Commentary: Increasing the MBA Diversity Pipeline – What’s the Problem – the Pipe or the Line?

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by Peter Aranda and Janice Wells-White

Cultivating an interest in business and business careers among historically underrepresented minorities—African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans—has been a formidable challenge for the business community. While data from the National Center for Education suggests that the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing business careers is growing, business people have yet to identify that infallible formula that will establish business as a viable career option for qualified diverse candidates.

Recently we revisited a 2007 report from the Diversity Pipeline Alliance, a collaborative of 16 organizations, examining ways to strengthen the pipeline of diverse talent. Two things struck us about a survey the organization conducted of perceptions of business and business careers among 11th- and 12th-graders and college students. First, the questions tended to generalize about business and business careers rather than focusing on specific degrees and business professions. Second, 38 percent of students said they were not interested in attending graduate school but were unsure what kind of undergraduate degree they should pursue instead. 

There is clearly a large opportunity to encourage qualified students to go into business, but only if we make a compelling case for doing so. The business message is a complex one, and the key to increasing the pipeline of students interested in business careers may lie in the way we communicate what they offer. We need to replace the generic way we talk about business with a more creative and focused approach.

Unlike other professionals, business people are not usually identified by their degrees. Perhaps they should be. Business, in stark contrast to most fields, is the only discipline in which a single degree, an MBA, can lead to many different career options. We need to find a way to connect the degree to the professions.

If you ask a group of kindergarteners what they want to be when they grow up, you will get the usual answers—doctor,  lawyer, engineer, teacher, to name a few standard responses. By the time students reach elementary school and visitors are invited to talk to students about their work, the choice set may have expanded to include the amorphous “business person.” Unfortunately business people tend to identify themselves by their particular niches—financier, entrepreneur, CEO—instead of making clear that those jobs are subsets of a larger, broadly defined enterprise called “business.”

Fast forward to high school and students heading off to college to study pre-med, pre-law and other clearly defined fields.  These young people know exactly where their degrees will lead; there is no question about what paths they need to follow to achieve their professional goals. There is also no question about what doctors and lawyers do; everyone knows. Doctors are a part of children’s lives from the time they are born and there’s no shortage of TV shows showing attorneys and physicians as members of noble professions providing services critical to a well-functioning society.

Business may never achieve the same level of cultural familiarity, but it is certainly possible for those of us who have chosen to work in business to demonstrate that ours is an equally noble field making contributions to society every bit as valuable as our counterparts’. Our charge as business people, as problem solvers, is to compensate for the visibility deficit by finding creative and compelling ways to communicate the versatility an MBA affords.

Given the cultural familiarity of medicine, law, teaching and other professions even among the very young, we need to start raising awareness early. Regardless of when we start, we need to do three things.

First, we must be clear about the almost infinite variety of jobs that fall under the business umbrella, e.g., financial planner; brand manager; commercial and investment banker; stock, futures and commodities trader; security, sales and market analyst; operations manager; strategic planner; and consultant.

Second, we must emphasize that an MBA is the foundation of all these business specialties just as an MD is the foundation of all medical specialties (internist, obstetrician, surgeon, etc.) and a JD of all legal specialties (commercial litigator, tax attorney, intellectual property lawyer, etc.).

Third, we must identify the steps that lay the groundwork for an MBA, namely an undergraduate degree (BA or BS) and two to three years of work experience, preferably in some area of business.

At the same time, we should promote the idea, among colleges and universities, of pre-business study. A pre-business major would achieve the dual goal of preparing undergraduates for business careers and, critically, raising the profile of business in the same way that pre-law and pre-med majors raise awareness of medicine and law.

The time is right and the opportunity is now to reinvent the business message. The pipeline is ours to fill if we focus less on the pipe and more on the line, less on “business” in its most global sense and more on both the opportunities and satisfactions offered by specific business careers and the precise steps, culminating in an MBA, which will lead to both.

Peter Aranda is chief executive officer and Janice Wells-White is vice president for program administration of The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. The Consortium is an alliance of leading American business schools and corporations and the country’s preeminent organization for promoting diversity and inclusion in American business. For more information, visit www.cgsm.org.

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