The murder of George Floyd caught the world’s attention last May, and the repercussions are still being felt. Graduate business education certainly has been affected, and continues to be, in ways big and small. One small way is occurring in Canada at the University of Toronto, where two part-time MBA students at the Rotman School of Management were inspired to make positive — and needed — change on their campus.
In the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Jathiban (Jay) Panchalingam and Bilal Habib realized how few Black students were in the Rotman MBA program.
“When George Floyd was innocently killed, it brought attention to a lot of social inequalities that exist for Black individuals,” says Panchalingam. “When we started looking around our class, we saw the lack of representation in our program.”
‘WE WANTED A WAY FOR BLACK STUDENTS TO HAVE A SAY AT THE TABLE’
Black students make up only 2.5% of Rotman’s Morning and Evening MBA program, a three-year degree that allows students to take classes before and after work. Though the school’s recent diversity efforts have increased Black applicants to the MBA program by 25%, Black students only account for 10% of the incoming full-time MBA class of 2023.
Inspired to make change, Panchalingam and Habib took action. They, along with six other Rotman students who are part of the Students Against Anti-Black Racism Club, decided to create a scholarship to support Black students interested in pursuing Rotman’s Morning and Evening MBA program.
“We wanted a way for Black students to have a say at the table,” says Habib. “We also wanted the administration to know what issues matter to Black students.”
So far, they’ve raised $10,500. For the initiative to become an endowed scholarship, they need to raise $50,000. With Rotman agreeing to match every donation between now and October 1, 2021, the students are confident that they won’t only meet their goal, but they’ll exceed it by the end of this year.
“We want this scholarship to lessen the financial burden of getting an MBA,” says Panchalingam. “Our hope is that by dedicating a scholarship to Black students, it will increase not only the entrance of Black students into the program, but also help grow the Black community as a whole.”
THE NEED FOR EQUAL OPPORTUNITY
Panchalingam, born in Sri Lanka and Habib, born in Pakistan, both moved to Canada when they were two years old.
For Panchalingam, he always dreamt of getting an MBA from Rotman, and did his undergraduate degree in business at the the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. However, before entering Rotman’s MBA program, Panchalingam says he realized he had a gap in knowledge due to his upbringing. “I didn’t know what management consulting was or what private equity firms did. It was only after I got into the program that I learned about these opportunities and understood what was missing growing up,” he says. “If I’d learned about these opportunities earlier in my life, I could have catered my education towards the areas that interested me rather than doing it later and having to work twice as hard.”
Panchalingam says that bringing education and awareness of different work opportunities to all communities is crucial. “This will go a long way in not only motivating Black students to strive for something greater than a nine to five job, but all students,” he says. “It’s about support and paying it forward. We need to create these same opportunities for all future generations.”
A LACK OF REPRESENTATION
Seeking answers as to why there were so few Black students in the program, Panchalingam and Habib spoke with the student engagement department and the program director. “One of the issues that they mentioned was that they don’t get a lot of applications from the Black community; it wasn’t that they didn’t want this population in the program, it’s just that there weren’t many applying,” says Panchalingam.
Panchalingam and Habib also spoke with current and prospective Black students to determine what barriers they faced when thinking about applying to an MBA program. They realized that one of the biggest factors was the financial burden of the program. In many cases, students had to forgo their MBA dreams due to the financial stress. Plus, when students don’t see themselves in certain environments, it doesn’t feel like a viable option for them. “Black students need to see themselves in boardrooms, managerial positions, and higher education, ” adds Habib. “Hopefully lowering financial barriers would mean that Black communities start to see themselves in this environment, too.”
Nouman Ashraf, Rotman’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, says that students’ ability to see themselves in the MBA environment is crucial. “People need to be able to feel like they’ll be equal partners and contributors in a program for them to join,” he says. “The mark of an inclusive community is one where every story matters. If we don’t have a critical mass of stories, you don’t see yourself represented. Currently, we’re working towards representing more stories.”