Leading the Way on Diversity

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Wednesday, February 9, 2022
By Sharon Shinn
Four of AACSB’s 2022 Influential Leaders discuss how business schools can contribute to diverse and equitable workforces.
  • DEIB efforts must be clearly communicated, culturally appropriate, and considered a normal part of doing business.
  • Like corporations, business schools need leaders who model inclusive behavior and address bias and discrimination.
  • The journey toward DEIB begins with education and an understanding of the obstacles faced by underrepresented groups.

In early February, AACSB named its 2022 Influential Leaders—notable graduates from AACSB-accredited schools who have made distinctive marks in society over the course of their careers. The 27 members of this year’s class all serve as champions of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), and four of them spoke this month at AACSB’s Deans Conference.

Author and mentor Patricia David is the former head of diversity at JP Morgan Chase. She also previously served as head of diversity for the Institutional Clients Group at Citi and as a vice president at Merrill Lynch. David currently acts as an advisor on DEIB issues at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in New York City, where she is an alumna.

Rana Ghandour Salhab is managing partner for people and purpose at Deloitte Middle East. She oversees societal and entrepreneurial initiatives that support youth skills, social enterprises, the advancement of women, and the education of refugees and marginalized communities. She is an alumna of the American University of Beirut’s Suliman S. Olayan School of Business in Lebanon.

Nicholas Perkins is chairman, president, and CEO of Perkins Management and Black Titan Franchise Systems. Black Titan recently purchased the U.S.-based Fuddruckers hamburger chain, making Perkins the first African American with 100 percent ownership of a national hamburger franchise. He is an alumnus of Fayetteville State University’s Broadwell College of Business and Economics in North Carolina.

Kelly Schmitt is CEO of Benevity, a tech platform based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, that helps companies manage grants and charitable donations. At the certified B Corporation, 53 percent of the employees are women and 30 percent are Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). Schmitt is an alumna of the University of Calgary Haskayne School of Business.

At the Deans Conference, these four Influential Leaders discussed the regional and cultural context of diversity initiatives, the role of mentorship, and what business schools can do to prepare leaders to lead on issues of diversity. Each participant answered two questions posed by the association for a prerecorded video presentation.

Empowering DEIB Teams

David and Salhab first took turns offering their thoughts on the question, “How do you empower teams to define and elevate their efforts?”

David said that the key with any DEIB effort is for organizations to think globally, but act at a local level. She suggested that leaders take three steps: Communicate with team members so they understand that any efforts they recommend are connected to the overall strategy and mission. Create a process and structure that brings teams together to listen, share practices, and collaborate. Provide resources that allow teams to address their unique needs and discuss what they feel needs to be done.

“Leaders should communicate with team members, create a process that brings teams together, and provide resources that allow teams to address their unique needs.” Patricia David

Salhab first stated that DEIB efforts should be “geographically and culturally agnostic” because all people have a right to be respected. However, she noted that the routes for achieving DEIB differ by geography and culture, so methods should be customized for local situations. For instance, in some cultures, women are not expected to be economically active, and laws might not explicitly encourage equity and inclusion. Leaders must realize that they will be required to operate under different mandates in different countries—they cannot merely repeat strategies that have worked elsewhere.

To create change, Salhab said, organizations should begin by having leaders model inclusive behaviors, because the tone at the top will create an impact across the organization. Organizations should also stop putting so much focus on the business case for diversity, she said, because it’s already been proven. Instead, she recommended that organizations put their energy into getting underrepresented groups onto boards and making structural changes that allow members of these groups to advance.

Companies must do more than simply “skill and reskill minorities,” said Salhab. “We need to have the courage to change organizations to make them more inclusive.”

Developing Best Practices

The next question posed was, “What diversity and inclusion hurdles do you see in business schools that might be lowered by partnering with or borrowing from the corporate world?” David suggested several strategies any organization can use.

First, assign a high-level manager to act as a resource for the diversity team. This individual can develop a plan linked to the organization’s overall strategy and implement processes that can be tracked over time. This person also would be responsible for embedding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging strategies into all people practices in the organization, such as recruiting, leadership training, and performance management.

Second, collect the right data to provide a baseline measurement, such as cultural survey data and engagement data. Demographic information allows companies to see historical patterns and create predictive analytics, David said. It also “introduces a way for organizations to intercept any problems that they can see ahead and to course correct.” Companies can use the data to identify where progress is not occurring and make changes in every part of their employee engagement process, from onboarding to training.

Third, develop a strong communications strategy that is “part of the normal order” of operations. “It is not good if organizations only communicate as a reaction to social unrest or pressure from outside sources,” she said, because such efforts come across as operational, not authentic.

Finally, create affinity networks where underrepresented groups “have a place and a built-in community to reach out to from the day that they start,” said David. By following these steps, she said, business schools can mirror the work that corporations are already doing in the DEIB space.

Taking on Key Roles

Salhab also addressed the question of what strategies business schools might borrow from corporate partners. She considered business schools from three angles: as agents of change, as employers, and as providers of service.

As agents of change, she said, business schools can inspire and support DEIB by conducting targeted research, collaborating with the corporate sector, and creating centers such as the American University of Beirut’s Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership for Women.

“Business schools can make sure that top leaders set the tone for diversity initiatives and model inclusive leadership behavior.” Rana Ghandour Salhab

As employers, Salhab noted, business schools can make sure that top leaders set the tone for diversity initiatives and model inclusive leadership behavior. Schools also can work to root out unconscious bias, make sure third-party service providers are aligned with their inclusion strategies, and set policies and procedures that mitigate discriminatory actions.

As providers of services, business schools can make efforts to attract diverse students and faculty, said Salhab. This means instituting inclusive student selection processes, being aware of gender and minority bias in case studies, removing bias in official language and messaging, and partnering with the corporate sector in internship and graduate programs.

Schools that adopt inclusive policies, said Salhab, will become preferred employers, attract talented students, and move up in the rankings. They also will become drivers for creating an inclusive society.

Finding and Being a Mentor

The first question directed at Perkins and Schmitt was, “How did a mentor inspire or support your achievements?”

Perkins explained that he had been mentored by his best friend’s parents, African American entrepreneurs who owned a food services management company in Fayetteville. “I had the opportunity to grow up in and around business and see things that, from my background, I did not have an opportunity to see,” he said. “I was able to merge my passion for cooking with my business education.”

With the goal of paying it forward, Perkins has mentored other young people within his operations, enabling them to “see firsthand all it takes to start, manage, and grow a small business. Mentorship played a significant role in my growth and development, and I find it an obligation to do the same.”

Schmitt noted that while she had benefited from a number of great mentors, the one who stands out is Bryan de Lottinville, founder of Benevity. When she started with the company in 2018 as chief financial officer, de Lottinville made it clear he was looking for his successor. While Schmitt initially said she was not interested in the role, in early 2021, she became the company leader. “I can honestly say I wouldn’t be a CEO today without having had Brian play that mentor role and believe that I could achieve more,” she said.

“Mentors see potential in you that you don’t see in yourself, and they help you realize that potential by being a source of constant feedback that is very direct.” Kelly Schmitt

She identified two qualities essential for mentors. “They see potential in you that you don’t see in yourself, and they help you realize that potential by being a source of constant feedback that is very direct. A great mentor is someone who cares enough about you to help make you better—not just better at what you do, but also a better person.”

Schmitt said she feels honored whenever people ask her to mentor them, because it signals that they believe they can learn from her and that they trust her opinion. While being a mentor is hard work, she said, she embraces the role as a way to help others develop into amazing leaders. She added, “And selfishly, it’s very satisfying to see people accomplish things they never thought were possible.”

Preparing Leaders to Lead

Finally, Perkins and Schmitt were asked, “What can business schools do to prepare a workforce that reflects and embraces diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging?”

Perkins suggested that business schools show organizations how successful companies benefit from “the synergies that come from embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion. I believe that companies that make those pillars a part of their culture will always have a competitive advantage.”

“Companies that make diversity, equity, and inclusion pillars a part of their culture will always have a competitive advantage.” Nicholas Perkins

Schmitt noted that, for both individuals and businesses, the journey toward DEIB begins with education and an understanding of the obstacles faced by underrepresented groups. She said that, while Benevity has high percentages of female and BIPOC employees, those numbers are only about representation.

“The inclusion, equity, and belonging pieces are what really matter, and they’re much harder to achieve,” she said. “Once you’ve got this diverse group of people in a room, how do you ensure that all their voices are heard?”

Learning about the experiences of underrepresented groups “can be uncomfortable and even shocking,” she concluded. “But it is necessary so companies can craft a strategy to move toward true inclusion. The more business schools can educate students in these areas, the more we can help to speed up the number of companies that truly walk the talk on diversity and inclusion.”

Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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