Diversify the Pipeline With Inclusive Excellence

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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
By Ian Williamson
Photo by iStock/Vasyl Dolmatov
The Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, is taking a holistic approach to filling the talent gap.
  • Executives in sectors such as artificial intelligence, fintech, and healthcare are increasingly expressing the need to build diverse workforces that can promote innovation and drive growth.
  • The Merage School is addressing this need through Inclusive Excellence, a schoolwide effort to attract more underrepresented students to high-growth industries.
  • Through targeted research and initiatives, the school strives to enhance the learning outcomes of its students and expand the pipeline of talent in its community.


As technologies evolve, demographics shift, and consumer preferences change, organizations are recognizing that they must deliver innovative new services and products if they want to maintain market relevance. They also know that if they want to continue to innovate and meet changing market demands, they must build a diverse workforce that welcomes unique perspectives, promotes collaboration, and facilitates the exchange of new ideas.

The changes happening in Orange County, California, represent the challenges—and the opportunities—that companies face today. The region is a magnet for high-growth sectors such as artificial intelligence, electric vehicle technology, fintech, and healthcare. But as local business leaders work to define and reinvent their industries, they are expressing their concerns about their ability to attract talent that can help their companies grow.

A future-ready workforce has the potential to generate benefits that ripple through the entire region. Recognizing this, the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), is focused on building a diverse, talented, and qualified pipeline of talent right in our own backyard.

We call this approach Inclusive Excellence. It’s a core principle driving the transformation of the broader business landscape. We believe it can serve as a model for other business schools that want to develop talent that meets the demands of today and tomorrow.

What Is Inclusive Excellence?

Inclusive Excellence is neither a curriculum nor an exercise of checking boxes or meeting quotas. Instead, it is our deliberate effort to cast a wider net into communities that are traditionally underrepresented in high-growth industries.

The Orange County region, for example, is rich in diversity, and that is reflected on the UCI campus, where more than 40 percent of students are the first in their families to go to college. Our business school adopted Inclusive Excellence as a guiding strategic principle because we viewed the opportunity to help build a talent pipeline out of our own neighborhoods as too great to ignore.

Inclusive Excellence is a core principle driving the transformation of the broader business landscape. It can serve as a model to develop talent that meets the demands of today and tomorrow.

Inclusive Excellence is built on two pillars. First, it identifies the structural barriers that constrain the growth of our community’s talent pipeline. Second, it develops educational initiatives that either overcome or eliminate those barriers.

We are taking three deliberate steps to achieve Inclusive Excellence: We are fostering an inclusive educational environment, we are leveraging research that shapes thought leadership, and we are expanding the available pool of talent.

Fostering an Inclusive Educational Environment

At the heart of our strategy is the Merage School Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council, a faculty-led group that embeds the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into the school’s curriculum, practices, and external outreach. We see the council as a driving force that continually assesses our progress and cultivates a learning environment that is truly representative of the global business environment.

Council members have led the launch of the school’s Black Management AssociationLatinx InitiativeAsian/Pacific Islander Initiative, and Merage Global Initiative (MGI), all of which are tailored to meet the unique needs of students from various backgrounds. These initiatives provide the means for members of our business school’s community to explore business through the lens of their experiences and contribute their perspectives to help shape the curriculum and culture of our institution.

Ultimately, the council helps ensure that we are producing business leaders who are not only knowledgeable and skilled, but also empathetic, culturally aware, and passionate about creating businesses that enhance all the communities they touch.

Likewise, the Merage School is focused on hiring staff and faculty who are representative of our student body. For example, the percentage of female faculty members on our faculty currently stands at 44 percent and is growing—that representation is a product of our commitment to Inclusive Excellence.

Leveraging Research That Shapes Thought Leadership

Another way we promote inclusiveness is by championing research that examines how diversity influences business. A faculty member who leads the charge in this area is Margarethe Wiersema, who holds the Dean’s Professorship in Strategic Management. Wiersema is an expert on corporate strategy and governance, and she is especially interested in how board gender diversity impacts corporate outcomes. Her research aligns well with the Merage School’s emphasis on empowering female leadership.

We can see her influence in the paper “Women Directors and Board Dynamics: Qualitative Insights from the Boardroom,” published earlier this year in the Journal of Management. Wiersema and her co-author Marie Louise Mors, a professor of strategic and international management at Copenhagen Business School, interviewed directors on the boards of more than 200 publicly traded U.S. and European companies. Their aim was to shed light on the ways that the presence of women in corporate governance can have transformative power in organizations.

Additionally, research conducted by UCI associate professors Ming D. Leung and Sharon Koppman explores the challenges associated with promoting inclusive excellence in the workplace, particularly regarding gender diversity in hiring practices. The study reveals that encouraging a more diverse applicant pool, a common strategy to address gender imbalances in certain job fields, can sometimes backfire. When employers see that a majority of applicants are of a gender not stereotypically associated with a specific job, they may form negative stereotypes about all applicants in the pool; this misperception can lead to a higher likelihood of deciding not to hire anyone. Leung and Koppman discuss how this phenomenon, termed “proportional prejudice,” can affect both men and women seeking employment and has implications for diversity recruitment efforts.

By encouraging such research, we reinforce the idea that organizational excellence lies not only in having a diverse workforce, but also in harnessing perspectives of all individuals.

Expanding the Pool of Talent

As we know, diversity comes in many forms. If businesses are to achieve long-term success and attract diverse talent, they must work to meet the unique needs of different groups of people.  At the Merage School, we are working to expand the pool of talent by meeting the needs of two groups in particular: high school students and international students and alumni.

Introducing opportunities to high school students. To bring more talent into the pipeline at the early stages, the Merage School has pursued cross-sector collaborations with industry, local government, civic society organizations, and the philanthropic community to create two initiatives for high school and community college students. These include the Pacific Life LIFEvest program and the Merage School Future Leaders Initiative (FLI).

LIFEvest provides an opportunity for first-generation high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors to participate in a weeklong summer immersion program that prepares them for college life; the program includes courses that prepare participants for university admission, impart financial literacy skills, and more. Led by our Center for Investment and Wealth Management, LIFEvest is supported by the Pacific Life Foundation and several local companies and philanthropists. This program, which has been running for more than 13 years, has impacted close to 1,000 students, with more than 87 percent of these individuals attending college (compared to a national average of 36 percent).

Diversity comes in many forms. If businesses are to achieve long-term success and attract diverse talent, they must work to meet the unique needs of different groups of people.

Started in 2022, FLI is a summer program that guides high school and community college students as they pursue business careers in technology sectors. Designed in collaboration with the Anaheim Union High School District, Santa Ana Unified School District, and Santa Ana College, FLI exposes participants to the business career opportunities being created by artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, fintech, electric vehicles, and medical technology. Leading executives from organizations such as Samsung, Hyundai, PIMCO, J.P. Morgan, Nvidia, and Zócalo Health share with participants their insights about these exciting fields. To date, FLI has impacted more than 150 students and evaluation data shows evidence that the program is having a meaningful impact on the career aspirations of participants.

Through both LIFEvest and FLI, we reinforce how important it is to ensure that a broad range of students have early access to the information needed to thrive in future business careers.

Building community among international students and partners. Beyond that, we’re also committed to international collaboration, notably in Asia. Earlier this year we launched the MGI, mentioned above, to serve our international student body, which represents more than 30 countries. The MGI aims to capitalize on the rich tapestry of perspectives that such diversity brings by fostering professional growth and building a tight-knit community among international students.

We also look to our international partnerships—currently with organizations in Asia, Europe, and South America—to enrich our academic community. For example, through our recent partnership with Taipei Medical University in Taiwan, we are taking a cross-disciplinary approach to intertwine business with healthcare. And through our partnership with TalentoTotal, a nonprofit based in Rio de Janeiro that offers career development and mentor services, we are working to amplify opportunities for Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous students to pursue careers in business.

Looking Ahead

We see our Inclusive Excellence efforts as integral components of the Merage School’s objective to enhance the economic and social well-being of all the communities in Southern California. We hope our strategy for building an inclusive educational experience offers ideas that might guide business schools as they work to enhance the learning outcomes of their students and diversify the talent pipelines of their communities.

While the business sector is rapidly changing, one factor remains constant: Organizations need great talent to thrive. We are committed to ensuring that a rich and truly diverse pool of talent is available to our region’s organizations.

Ian Williamson
Dean, Paul Merage School of Business, University of California, Irvine
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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