What It’s Like To Be A Black MBA Student At An M7 School

Kiersa Sanders gives an acceptance speech as a scholarship winner at the Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference gala in December. Photo: KEES2LIFE

At some of the M7 schools, minority populations are dropping. At others, the numbers are static. But at Wharton, the picture for under-represented minorities is decidedly rosier.

In fact, in terms of actual enrollment in full-time MBA programs, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania may be among the most welcoming places for students of color in graduate business education.

The numbers tell a story. Last year, 36% of Wharton’s incoming MBA Class of 2021 identified as U.S. students of color — that is, of African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native-American/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or of multiethnic descent. That was up from 33% in 2018. How does that compare with the rest of the M7? Quite well. The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University each slipped about a percentage point over the last two cycles, to 27% and 26%, respectively, while Stanford Graduate School of Business stayed flat and Harvard Business School inched up a point, both ending up at 27%. (However, it’s important to note an ongoing issue with reporting minority numbers at the top schools. Harvard’s Chad Losee, managing director of MBA admissions, tells P&Q that a comparison of minority enrollment numbers between Wharton and HBS is misleading because Wharton uses only domestic students as a denominator, while HBS uses the entire class. “You can imagine,” he writes, “our number would be much higher if we based it only on the percentage of domestic students.” Losee notes that the Graduate Management Admission Council is working on reporting guidelines to address these issues.)

Columbia Business School is a more interesting case. CBS was tops in the M7 for minority percentage, at 42%, in 2018; however, that number plunged last year to 33%. The decline dropped Columbia’s total number of enrolled students of color from an estimated 318 in one class to around 249 in the next.

At Wharton, the Class of 2020 that graduates this May came to Philadelphia with nearly 300 students of color (a number that rose above 300 in the next intake). One of them was Kiersa Sanders.


Kiersa Sanders. Courtesy photo

Now in her second year, Sanders, a Seattle native and former Deloitte accountant, remembers how she attended a pre-MBA event at the school and quickly made up her mind that Wharton was where she was meant to be.

“I went to Explore Wharton, which is the event they have in September before you apply, where they have people of color come and talk,” Sanders says. “I hadn’t really thought about Wharton, but that was the first time I realized I wanted to go to the school.”

At Explore Wharton, Sanders instantly was plugged into an active network of students and alumni led by the school’s African American MBA Association, a nearly 50-year-old group dedicated to supporting students of African descent academically, professionally, and socially. In 2020 it has about 160 members. The AAMBAA, Sanders says, made her transition to school easier and her MBA journey better even before it began.


In Seattle, Kiersa Sanders grew up in a single-parent household and was the first of four siblings to graduate from high school. She then worked full-time for a startup before entering community college at 21.

Working full-time and paying her way through college, Sanders earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, graduating at the top of her class in 2014. Afterward, she went to work for consulting giant Deloitte, where she was exposed to consulting as a pathway to getting her MBA. After three years working in mergers and acquisitions in the tech industry and traveling domestically and internationally, she got serious about pursuing an MBA.

Sanders completed the MBA Prep Program through Management Leadership for Tomorrow in 2017, giving her a broader view of her choices in the MBA landscape, including Wharton. But it was Explore Wharton, the event for prospective students where people of color share their experiences, that sealed the deal. “I hadn’t heard of other schools that had this type of group for black students,” Sanders says. “I felt like I had a home base.”

Once admitted, she never slowed down. She became co-chair of the AAMBAA’s 100 Series, which organizes pre-term retreats for members to hear from alumni about the group’s history and legacy. She is on the Dean’s MBA Advisory Council, the Tech Club Board, and the Cluster Council. A few months ago, she co-founded a newsletter called Builtable that helps women overcome intimidation and other hurdles in fitness and strength training. And in December she became the most recent recipient of the $25,000 Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Fellowship, named for the author, humanitarian, and civil rights activist. Sanders received the award at the 46th annual Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Conference, the Wharton AAMBAA’s premier annual event where prominent business and civic leaders meet and mingle with the next generation of African-American business leaders.


Wharton hasn’t always been a beacon of diversity, Sanders points out. Around the time she was beginning her career at Deloitte, the school was struggling to attract students of color.

“Wharton as a school has done a really good job of turning it around,” she tells Poets&Quants. “Five years ago, they had a really small class. I think the alumni tapped in and were kind of like, ‘What’s going on? How do we change this?'”

What a difference a few years, and a concerted effort by school and alumni alike, can make.

“The year I came in, they had the largest class of African-American students they had ever had in history,” Sanders says. I think the class above me had nearly 200 students of color — which was pretty big for a top-10 school. The president of the student body was a black woman — the first time there was a black woman president of student body.

“Beyond that, there’s a lot of support, a lot of community around the AAMBAA. It’s just a very organized student organization in terms of onboarding its members, supporting its members, and giving you opportunities for leadership. One of the things that stood out for me was that they have a retreat for students of color before you even start, pre-term, and the students organize that. So basically they take you away for the weekend, they bring in alumni, they talk to you about the legacy of the organization — how it was founded and how, in the 1960s, there had only been a few black students at Wharton. The goal was to turn that around. And we talk a lot about how you being here, you are part of that legacy.”

It didn’t take long for Sanders to become part of that legacy. According to one person who nominated her for the Whitney award, “Our community is fantastic but I can think of no other candidate who has balanced her career and personal interests with giving back to the AAMBAA community in the way that Kiersa has.” Wrote another: “Kiersa’s love for the black community at Wharton is palpable. She never fails to make herself available as a resource and sounding board for black students, especially those who might be considering the less worn path in many aspects of Wharton life. Her embrace of Wharton has been an inspiration for me to try and find my place here; I can think of no other second- year student more deserving of this fellowship.”


Kiersa credits her association with AAMBAA and Wharton’s black community in helping her build confidence and act on her desire to pursue entrepreneurship. Because while she is interested in private equity on the one hand and the consumer wellness space on the other, for now her most concrete plans revolve around Builtable: With co-founder Theresa Shropshire, Sanders’ Wharton classmate, she intends to continue working on the fitness platform after graduation in May.

“My risk tolerance, before coming to Wharton, was very low,” Sanders says. “But having a community and feeling supported has been super helpful. Having all these incredible women around me through AAMBAA has been amazing. I would have never felt as confident if I hadn’t come to Wharton. I don’t think I would have thought of entrepreneurship at all if I hadn’t come to Wharton.

“We launched Builtable a few months ago, and we’ve actually had quite a spike in the past few months. Now we’re looking at other ways to delivering it. We’re really interested in the tech model and looking at partnerships with brands that our readers may find interesting and useful for their health journey.

“That would be the goal, and what we’re trying to work on now is: How do we monetize it? What products or business models would be the next iteration of the community that we’ve built? My plans are unfolding. My current status is to continue to work on what I’m working on. I think I’m kind of taking it a month at a time, is how I’m thinking about it.

“It’s been a journey. I could have never envisioned this future for myself, and that’s why every day is exciting.”


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