Rotman Students Shine Light On Accessibility

Rotman School of Management students organize the Accessibility, Inclusion & Universal Design MBA Conference & Case Competition

Diversity and inclusion are frequently addressed in B-schools and MBA curricula. Yet rarely is the inclusion of individuals with disabilities a part of the discussion. Now the organizers of a one-of-a-kind MBA conference to be held next month at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management are looking to change that.

The Accessibility, Inclusion & Universal Design MBA Conference & Case Competition February 10 will bring several big-name companies on board in the fight for greater awareness. Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and Slack are just a few of the heavy hitters that will send speakers to help lead the discussion.

The conference is the handiwork of four second-year MBA students at the Rotman School who, in 2016, founded and launched Access to Success, a student-run organization that serves to raise awareness about the importance of accessibility and universal design — the creation of products and environments that meet the needs of users with various types of abilities and disabilities. Varun Chandak, president of Access to Success, says he hopes the conference will answer the question: Why bother? “There is a larger need,” Chandak tells Poets&Quants. “What about emotional support? The transition into professional support? It’s about industry mentorship as well as academic support where people can be themselves. That’s what’s driving the need for this.”


From Chandak’s perspective, accessibility is not just about sidewalk ramps and push button doors. The goal, he says, is simple: to explore the benefits of accessibility and universal design through the lens of students, employees, managers, entrepreneurs, and customers.  

Another answer to the question, Chandak says, is that there is an economic benefit. Much of universal design centers on creating products that solve accessibility challenges.

“So far, almost all universal design products have been created to solve an accessibility problem, but then they accidentally end up becoming of great use to all consumers,” he says. One example: the electric toothbrush. “We want people actively incorporating this into their thinking — to know that when you create a product for universal design, it’s likely that it’ll have a much bigger reach and ultimately have greater economic impact.”


Access to Success team members say they intend to help broaden the conversation around diversity and inclusion in business schools. “I came to Rotman because of its high level of emphasis on diversity and inclusion,” Chandak says. “In fact, it was a key part of orientation when our class arrived. Yet, accessibility wasn’t mentioned anywhere. This is also a population that could benefit from D&I issues.”

Nikitha Ramesh, the club’s vice president of communications, says she and the other founding members don’t actively identify with having a disability, yet they felt drawn to the mission of the organization. “Our thinking was that we don’t want there to have to be a situation where people have to go above and beyond just to prove themselves. That’s why we got involved,” she says.

She and other members say the Rotman School has offered an abundance of support from the very beginning. “The school has been integral in setting us up as a student initiative,” Chandak says. “We had a launch event in January of 2017. About 150 people attended and a large number of them were Rotman students, faculty, and staff. Dean Tiff Macklem also provided a welcome address during the kickoff event.

“We want to take this to Rotman and beyond; all the way through to businesses innovating and employees being successful and rising throughout senior management.”


The Accessibility, Inclusion & Universal Design MBA Conference will include a full day of speakers, panel discussions, and workshops. Among the many talks, representatives from Microsoft and IBM will discuss machine learning products for universal design and AI. “IBM is working on a self-driving shuttle bus. Slack is working on a keyboard that gets rid of the mouse,” Chandak says. “It’s a chance to see what top companies are doing in these areas and to network with them.”

The event also includes a case competition that MBA students, globally, are invited to participate in. The competition is a universal design challenge asking participants to create a product or service that decreases barriers but is of universal benefit. $6,000 is up for grabs in total prize money; the deadline to enter is January 26.

The primary audience for the event is MBA students, but the Access to Success founders say they welcome industry professionals as well as banks and consulting companies who are diving into accessibility. Other nonprofit organizations working in the field are invited to get involved as well.

“This conference and case competition is not just if you have interest in accessibility. The idea is that it should be of benefit to everyone. Whether you want to be in entrepreneurship, in marketing, tech, or consulting there is something of interest for everyone,” Chandak says.


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