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HBS Prof: Case Studies Need Diversity — Now

Harvard professor Steven Rogers wrote 14 new cases studies focused on the black business experience and is teaching them in this year’s spring semester in a class called Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship. Courtesy photo

Harvard Business School’s case studies have been the foundation of business education for countless other schools over many decades. To this day, by some estimates, they account for about 80% of the cases studied at business schools around the world, making it impossible to measure the total impact of HBS case studies on the MBA landscape — and, by extension, the business world itself. But according to one HBS professor, the body of work represented by the thousands upon thousands of studies originating in Cambridge has always had one glaring shortcoming: a lack of protagonist diversity.

Steven Rogers, entrepreneurial finance professor at HBS, estimates that fewer than 1% of HBS’ 10,000 or so studies feature a black executive as protagonist, or central decision-making figure, despite U.S. Census estimates that about 9% of U.S. companies are now black-owned. So he’s aiming to change that. Fed up with the uneven treatment, Rogers, who has taught at Harvard for five years, spent April to December last year co-authoring 14 new black executive-centered case studies, many of which have been taught this semester in his class Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship.

“It was a herculean task,” Rogers says of the frenzy of case study writing. “A lot of coordination, a lot of review, a lot of writing. I had co-authors for each case, but it was tough. But it was a labor of love.”

A FREE HAND TO CREATE A NEW COURSE 

Steven Rogers. Courtesy photo

The shortage of black protagonists in case studies is something Rogers first noticed during his 17 years at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, where he taught in the MBA, executive education, and Ph.D. programs and was several times named Most Outstanding Professor. So when he was given the opportunity three years ago at Harvard to teach whatever subject he wished, he didn’t need a lot of time to make a decision.

“I was teaching in the executive program,” says Rogers, who joined HBS, his alma mater, in 2012 as its MBA Class of 1957 senior lecturer of business administration. “The school made a decision to move someone to teach finance, and they came to me and said, ‘You can teach whatever you’d like to teach.’ And I told them, ‘It’s always bothered me, the absence of black case studies around here, and our students not being exposed to great black businessmen and businesswomen. So I’d like to create a course on that subject matter.’ And they said, ‘You have the liberty to create whatever you want to.'”

The U.S. Census reports a 35% increase in African-American-owned firms in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012, to 2.6 million from 1.9 million. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, paradoxically, show that while the national unemployment rate fell to 4.5%, it rose to 8% for black workers. This represents both a unique situation and a banquet of problems ripe for study, Rogers tells Poets&Quants.

WIDE RANGE OF TEACHABLE CASES ON VARIOUS INDUSTRIES

Rogers’class has featured nine of his 14 new case studies, with the main protagonist from each speaking to the class amid discussions. Among the cases is one involving Linda Johnson Rice’s decision to sell Ebony magazine in 2016, “a fascinating case about one of America’s foremost entrepreneurs — John Johnson, her father,” Rogers says. “The case gave great detail about the history of this company and its founding by this great entrepreneur, and then it transitioned to today and now, with Linda faced with the issue of what to do with the magazine.

“Linda Johnson Rice was faced with the same thing that all other presidents of media companies and periodicals in the country were faced with — this perfect storm where the media was being completely killed,” Rogers says. “That’s what the case was written about. We cover a variety of industries in these cases, and a variety of questions and problems.”

Other studies discussed in the class featured Carmichael Roberts, a partner at the private equity firm North Bridge Venture Partners, and the question of when to create your own fund; and Corey Thomas and the question of whether to go public with his cybersecurity startup Rapid7.

‘IT’S HARD TO BE WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE’

Interest in Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship has been massive. This semester, 43 signed up for Rogers’ new course (shattering a soft cap of 25), including students from eight of Harvard University’s 12 schools. “I don’t think another course on the Harvard campus has a similar type of representation,” Rogers says.

LaTonya Marc, co-president of the HBS student body, told millennial-focused tech and media outlet Blavity that she was particularly inspired by the Rapid7 study, finding it important in part “because African-American loans are not approved at the same rates as others. The access to capital is just a huge issue in African-American entrepreneurship.”

She said Rogers’ course helps those who come from underrepresented backgrounds in another way, as well. “It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” Marc said. “So I think that having representation of someone who shares a background as you, who is focused on solving a problem in an undeserved market, can be really inspiring.”

HBS: ROGERS HAS PLAYED ‘IMPORTANT LEADERSHIP ROLE’

HBS Dean Nitin Nohria in 2014 pledged to more than double the percentage of women who are protagonists in Harvard case studies by 2019 to 20%. At the time, only about 9% of Harvard case studies had women as protagonists.

As with women, Nohria supports efforts to racially diversify the school’s vaunted case study library, HBS spokesman Jim Aisner says.

“HBS faculty members are experts in their fields, and they select and create the cases for their courses in a decentralized manner,” Aisner tells Poets&Quants. “Steve Rogers has played an important leadership role in increasing the number of African-American case protagonists in the case studies he has written. This is in keeping with Dean Nitin Nohria’s long-term commitment to encouraging course heads and other faculty members to look for diversity in their course and case development both in this country and around the world.”

‘THE INTENT IS TO COMPLETELY INTEGRATE THE CURRICULUM’

Steven Rogers isn’t stopping at teaching his course or authoring studies with black protagonists. He has greater ambitions — for Harvard, and for all business schools.

“I’m meeting with course heads here at Harvard Business School about the topic and asking them to include at least one case study in their courses that has a black protagonist,” Rogers says. “I’m giving them the names of three black protagonists that they could write about, or they can use one of my case studies. So the intent is, quite frankly, to completely integrate the curriculum.

“At the present time, Harvard Business School has 10,000 case studies that we’ve published. My count shows that less than 100 have black protagonists. The reality is, we don’t have an integrated curriculum that showcases and highlights African Americans in the same way it does others. My desire is that in the immediate future that will be a non-issue, and that all core courses will have cases that have African-American protagonists. And the real idea will be that the need for my course goes away.

“On top of that, while we’re trying to get that to be the case, I’m desirous of other schools immediately adopting the same thing that Harvard Business School has. Ideally, that means agreeing to have a similar course to the one that I’ve created. I’m hopeful that this time next year I can report to you that five to 10 schools have agreed to add or have added a similar course to Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship.”

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