Learning From Our Differences
Learning From Our Differences
Up Close: How does a school of management manage itself? Here is the latest installment of a new series called Up Close, featuring the day-to-day work of the School and the people who do it.
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31 Oct 2017   Christian Camerota

A new academic year is underway, and the Harvard Business School campus is teeming with MBA students from all corners of the world. The diversity of their backgrounds, ideas, and ambitions is apparent in their every interaction. But diversity alone does not guarantee an edifying experience, as Dean Nitin Nohria highlighted in a May editorial in the Washington Post.

“When diversity advances without inclusion,” Dean Nohria wrote, “we fail to realize the benefits.”

To educate future leaders who will excel in a global landscape, the School does its best to expose MBA students to the broadest range of ideas, practices, and people possible. By design and through steadfast effort, HBS has become an increasingly diverse community over time. Consider the composition of a number of MBA classes, data that shows steady increases in female, minority, and international students since 1965:

Given the many different kinds of diversity—religious, ethnic, socioeconomic—the real challenge is building a community where all members feel supported and comfortable engaging in authentic and occasionally difficult conversations about their differences. Although HBS has made great progress in this area, there is always more to be done and the School’s leadership team understands how important inclusion is for completing the puzzle.

“A diverse work force best serves the School’s goals of educating leaders who make a difference in the world,” said chief human resources officer Ellen Mahoney, who has helped HBS prioritize the hiring of underrepresented groups. “That includes a wide range of backgrounds and cultures as well as a variety of perspectives, ideas, and approaches that lead to innovation and better outcomes to business challenges. Going forward, creating an inclusive campus environment is a key to our remaining competitive.”

The Promise of an Inclusive Student Experience

This summer, HBS announced the new Forward Fellowship, designed for students who carry significant financial burdens or obligations because of their family background or circumstances. The $10,000 to $20,000 yearly awards go above and beyond the need-based aid that HBS offers and are intended to help students from lower-income backgrounds.

“We believe it is important to acknowledge both where each of our students is now and how far they have come,” said Chad Losee, Managing Director of Admission and Financial Aid. “We are excited about the Forward Fellowship’s potential to support talented and ambitious students during their two transformative years here.”

“WE BELIEVE IT IS IMPORTANT TO ACKNOWLEDGE BOTH WHERE EACH OF OUR STUDENTS IS NOW AND HOW FAR THEY HAVE COME.”

The hope is that the additional award will enable an even broader group of students to consider a Harvard MBA and enrich the learning and living experience for those who decide to attend.

Delivering on the Promise

In the classroom, the required first-year FIELD Foundations course is a prime example of the School’s commitment to promoting inclusion. The second of the course’s ten workshops, originally developed by Robin Ely, Jan Hammond, and Senior Lecturer Mitch Weiss, is called “Identity and Differences” and focuses on the idea that people don’t see themselves strictly in a single light; rather, people identify in many different ways at one time. Learning to appreciate the breadth and variety of their own and each other’s identities teaches students about building empowering workplace environments that maximize creativity and potential.

FIELD faculty members also develop exercises for the course on challenging cultural and interpersonal situations pulled directly from practice, such as this year’s discussion of the memo written by a Google employee last July that created considerable controversy with its discussion of gender and political correctness at the company. These exercises serve as springboards for rich discussions on how best to work in teams and account for differences in the workplace—conversations faculty hope students will continue throughout their careers.

“It’s never about having students leave the classroom with a right answer,” said Janelle Mills, Associate Director of MBA Student and Academic Services. “It’s about giving them the skills to manage differences and change and to have difficult conversations—to deal with the awkwardness and discomfort and ultimately, the rewards that come with that—with members of their team or people they report to.”

“IT'S NEVER ABOUT HAVING STUDENTS LEAVE THE CLASSROOM WITH A RIGHT ANSWER. IT'S ABOUT GIVING THEM THE SKILLS TO MANAGE DIFFERENCES AND CHANGE AND TO HAVE DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS...”

Outside the classroom, HBS students and staff work together to refine the campus experience so that it best reflects their shared values. The students themselves largely determine how this takes shape, such as when former Student Association co-presidents Libby Leffler (MBA 2017) and LaToya Marc (MBA 2017) created a new Chief Inclusion Officer (CIO) position as part of their cabinet in 2016. As the first female co-president SA team in the history of the School, they decided the position was of vital importance at a time when there were multiple police shootings of African Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining steam. Leffler and Marc saw a need on campus for students to unite and express their perspectives on charged cultural issues, and the newly-appointed CIO team of Quinn Fitzgerald (MBA 2017) and DeJeune O’Garro (JD-MBA 2018) ably facilitated that and much more.

“I’ve had many conversations recently with students asking how they can best organize themselves to better live the mission of the School,” said Mike Murphy, Director of Student and Academic Services. “It’s always been the case that individual students have done that, but now there are so many of them thinking about how we can collectively scale up our activities and meet the demand for positive discussion and action. There’s so much student energy on campus for building social change and cross-cultural awareness. The creation of the CIO position is just one reflection of that.”

In the last two years, the Chief Inclusion Officer position has been a demanding one—organizing town hall meetings to offer perspectives on what it’s like to be an African American, military veteran, or LGBTQ+ member of the HBS community; obtaining corporate sponsorship from CVS to do unconscious bias training each term; facilitating a business plan competition sponsored by Airbnb. After Leffler and Marc graduated, the position remained in the SA framework under new SA Co-Presidents Angelica Castellanos (MBA 2018) and Kevin Ferguson (MBA 2018), with new CIO Angelo Carino (MBA 2018) continuing to expand and refine the position’s scope.

“Students drive student culture here,” Murphy said. “We’re educating leaders to make a difference in the world. But it’s the students who set the agenda, and we just try to be the best resource we can in helping them execute on it.”

Moving Forward

In the fall of 2016, Harvard University President Drew Faust created the Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, a University-wide group composed of faculty, students, and staff charged with considering "a set of important and interrelated questions designed to advance us on the path from diversity to belonging." This fall, the task force released a draft report of its finding that examines the demographic realities, academic resources, organizational structures, and lived experience of Harvard community members.

The next step is engaging the community for feedback on its recommendations, something it will do partially through a listening tour conducted around the University. Dean Nohria will welcome co-chairs Archon Fung and Meredith Weenick to the HBS campus on Monday, November 6, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. in Hawes Hall 101, and the session is open to all members of the HBS community. Additionally, community members can offer comments at a designated Solution Space and share their reactions by email at inclusionandbelongingtaskforce@harvard.edu.

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