Future Business Leaders Need to be Able to Talk About Race: How We Institutionalized This at Haas

Back in 2016, Berkeley Haas MBA students in the Race Inclusion Initiative (RII) — a research-based student effort to increase the number of underrepresented minorities at Haas and make the climate inclusive for all — conducted a survey that found that even though 90% of students believe that understanding racial dynamics is a key component of effective leadership, fewer than half are comfortable talking about race.

Given that these students were at business school precisely to become effective leaders, this was an obvious gap. As today’s marketplace evolves, companies are starting to acknowledge the importance of diversity and inclusion in reaching customers and other stakeholders, improving innovation and team performance, increasing talent engagement, and achieving superior financial results. A diverse workforce leads to a better range of perspectives and higher performance writ large. As a future business leader, it’s important to be on the leading edge of this meaningful transition in the workforce. Equity Fluent Leaders understand the importance of expanding the hiring pipeline and focusing on retention and advancement; consciously creating an inclusive culture and a space for brave dialogue; implementing competitive leave programs that support employees; and ensuring compensation equity. (See this compendium of research data on the “business case” for diversity and inclusion). We students needed to build out these skills.

So in 2017, Haas students designed a course called Dialogues on Race, which created a brave space for students to develop better competencies for engaging in conversations about race in their careers and personal lives. The idea extended to “Dialogues over Dinner,” where students from Dialogues on Race could put their learning into practice by facilitating informal discussions with classmates who may have had different levels of exposure to, and comfort with, diversity-related topics. Each semester, these small group dinners in students’ homes are based on new articles or podcasts to anchor a conversation around systemic racism and discrimination. These informal peer discussions serve as an open space for discussing issues relevant to Haas students, as future business leaders who will lead diverse teams, and offer a meaningful opportunity to engage thoughtfully with classmates, learn from each other’s lived experiences, and deepen relationships.

These are essential muscles for us to build. In fact, Salesforce’s Chief Equality Officer, Tony Prophet, shared that similar discussions have been important in his own leadership. During a Fall 2019 AmpEquity/Dean’s Speaker Series at Haas, he was asked what resources have been most meaningful to him. He pointed to what he calls “Equality Dinners,” where he invites leading thinkers for off-the-record conversations. They share challenges, strategies, and tactics. He exclaimed, “They are powerful learning moments!”

Sitting in that audience, I was thrilled to hear his unsolicited endorsement of such meaningful peer dialogues. As a member of the Race Inclusion Initiative, I was leading our Dialogues over Dinner initiative for the 2019 Spring and Fall semesters. It was so heartening to hear that we were on the right track.

In Fall 2019, nearly a quarter of the Haas MBA student body (130 students, or 23%) attended 17 dinners in classmates’ homes. Post-dinner surveys demonstrated just how meaningful these dinners are. When asked how likely students are to recommend DoD to classmates, the average score was 9.39 out of 10. A few reflections from the dinner guests:

“These dinners allow us to develop our whole selves, not just our careers, and will prepare us to be thoughtful and equitable leaders in our workplaces and more broadly in our communities in the future. They are invaluable and part of the reason I value being at Haas so much.” [Asian or Pacific Islander male]

“I believe many of the problems we face in society are a result of an unwillingness to wade through discomfort and negative emotions. This is a skill that requires practice, and DoD gives folks an opportunity to practice that skill.” [Black or African American female]

Students reported a 12% increase in their level of comfort engaging in conversations about race after the dinners. This comfort level is especially important as Haas seeks to prepare students to become Equity Fluent Leaders that ignite and accelerate change. According to Kellie McElhaney, founder of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership (EGAL) at Berkeley Haas, “Equity Fluent Leaders understand the value of different lived experiences and courageously use their power to address barriers, increase access, and drive change for positive impact.” As students reflected on how these dinners influenced how they hope to act in the future, they shared:

“I appreciated closing the conversation with concrete strategies for advancing equity, which I will use moving forward. This conversation is also the start of more engagement in DEI events on my part.” [White female]

“[The dinner] affected me a lot. We transitioned from a discussion about school systems to broader social and political norms and ways to be more active in discussion and action. In this sense I feel empowered to facilitate both in the future.” [Asian or Pacific Islander male]

“I’m more driven to engage others and help them better understand issues that plague the communities of people of color.” [Hispanic or Latino male]

A few years into Dialogues over Dinner’s existence, it became clear that in order for Dialogues over Dinner to sustain its meaningful impact, it would be essential for Haas’s institutional leadership to demonstrate proactive support for such conversations. Haas has struggled to enroll underrepresented minorities over the past few years — with a particularly low enrollment of black students in the Class of 2020. Many students were fired up about the necessity and the urgency to drastically increase the diversity of our own class. Students in the Consortium, Race Inclusion Initiative, and beyond took action to build a more inclusive environment. But it was important for the administration to demonstrate its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and to support the students who were dedicating so much of their own time, energy, and passion to this work. At the end of the Spring 2019 semester, I collaborated with the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership (EGAL) to institutionalize Dialogues over Dinner within EGAL and the Haas Dean’s Office. This partnership was an important signal that the Haas administration values and invests in this community-wide DEI initiative.

We struck a strong balance between solidifying institutional support and maintaining a student-led space for the discussions themselves. The student who handles all the logistics will now serve in a paid Student Coordinator position, and will use a new, robust Dialogues over Dinner Playbook that describes every step of the process. EGAL will support the Coordinator and thus start to build institutional memory to help sustain (and evolve!) the program year over year. The Student Coordinator will continue to collaborate with RII and Élida Bautista, Director of Inclusion & Diversity, to develop anchor content and facilitation trainings for the students leading the discussions.

Personally, I hope to adapt the Dialogues over Dinner experience to bring to my own future workplaces, creating spaces for these candid conversations with diverse mixes of future colleagues. (And I hope other Haasies will do the same!) But I know that to be successful, DEI initiatives will require buy-in from company leadership. With support from the top, and active engagement across all levels, hopefully these spaces for dialogue can be another piece to the puzzle that moves the needle towards creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces.

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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