Imagine being an incoming MBA student, not knowing whether you should start your MBA in the midst of a pandemic. What would you decide?
Some students decided to play it by ear, following their intuitions instead of a predictable and reassuring pattern. They took the bet and made the plunge, stepping outside their comfort zone to start school — not knowing if the teaching and human experience would be worth the tremendous investment made.
When I started my MBA in January 2021 at INSEAD, the school was the only one authorized in France to deliver in-person teaching (according to specific conditions obviously). The most pleasant condition, you can guess, was the nasal swab each week for the PCR. Despite the inconvenience and upheaval, I have been blessed to be enrolled in this MBA. Thanks to all of the means deployed by INSEAD, I almost lived “normally” despite the disruptions outside.
“TOGETHER WE GO FURTHER”
INSEAD values high ethics standards and promotes diversity and inclusion as one of its core values. When I was elected by my peers as of the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) representative of my batch, I could not imagine how much this role would be that essential during the COVID crisis.
Let’s take a step back and look at how much D&I have become major cornerstones nowadays in all of the top-firms. A study published in the Harvard Business Review showed that companies whose leaders exhibit at least three inherent traits (traits you are born with) and three acquired traits (traits you gain from experience) outperform and innovate much more than others. In that kind of culture, each individual feels comfortable to share ideas and to contribute, and it results in wider innovation and growth in the marketplace. Another study conducted by McKinsey on diversity reinforces these findings by showing that the most diverse companies are more likely to outperform (in areas like growing market share, increasing profitability, and capturing new markets.).
This is why we are drastically all different in our working group at INSEAD. Together we go further. We discover and share ideas we would never have think about because of our differences (shout out to my amazing working group: Alastair, Fernando, Prakhar and Taras).
Nevertheless, as a recent report from McKinsey states, diversity and inclusion are at risk in the COVID crisis for many reasons (“measures to adapt new ways of working, consolidate workforce capacity, maintain productivity,”…). One of the risks for the MBA and our online classes was the potential erosion of inclusion through remote teaching. Luckily, diversity was still instilled during the recruiting phase by INSEAD staff.
Unfortunately, the virus hit everyone in the world. Some students at INSEAD had to face the disease and stay in isolation, while others had to come back home to help their family member.
INSEAD made tremendous efforts to ensure online classes with high quality microphones in the auditorium for the students online so they were able to hear everything. All of the professors invited the online students to participate actively in the class and we were all able to interact together and enjoyed the contribution of our peers.
I was part of a team of seven D&I representatives. We had to brainstorm in order to find solutions for those isolated people so they could live the INSEAD experience fully despite being off campus. We needed to break isolation and ensure that the most introverted or isolated people felt included, comfortable, and empowered in the classroom. We decided to create a “buddy-system”, where we matched registered people willing to participate. This enabling people to meet virtually across the different sections (we were 6 sections in Fontainebleau representing around 400 students) and physical locations.
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
At the beginning of a MBA, it was critical for students to interact with their bright peers from all over the world. We know that we are creating our future professional network and hopefully developing lifetime friendships. The D&UI team realized that students who are stuck at home are likely missing the opportunities to engage with their peers, That could create what we call FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), as these students aren’t participating in coffee chats, social events, and real interactions in classes.
To counter this, we launched some chatting sessions. Based on volunteering, 10-20 people from a section would meet virtually, play music and games, and then go on to break-out rooms to talk about their projects and experiences. Those moments enhanced the sense of belonging despite the harsh conditions for some of us who were in stringent isolation. In these sessions, students would network and develop friendships, to drink virtually a cocktail with their peers and felt less isolated in a new country.
I remember a moment when some people organised a huge game on Zoom for 300 of us. Organized by teams, we had to answer questions as fast as possible. We were able to see so many new faces, to laugh with our team, all of this run by amazing and impressively funny hosts. They then organised a virtual party by connecting their music, and we were all dancing behind our camera and sharing smiles. It was a great moment where we connected. Those moments, apart from the usual classes, greatly helped me to know more intimately some people, as we cannot really share eye contact or body language through online classes.
Afterwards, we created a group to offer tangible support, again based on a volunteering. Many times, isolated students were not allowed to leave their houses and needed help to get items from a pharmacy, grocery, or somewhere else. The INSEAD community answered the call as a force for good and joined the group. I was delighted to witness so many students in my batch volunteering. Some would sing under a balcony for their isolated friends. Each time an INSEADer needed something. There was always someone willing to provide support.
Also, I wanted to ensure that my peers would feel safe and comfortable in talking with me if needed, or report anything they felt wasn’t ethical, fair, respectful, or aligned with INSEAD rules. Everyone has a preferred mean of communication, along with a story. I have never worn their shoes to know how hard it has been, and they were welcomed to talk whenever they needed. I am very passionate about people. They all shine in their own way, and I was willing to help them enhance their potential. I wanted to be able to empower my peers, regardless of their so-called differences, to treat them with respect, listen actively, and understand the emotions behind the words or the monsters some people fight silently. These are some of the mandatory interpersonal skills that we, as MBAs, must master to excel in the business world.
I believe that, somehow, those (dis)connections helped our batch to be more linked than ever. We stuck together, as we had to improvise, to adapt ourselves to this changing and uncertain world, to face the disease with our beloveds, and the disasters and grief in our home countries.
The solutions we created and the moments we spent together in this new normal reflected our willingness to include everybody. We tried to form what I call a solid rock, filled with different minerals but unified as a whole. The stone exists because all of its different parts are strongly melded together. Being a representative entails a lot of responsibilities, but being able to help our community in this unprecedented time has been a great honour and almost a relief. As a veterinary doctor I am deeply committed to every living being and need to be part of the action. Nevertheless, the fight for diversity and inclusion is a perpetual one, and humanity relies on future leaders to bring about a major change.
Author Bio: French Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, I was previously working as a consultant vet in a referral center and have lived in many countries. I am passionate about humans and differences, driven by a willingness to have a bigger impact in the world. I am an INSEAD MBA, Diversity and Inclusion representative, deeply optimistic, curious about everything that could help me grow, and happy to share.