Business school admissions offices look at undergraduate GPAs, Graduate Management Admission Test and Graduate Record Exam scores, work experience, and a host of other traditional metrics when filling the ranks of their MBA programs. But if they prize diversity — and all, without exception, claim to do so — they should endeavor to measure a different attribute: grit.
So says Stella Ashaolu, founder and CEO of WeSolv, a company that connects talent with firms in need of diversification; its clients include Microsoft, Cisco, Salesforce and other household names on the corporate side, and Harvard Business School, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management on the B-school side. Ashaolu says grit — toughness, tenacity, familiarity with adversity and the ability to overcome it — is, for good reason, one of the most sought-after qualities by employers of MBAs. It’s a quality that minorities who have graduated from elite B-schools have in abundance.
“I think some of the things that universities need to be thinking about when they’re doing their admissions process is the value that candidates bring beyond just those traditional metrics,” says Ashaolu, a USC Marshall Class of 2013 MBA. “People talk about grit. What in the students’ lives or experience have they had to overcome that has gotten them to where they are?
“Schools need to go to those channels where more underrepresented candidates are, and provide a lot more education and awareness around the MBA process and the value of their program. They need to source candidates from more non-traditional pools and pipelines.”
MINORITY POPULATIONS IN THE TOP 25
Some schools are diversifying well, and some … aren’t. A Poets&Quants analysis of minority enrollment numbers as reported to U.S. News & World Report shows that most of the top 25 B-schools have increased the percentages in their MBA programs over the last three years, some dramatically and some less-so: 14 schools are up (a little or a lot) in that span, seven schools are down, and data is incomplete for four others. Progress, so far as numbers go, has been gradual and measurable. But it’s also clear that there is a ceiling for minorities in elite MBA programs. The school with the highest proportion of minority MBA students in 2019 was Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business, the No. 25-ranked school, with 35%; only four schools have 30% or more. Of the top 10 — including elite schools Stanford Graduate School of Business, Harvard, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania — Wharton is highest at 34.1%; seven of the top 10 schools are under 30%, and the average is 27.9%. Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business has the lowest top-10 total, at 19.5%.
In the top 25 overall, a few schools have seen big jumps since 2017. Foremost among them is the Jones School, which grew its minority MBA population by more than 50%; the University of Washington Foster School of Business, which climbed 10 points from just under 15% to just under 25%; and especially Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management, which went from 12.6% to 24.4% — an incredible and laudable 93.7% increase. On the flip side, Dartmouth Tuck, Columbia Business School, NYU Stern School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business, the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, and Georgetown University McDonough School of Business all saw slight declines; but no school declined more than UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, which dropped 19% of its total to land at 16.6% in 2019, lowest of any top-25 school.
A central problem in reporting and measuring diversity in MBA programs is how “minority” is defined. In the parlance of graduate business education, “U.S. minorities” are usually defined as African American or black, Hispanic or Latinx, Asian American, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, or two or more races. However, there is no commonly adhered-to standard for schools in reporting these populations; some use Asian-American students, by far the largest non-Caucasian group that applies to and attend B-school in the U.S., as a way to offset low enrollment of black and Latinx students. Others, like UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business, report separate numbers in their annual class profiles: one for URMs, and one for “U.S. minorities”; the former in 2019 is 14%, while the latter is 29%. The Graduate Management Admission Council, the body that administers the GMAT, has been working on guidelines for schools’ reporting of minority numbers, an effort that was expected to culminate this spring; however, those guidelines have been temporarily shelved as GMAC’s focus has shifted to the more immediate problem of the coronavirus pandemic impacting all B-schools.
DIVERSITY IN THE WORKPLACE: HOW B-SCHOOLS CAN HELP
Stella Ashaolu knows that when it comes to diversifying MBA programs or the workplaces that hire MBAs, it’s more than a numbers game. Before she began her MBA at USC’s Marshall School, while still an undergrad at UCLA, she started an affordable tutoring company focused on providing access to supplemental education assistance for families that couldn’t afford established programs or private tutoring. Growing and scaling that company after graduation, she decided to go to B-school to get more corporate experience, particularly to learn more about strategy roles and consulting.
“But what I found at Marshall was that I didn’t have the same network, and my experience was very different than a lot of my peers,” Ashaolu says. That changed when she was able to flex her skills. “I found that when I worked on real projects or even case competitions, I was really great at those and won a bunch of those in school, and those companies became really interested in me. They were the most beneficial learning experiences of my Marshall career, and they provided me the opportunities to actually land the role. I was the same candidate, but now I was able to be a lot more competitive.
“So fast forward, I actually went into consulting with a smaller firm, and I was doing a lot of employee engagement, selection work, marketing, strategy, big data projects for our clients — a lot of Fortune 500 companies. The biggest thing that stood out to me was that these companies were all struggling with not only assessing and hiring the best candidates in general, but when it came to diversity, these companies were all struggling hard. The way in which they connected with candidates wasn’t really meaningful. There was a lot of bias trapped into the process.
“So that was the idea for WeSolv: creating a platform, one, where companies can connect with a larger audience and diverse talent, and then two, giving the candidates and the companies an opportunity to engage each other that produces a much less biased result. It’s about giving the company an opportunity to get data around how the candidates actually perform in various skills and competencies, and then giving the candidates the ability to build those resume-building experiences, those learning experiences, and showcase their skills in a real way to companies.”
NOT A PIPELINE ISSUE
WeSolv’s mission is to make diversity hiring “obsolete in exchange for inclusive hiring that leads to measurable diversity outcomes.” Ashaolu says companies in search of diverse talent need to look beyond the top 25 B-schools. They need, in short, to get over their bias in favor of the “elites.”
“When we think about the pipeline,” she says, “there are a lot of really great candidates that go to a number of other different programs outside of that top 25 — for various reasons they might not have been able to go to one of those programs, whether they couldn’t afford to go to a full-time program, or they couldn’t leave a location they were in, or certain things barred them. That doesn’t mean that they’re not great candidates. So when companies say that there’s a pipeline issue, I argue very, very adamantly that there’s not a pipeline issue. There’s a reach issue. Companies are not reaching all of the diverse candidates and then using a mechanism that actually works to assess these candidates.
“But at the same time, don’t get me wrong: The business schools need to do a much better job of creating an equitable process that allows more diversity into their organizations as well.
“I think that’s what they want to do, but at the end of the day, there’s Poets&Quants, there’s U.S. News, there’s Bloomberg Businessweek — all of these rankings that literally drive the number of applications, and ultimately revenue, in their organization, and when schools are thinking about that, they’re saying, ‘We have to stay competitive as these organizations deem competitiveness,’ if that makes sense. So they’re having to tailor their process to achieve goals such as GMAT scores or GPA, a lot of things that don’t always measure rigor of the types of schools that the candidates come from.
“One thing, also, is the polish. If you’re a candidate who’s already experienced working in a Fortune 500 company in some certain capacity, it’s going to be a lot easier for you to sell yourself to get hired faster by those organizations that are coming on campus. That’s what the universities are looking for. It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg problem, because can they literally say, ‘We’re going to do our own thing,’ even if that then makes them not as competitive under those traditional metrics.
“Schools need to think about providing resources for underrepresented candidates who are looking to go to business school or get additional education. There are a lot of constraints when you’re a first-generation college graduate, and the well-being of your family is dependent on you. Having the privilege to take a year off or two years off to go to school isn’t something that everybody has. So what kinds of resources or support can these universities provide for those types of students?”
See the next page for a chart of the top 25 U.S. business schools and their percentages of minorities in the full-time MBA, as reported to U.S. News, including which groups are represented as a percentage of the whole class.