Duke Fuqua’s Dean: Creating Economic Opportunity By Getting Everyone In The Game

The Duke Fuqua MBA Class of 2025. Duke photo

As the new school year kicks off in the thick of a national conversation about higher education admissions policy, I’ve been reflecting on diversity—why it is critical for business, why this topic has become so complex and emotional, and how we might move forward.

On its importance to business, the answer is straightforward. Academic research is remarkably consistent in demonstrating that diverse teams outperform groups of people who are more alike. Differing viewpoints push against each other, which inspires new ways of thinking, which yields innovation.

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding

However, when we look at the diversity in business leadership of Fortune 500 companies — we have a long way to go in establishing leadership that represents the lived experiences of our nation. In addition to C-suite numbers showing low representation of women and racial minorities—the composition of Fortune 500 boards is instructive. A recent report by Deloitte examining boards shows progress in growing representation of women and racial minorities, but also concludes, “Even though all groups have seen growth in board representation over the last decade, no Fortune 500 company board fully represents the demographic population in the United States.”

As a business school dean, I have long advocated that business schools are key to getting everyone in the game. I have seen firsthand, how business education can be transformational in individual lives—and how those individuals go on to create opportunity for others. It has been a priority for us at Fuqua to increase access to our programs to improve lives and communities. We’ve also tried hard to explain the economic impact of the talent that comes from business schools, from advocating for easier pathways for international talent to work in the U.S. to helping craft best practices to support working families. It behooves the economy as a whole when everyone is in the game, as we explained in this paperpublished in the fall of 2019.

Perhaps, that’s why I am so excited and encouraged by our newest Daytime MBA cohort. It is perhaps the most diverse class we’ve ever had with 45% women, 27% underrepresented U.S. students of color and 47% international students. However, there are two other important dimensions, which often aren’t as widely reported:

  • At least 18% of the class identifies as first-generation students.
  • About 19% of the U.S. students have served or are serving in the United States Military.

These metrics help add the context of socioeconomic and lived-experience differences, which is critical for how we teach leadership. We intentionally make our students work in diverse teams to teach them how to appreciate and harness difference in pursuit of a common goal. We believe this type of leadership will ultimately enable business to solve some of society’s toughest challenges that require innovative, value-creating solutions that the business community can deliver. Beyond that, it is the type of leadership that unleashes greater economic impact through two principles:

A winning business strategy: The ability to build and lead diverse teams where everyone feels included and empowered to be their authentic selves leads to higher performance and creates greater wealth for a company and, ultimately, society.
Economic prosperity: In the U.S., we have long had a belief that if someone is given opportunity and works hard, they can create a better life for themselves and their family. The “American dream” lifts us all up in a ripple effect. Individual lives improve. Those individuals create opportunity and better lives for others—ultimately, lifting the economy as a whole.

That brings me back to the importance of why we need to think about diversity in all dimensions. We can clearly see the economic impact of creating opportunities for first-generation students or helping people who have chosen service to our country transition their skills, so as not to fall into underemployment as research has shown is prone to happen. This requires that instead of framing diversity narrowly in attributes—we widen the scope of how we think about differences.

Diversity at Fuqua isn’t defined by singular differences in people like their race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. It never has been—and to attempt to create or measure diversity defined by a single attribute would be shortsighted, missing the complexity and beauty of an individual’s humanity. Instead, diversity at Fuqua has always been defined by the variety of lived experiences, which could be affected by attributes like race or gender, but are also shaped by where a person has lived, what they have studied, their job industries and functions, and a wide variety of other experiences.

My hope for the coming academic year is that as a society we can get to a place where we recognize valuing difference ultimately lifts all of us up. It makes companies stronger, more productive and more innovative—ultimately increasing the bottom line. Those companies in turn make our economy stronger—which in turn leads to a better quality of life for all of us.

William Boulding is the dean of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. This story was originally published at LinkedIn

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