Choosing Action Over Words in DEI Efforts
- In response to student activism, Emory University has launched several new DEI initiatives as a way to spark meaningful change.
- One new initiative is a racial justice case competition, where student teams present ideas for improving diversity in the corporate sector.
- The university also has launched a DEI concentration that consists of new and existing courses.
In 2020, after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans, many universities and business schools publicly committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But for business students at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, located five miles from the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., those promises just weren’t enough.
Shortly after George Floyd’s death, a group of Goizueta MBA students gathered informally at the invitation of Brian Mitchell, associate dean of full-time MBA programs and Goizueta Global Strategy and Initiatives. Mitchell asked students how they were doing, and they told him they didn’t find it satisfying to simply talk about systemic injustice. According to 2021 MBA graduate Willie Sullivan, “We had protested, given money, and were looking for what else we could do.”
Under Mitchell’s leadership, the students took steps to spark meaningful change. They organized a case competition related to social justice, launched a venture fund for underrepresented entrepreneurs, and created momentum that led to a new DEI concentration for full-time MBA students.
Together, the new initiatives strengthen the school’s commitment to DEI, which is one of its four strategic priorities. Along with leadership, business and society, and entrepreneurship and innovation, DEI is central to everything Goizueta hopes to achieve.
A Competition and a Fund
The first student-driven initiative, the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition (JLCC), was organized in 2021 through the leadership of Mitchell and Lynne Segall, senior lecturer of organization and management at Goizueta. Lewis, who died in 2020, had helped lead the American civil rights movement as a college student, and his family allowed the school to put his name on their event.
For the inaugural JLCC event, the Goizueta students, with faculty mentorship and administration support, recruited six major corporate sponsors and 105 student teams from 52 universities. The Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California won the first case competition in January 2021, presenting actionable ways for Johnson & Johnson to inspire one million Black girls to pursue STEM careers. In January 2022, the Yale School of Management won the second JLCC by designing an implementation plan for IBM’s dedicated physical hub to close the racial gap in the tech sector.
For their second DEI-oriented initiative, MBA students targeted systemic racial inequalities in the venture funding space, where founders from underrepresented populations receive less than 3 percent of U.S. venture capital investment. The students pushed school administrators to launch the 1 million USD Peachtree Minority Venture Fund (PMVF), which creates capital opportunities exclusively for U.S.-based Black, Latinx, and Native American entrepreneurs.
MBA students targeted systemic racial inequalities in the venture funding space, where founders from underrepresented populations receive less than 3 percent of U.S. venture capital investment.
Student managers, senior associates, and analysts for PMVF are all drawn from a class focused on the fund. There, they receive technical financial training with a focus on investment inequities, such as underrepresented minority entrepreneurship and unconscious bias. Students identify up to 200 companies each year, conduct due diligence, and make investment recommendations. All proceeds from the fund are marked for reinvestment. (Read more in “A Fund for Underrepresented Entrepreneurs.”)
“We’re not just getting MBAs,” says student partner Alexia M. Brown. “We are seeing problems like injustice and taking action. Bridging that gap of wealth and inequality in this country is better for our economy. When everyone has access to be the best versions of themselves, we are all better off.”
A Collection of Electives
The latest initiative to come out of the conversations about racial justice is the DEI concentration, which launched in December 2021. To graduate with the designation, an MBA student must complete three DEI electives, which consist of both new and existing courses. Other students at the university also may enroll in these courses.
One elective is the class that accompanies the Peachtree Minority Venture Fund. Another one, Philanthropy Lab, is a hands-on course where students learn how philanthropy helps solve public problems. Participants focus on addressing inequality in Atlanta—the city with the greatest income inequality in the U.S. The course is taught by Brian Goebel, managing director of the Business & Society Institute, and Tene Traylor, an adjunct instructor.
A third DEI elective is Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Investing, taught by J.B. Kurish, professor in the practice of finance. In this class, students focus on social issues, the role of capitalism in causing those issues, and solutions that can be created through new ideas, organizations, and investment.
The fourth DEI elective, Bias in the Workplace, explores the science of bias and uses that as a foundation for designing effective policies and DEI interventions within organizations. It is taught by Erika Hall, associate professor of organization and management.
Typically, up to 30 students take the most popular MBA-level electives. This semester, 123 students fill three sections of Bias in the Workplace.
So far, 36 MBA candidates have indicated they will pursue the concentration, Mitchell says—but many other students at the university are interested in taking at least some of the classes. Typically, up to 30 students take the most popular MBA-level electives. This semester, 123 students fill three sections of Bias in the Workplace, and many of them are business undergraduates and nonbusiness students at Emory.
“We have much work left to do, but the introduction of DEI as an academic concentration is a major milestone in our journey,” says Mitchell. He anticipates that the school will go further, eventually making DEI part of the core curriculum. “That’s the next step for us,” he says.
Students helped generate momentum for the DEI concentration, and they have been enthusiastic about what they’ve learned in the courses.
“Data-rich lectures and engaging questions help us understand the mechanics behind bias, stereotypes, and heuristics,” says MBA student Stephon Harris. “The classes within the DEI concentration create space for the introspective work we each should do to investigate how businesses affect people, communities, and culture. Doing this work helps me develop empathy for future consumers.”
His classmate Lee Silver, who grew up in Atlanta and works in fintech, points out that businesses can use DEI data to measure the progress they make in achieving equity, as well as the profits they have reaped from diversity efforts. Says Silver, “Presenting DEI as a moral right and something that can help improve business performance outcomes can help DEI appeal to everyone.”
For MBA students like Katie Hoole, the new concentration shows that business schools are catching up to the value of DEI in the workplace. “This is the future of the professional space and academic institutions,” she says. Hoole worked for Teach for America, which trains teachers like her “to understand how we enter spaces, what biases we come in with, how our intersecting identities influence the way we see the world, how we interact with other people, and how other people perceive us,” she says. “It's important in professional and personal spaces to feel psychologically safe because then we are able to maximize our potential and take risks.”
First Steps, Next Steps
Despite the positive reactions to Goizueta’s DEI efforts, “you have to be bold to do something like this,” Hall says. “As with other DEI initiatives in a workplace, things can go wrong. The first move is scary because it’s not tried and tested. But we did something because somebody needs to be first.”
Efforts to educate about bias can encounter bias, too, Mitchell notes, because some people question whether DEI content is meaningful for all students. At Goizueta, the typical two-year MBA class includes about 150 students; 18 percent are African American, Hispanic, Latinx, or Native American/Alaskan. But the DEI offerings benefit every student, Mitchell believes.
Efforts to educate about bias can encounter bias, too, because some people question whether DEI content is meaningful for all students.
“A hurdle that I have come across with some colleagues and friends is their belief that this is only for a small segment of students. They say they don’t have that many of ‘those students,’ and DEI is ‘not a priority for all of us,’” he says. “This is not just content for underrepresented minorities or people who are on the wrong side of the bias. This is for everyone who wants to lead and wants to manage in an inclusive cultural space.”
Business schools that want to expand their DEI offerings should start where they are, advises Ama Ampadu-Fofie, Goizueta’s DEI director. “Take a look at what your institution has that you can start to mold,” she says. If administrators want to change the curriculum, for instance, they could begin by making sure all the first-year classes have case studies with diverse protagonists. She says, “The goal is to find where people are willing to help you make a change. It might not be easy, but once you get started, at least you get that momentum.”
Schools also can start by creating facilities designed to address DEI issues. For instance, in 2021, Emory opened the Business & Society Institute with the goal of addressing society’s challenges through research, programming, and leadership. The institute houses efforts like Start:ME, a longstanding free small-business training program that provides Atlanta entrepreneurs with the tools and connections they need to build successful businesses. More than 80 percent of Start:ME entrepreneurs are people of color.
Emory also continues to look for ways, inside and outside the curriculum, to examine the power of business to reduce inequities. Last fall, 300 students, alumni, faculty, and staff read and met in small groups to discuss The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. Author Heather McGee also spoke at a virtual event for the entire Emory community.
One discussion group was led by Omar Rodríguez-Vilá, a professor in the practice of marketing and academic director of education at the Business & Society Institute. Participants brainstormed ways to take meaningful action to reduce disparities.
“There is definitely a point in the dialogue where it’s easy to feel that you don’t have power—the issue is so complex and pervasive, what can I do?” says Rodríguez-Vilá. “We discussed making that very micro. What can I do in my class? Do I speak up when I see issues? What types of leaders and cases are we learning from? When we left the room, I felt there was a collective sense that there is power in our individual actions.”