BCG & Other Consulting Giants Sponsor 3-Day Forum For Disabled MBAs & Allies

It wasn’t until Claire Barnett was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University that she found out she is on the autism spectrum.

The diagnosis changed her life — but not in ways that were immediately evident.

“I was like, ‘This is really great information, I needed to know this,'” Barnett tells Poets&Quants. “And I realized that part of the reason I’d even had a late diagnosis was that there are so many misconceptions — not just about autism and autism in women, but about disability and what disabled people look like, behave like, what they’re capable of.

“And so that started me on a path.”


Claire Barnett: “How is it that these huge organizational supports exist for disadvantaged minority groups, and no conversation — or anything — surrounds disability?”

Barnett is one of an estimated 61 million adults in the U.S. living with a disability. One in every 4 Americans, or 26%, have some kind of disability, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, meaning they contend with chronic difficulty in mobility, cognition, sight, hearing, or another condition.

After her graduation from Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s degree in human and organizational development, Barnett followed her path and began her career at Vanderbilt’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation as a researcher focused on neurodiversity in the workplace. As communications and advocacy director, she worked with companies on recruiting, hiring and managing neurodivergent talent, and she taught a first-year seminar in neurodiversity. Her research included a study of ADHD/autistic women in the U.S.

Barnett decided to further her career with an MBA, and in 2021 she joined the full-time program at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. There she discovered that accommodations for disability were confined to things like wheelchair ramps, and understanding of cognitive and other non-physical disability was lacking.

“When I came to the MBA program, I was frustrated to find that there were fantastic diversity supports for students of color, international students, women, LGBT students, veterans, and no conversation even around disability,” she says. “There were some mental health and wellness days, because that conversation’s gotten broader. And there were some things like ‘We need wheelchair ramps where there are steps.’ But there’s so much more here that needs to be addressed. Business school tends to be less accessible than other grad programs, and the culture of the MBA tends to lean a lot more towards ableist language and practices.”


Barnett founded a diversity club called the Carolina Disability Alliance, and, with about half a dozen of her MBA classmates, began planning what would become the Empwr Conference, a recruiting conference for those with disabilities. It is modeled after other MBA diversity conferences, like those held annually by ROMBA and the Forte Foundation.

“We watched last fall as peers and even some members of the leadership team went to conferences for the National Black MBA Association, and went to conferences that Forte organized, and ROMBA and Prospanica,” she says. “And we just thought, ‘How is it that these huge organizational supports exist for disadvantaged minority groups, and no conversation — or anything — surrounds disability?'”

After a year of planning, the inaugural Empwr Conference will be November 11-13, 2022, in-person at the Durham Convention Center & Marriott City Center and streamed live online. With $60,000 in corporate sponsorship funds — the bulk of which came from Boston Consulting Group, Barnett’s summer and future employer — the conference will feature panels, breakout sessions, awards, and a keynote address by BCG Senior Partner and Managing Director Brad Loftus.

It will also feature a variety of major recruiting employers, including donor-sponsors McKinsey and PwC, because its principal mission, Barnett says, is to connect B-school students in the disability community to top employers.


Barnett stresses that registration is open to both students who have a disability and those who don’t. “Ally” registration means that attending doesn’t automatically “out” a student as having a disability, she says; it also provides an opportunity for non-disabled students to attend and learn about an often-ignored minority group. She hopes to have 150 in-person student attendees and as many as 250 virtual attendees; early bird registration closes October 14.

“I think the demand is out there, and I think students just partially are still lacking info about this, and partially are wondering if it’s worth their time, if it’s legitimate,” Barnett says. “It’s a big ask to say, ‘I’m going to stop other recruiting activities. If I have a family, I’m going to leave them, I’m going to go focus on this for a few days.’ And so we want them to know, this is tremendously subsidized.”

Hotel rates for students are significantly subsidized by sponsor dollars: $250 is conference group nightly rate, $50 is self-advocate student rate, and $75 is the ally student rate. Attending students can apply for Empwr awards/scholarships geared at recognizing impactful advocacy.

“We weren’t going to do in-person if it couldn’t be financially accessible,” Barnett says. “The fact that the registration is $35 for MBA students, and that includes five meals and a T-shirt.”

Recruiting companies include Prudential Financial, Google, PwC, McKinsey & Company, BCG, and more.

“I can’t list 30 companies that’ll be there,” Barnett says. “But I do have representation from three big consulting firms, one big tech player, one big finance player, one startup. And I think I’m going to sign up one big player in finance and investment banking, and I think I’m going to sign on one more group that helps source disabled talent for a variety of companies.”

From Empwr’s website, a four-pronged definition of disability

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.