want to make sure that people do well by our community, and that includes taking care of the next generation.”

That sense of commitment is accompanied by tremendous pride in HBS and the broader business community. “This case came out of the business school,” says Curiel. “Our way to serve is through the tools and frameworks and lens of business. I'm very proud of that.”

This story was originally published on the HBS Newsroom website.