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Can MBA programs build a new generation of antiracist leaders?

The Hoover Tower on Stanford's campus
Reuters/Noah Berger
The Hoover Tower rises above Stanford University in this aerial photo in Stanford, California, U.S. on January 13, 2017.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published Last updated

Over the past few months, the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a renewed public conversation about what companies can do to combat racism and discrimination within their ranks. Yet many business leaders are distracted from that mission at best—and, at worst, perpetuating bias themselves.

Will the next generation of leaders be any better? It’s no secret that many MBA programs, which serve as training grounds for future entrepreneurs and CEOs, struggle with diversity and racial issues themselves. But on a practical level, educating students about the myriad ways that racial dynamics shape the workplace can help them avoid legal and reputational damage at the companies they go on to lead. And on an ethical level, “top business schools have the responsibility for training principled and purposeful leaders in all dimensions,” says Sarah Soule, a professor of organizational behavior and senior associate dean for academic affairs at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“Our motto is change lives, change organizations, change the world,” Soule says. “If we take that value seriously, we have the responsibility to make sure we are exposing students to [conversations about] race and racial injustice, teaching students about how bias is learned and reinforced, and making them realize that they need to make positive change. It’s not just nice, it’s a moral responsibility to think about ways to do this.”

Indeed, if business schools do choose to prioritize educating students about racial justice, they have a golden opportunity to shape a new wave of antiracist executives. Quartz took a look at how MBA programs at Stanford, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and European business school Insead are reevaluating current practices and looking to prepare students to reckon with inequality in the corporate world.

Stanford: “It’s not just nice, it’s a moral responsibility”

Women and people of color are notoriously underrepresented in many case studies that MBA programs rely upon to educate their students about the world of business. When Soule examined what case studies at Stanford did have to say about people from marginalized groups, she found a preponderance of stereotypes.

One case study, she recalls, focused on a family business run by a father and his sons. “It has a paragraph about the wife, and it basically says wives don’t have heads for business, they just like the income so they can play golf and buy nice cars,” says Soule, who details the many red flags that she and her co-authors uncovered in a 2019 article for the Harvard Business Review.

Soule, who leads the diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at Stanford’s business school, has since been working with faculty and alumni in an effort to expand the scope of the school’s case studies, tapping into alumni networks to locate potential “protagonists” from underrepresented backgrounds and to bring in guest speakers whose experiences running firms could eventually be converted into case studies. Their findings, she says, were “a call to action to intervene, and make sure our materials are not inadvertently either causing somebody duress or in an implicit way reinforcing biases.”

She’s also leading the school’s broader effort to better educate students about the intersection between business and bias. As part of that effort, the Stanford Graduate School of Business recently announced its Action Plan for Racial Equity. In addition to attempting to increase representation of Black faculty, staff, and students, it includes two new course offerings: “Leadership for Society: Race and Power,” which will center specifically on educating future leaders about racial inequity and how to mitigate it, and “Blocking Bias in Academe,” taught by Soule herself, which will educate PhD students in the business school about “how bias shows up in universities and college settings, in anything from teaching evaluations and letters of recommendation to microaggressions and how they affect faculty and students of color, women, LGBTQ,”  she says.

All PhD students at the school of business are also required to go through two trainings, one on unconscious bias and the other on microaggressions, Soule notes. She expects around 400 students to sign up for the race and power class, noting that because the class is virtual, space isn’t an issue.

Meanwhile, Soule and her colleagues are working to launch a seven-day anti-racism and allyship online course that will be free to everyone, which will include readings, videos, and reflection exercises. “The final piece of it is setting concrete intentions and a to-do list for people to engage with,” she explains.

Particularly since issuing its first annual diversity, equity, and inclusion report in 2019, Soule says, Stanford’s business school administration has been aware that it needs to better support minority and first-generation students. (In 2019, underrepresented minorities made up 11% of students and 7% of faculty at the business school.) But the school also needs to ensure that it’s teaching all students about the importance of DEI, she says.

Insead: Diversity without a dominant culture

At Insead, which is headquartered in Fontainebleau, France, and has campuses in San Francisco, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi, a certain kind of diversity is a given. “There is no dominant culture” at Insead when it comes to nationality, explains the school’s dean, Ilian Mihov. With 1,000 MBA students from roughly 90 countries, no national group makes up more than 10% of the school’s student population. “Nobody dominates the discourse.”

The school aims to use this cultural diversity to help students gain more personal experience with people who are not like them. Mihov explains that Insead assigns MBA students to study groups that are designed to “maximize friction”: students from India and Pakistan, or Lebanon and Israel, will find themselves working together.  “If you don’t learn here to respect other people, where are you going to learn to respect other people?” Mihov asks.

That said, Mihov is well aware that this kind of diversity is “not the same as the gender and racial dimension.” He notes that the school is launching a course on diversity, equity and inclusion in the spring of 2021, focused on racial discrimination and taught by organizational behavior associate professor Zoe Kinias. In terms of racial diversity, Insead is somewhat constrained by French laws that bar even “positive discrimination” on the basis of race or ethnicity. But Mihov says the school has doubled scholarships for students from Africa, and is relaunching an exchange program to bring more African professors to Insead.

Two years ago, Insead also established The Hoffman Global Institute for Business and Society, which emphasizes the importance of inclusion and diversity as part of the larger idea that companies have an obligation to contribute positively to society. Mihov describes its approach as somewhat unorthodox, pointing to one final assignment in which students were asked to create a strategic plan for a network of clinics in South Africa to scale up and become financially sustainable. “Five hundred students were competing to solve the problem; then four months later, 20 students flew to South Africa to teach managers and nurses how to implement the strategic plan,” he explains.

Insead is exploring other ways to increase students’ awareness of bias in the workplace, he says. One virtual-reality case study has students immerse themselves in a boardroom meeting. Amidst the larger conversation, someone makes a discriminatory remark—but it’s up to students to pay attention and catch the moment. “This is much more powerful in sharpening your sensitivity to discrimination,” he says.

Wharton and “preaching to the choir”

In 2017, Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at Wharton, launched the school’s first course dedicated explicitly to diversity in the business world. The elective class, Leading Diversity in Organizations, has sections for both MBA students and undergraduates, and asks students to come up with an action plan for companies experiencing real-world diversity-related challenges, from Nike to Google to the National Football League.

Often, Creary says, she encounters MBA students who suggest the class is “preaching to the choir.” She tells them what her friend and colleague, the late Columbia Business School professor Katherine Phillips, told her: “It may be preaching to the choir, but the choir needs to learn how to sing together.” In other words: Students who take a course on diversity may understand why it’s important, but that doesn’t mean that they’re coordinated with one another. “We can make a lot happen if we get people who care together,” she says.

Creary says her surveys of fellow faculty at Wharton suggest that matters of race, gender, and diversity are well-integrated into its MBA curriculum, with upwards of 20 different courses that explicitly tackle those issues. It also has a required leadership course for first-year MBA students that aims to “integrate lessons on diversity and diverse teams,” she says, noting that it’s still a “work in progress.”

Creary also organizes a Wharton speaker series on diversity that’s open to the entire University of Pennsylvania community, and recently launched a podcast series, “Leading Diversity at Work,” with Knowledge@Wharton that features guests like former Microsoft chief diversity officer Gwen Houston.

Asked how she hopes that Wharton will educate MBA students about prioritizing diversity and inclusion in their careers, Creary emphasizes the importance of persistence.

When people take her class, she says, it’s easy for them to feel discouraged about the lack of progress in many companies and industries, or to grow frustrated at the fact that recommended policies don’t seem to be making a dent. Sometimes it’s true that companies have to try something new. But sometimes, she says, it’s simply a matter of putting in the work: “I try to teach the idea that by doing the same thing over and over, you can get really far.”

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