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Leaving No Talent Undeveloped: Diversity and Inclusion Efforts Needed More Than Ever in Business Education


Posted February 13, 2017 by Sri Zaheer - Dean - Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota

As dean of a business school located in the heart of vibrant corporate community that comprises so many global firms, I have the good fortune to meet regularly with their leaders. We discuss how we can best partner to address their top issues while benefiting our students in the process. And without question, they’ll share that the single item most weighing on their minds is talent.

Even more specifically, these corporate leaders worry where they will find the next generation of talented individuals who will bring a host of new perspectives to the table and appreciate the interconnected world in which we live. Research has long shown that taking diverse perspectives into account improves decision-making, and having a global mindset also is critical, as markets grow worldwide.

In 2014, a group of business school deans were invited to the White House to develop ideas to promote women in business. While many of us have been attempting to implement some of the best practices in that document, we need to go much further if business’s needs for talent are to be met.

I see three ways that business schools can alleviate the concerns of business around talent, and better our own institutions while doing so, by improving how we reach out to, draw on, and nurture talent and help connect those individuals to the opportunities that exist:

  • Broaden the pipeline of students entering business schools
  • Foster a culture of inclusion within our schools to allow all students to flourish
  • Make sure students have opportunities to understand the world

Finally, faculty have a critical role to play in diversity efforts, and we need to make sure we don’t overlook their influence.

Expanding the Business School Pipeline

It’s a pretty simple equation. To fill the opportunities that exist in our companies, we need to get more students interested in pursuing business. Talent exists everywhere, but does this talent know what their future could be if they pursue higher education, and do they see all the opportunities that exist for those with a business degree? How do we encourage students from an array of different backgrounds to consider business as a career and help them take the next steps?

At the Carlson School of Management, we have found success in expanding our pipeline through summer programs that allow high school students from underrepresented populations to explore how their talents and passions can translate into business fields and careers.

One program we implemented after the deans’ discussion, Women Mean Business, is aimed at high school students interested in STEM fields. Through a weeklong residential camp, the program introduces students to information systems, supply chain and operations, and finance subjects through classes, company visits, mentoring, and case competition.

Another program, Gopher Business, aimed at encouraging students from underrepresented backgrounds who are rising seniors in high school, has been in existence for some years and has been successful in nurturing a diverse talent pool for businesses and nonprofits. We are seeking to replicate and extend this model with other underrepresented populations and are finding that millennials respond positively to a message of business as a force for good. Building the bridge to business education for minorities, the LGBT community, and first-generation students from rural communities has truly become an imperative for business and positive for society.

Fostering a Culture of Inclusion

Once students matriculate, it is critical that they are supported throughout their studies. For many schools this will mean a culture shift that embraces and rewards team success above individual accomplishment. For others, it may require expanding institutional support in areas such as mentoring, for instance by having advisors who more appropriately mirror the student body.

This year, our incoming female MBA students participated in a retreat led by distinguished female alumni and were each paired with a mentor for their time in the program. In addition, we have incorporated programming throughout the year to bring our students and the community together. Events such as our annual Women’s Leadership Conference, Women in Entrepreneurship Conference, and Tech Cities, to name have few, have served as forums to address issues around diversity and facilitate opportunities for our students.

Student groups can also play a vital role. I have been so proud of our student-led efforts, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, to build connections between LGBT students, our alumni, and the business community. A school may not need to launch its own efforts but can instead support and partner with those that have been initiated by its students.

Cultivating an Understanding the World

While we are clearly seeing a populist pullback worldwide from international engagement, interestingly I hear a very different message from the corporate leaders in the Twin Cities, who tell me that their international business is growing and that they are really looking for students with a curiosity and appreciation of the world.

Eight years ago, we made it a requirement that all our undergraduates have an international study experience to graduate, and we have invested in raising funds to help students fulfill this requirement. We have found that this has become a signature transformative experience for our students, and one they appreciate even as alumni. Ongoing research with our students by the Carlson Global Institute suggests that the international experience does result in students developing more flexibility and tolerance, qualities that are valued by the firms that employ them.

Keeping Faculty in Mind

For myriad reasons, higher education diversity initiatives tend to focus primarily on students. While not disagreeing with that emphasis, I do want to draw attention to the importance of focusing on the composition of our faculty and the role faculty can play in supporting diversity efforts.

Our efforts to attract a more diverse student population can be undermined if our students aren’t learning from a faculty who are reflective of the student body and of society. We have to make a greater effort to hire more women and minorities, and we must help grow the faculty pipeline, as well, by recruiting more women and minorities into our PhD programs. Undergraduate research opportunities are often a good recruiting ground to plant the seeds of interest in an academic career, and we need to encourage our faculty to pay attention to this aspect as they mentor undergraduates.

Recognizing the Urgency for Diversity and Inclusion

There is no question that we are seeing a retreat from globalization around the world. How extensive it becomes or how long it endures remains to be seen. Regardless, its impact will be felt on our campuses.

To cultivate the globally minded workers of tomorrow, we will need to look ever closer to home. Fortunately, talent exists everywhere. It is our responsibility to recognize that, provide a pathway for the talent to enter our institutions, and commit to preparing and connecting our students with the opportunities that await them.


Sri Zaheer, Dean, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota in MinneapolisSri Zaheer is dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she also holds the Elmer L. Andersen Chair in Global Corporate Social Responsibility.

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