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When a Pledge of Support Becomes a Willing Embrace

It’s not enough to strive for or even value diversity, it must be embraced

Left to right: Wanda Denson-Low, retired senior vice president of the Boeing Company and vice chair of the board of trustees for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute;
Christopher Low (’22); Deidre Willis (’23)

  • The annual Embracing Diversity Week brings together the whole Anderson community to explore how we promote equity, diversity and inclusion every day
  • It’s not enough to simply “promote” equity, diversity and inclusion — we must “embrace” them as well
  • Embracing diversity has become a permanent and crucial component of leadership

According to UCLA Anderson associate admissions director Vickie Euyoque, Anderson’s annual Embracing Diversity event was created as a weekend conference to increase the pipeline of applicants from underrepresented backgrounds. Although Embracing Diversity initially focused on the full-time MBA program, it was later expanded to include students who were interested in a part-time MBA as well. “We went through a couple of different variations, but our focus always remained the same: to provide prospective students with the opportunity to learn about how UCLA Anderson can support them in their MBA journey, while experiencing our diverse and inclusive culture; to help them envision themselves as part of the Anderson community,” Euyoque says.

With the 2018 arrival of Heather Caruso, who serves as both assistant dean of equity, diversity and inclusion and as adjunct associate professor in the management and organizations and behavioral decision making areas, the school started exploring ways to involve more students, have student clubs organize their own events and present more of an overall community engagement week for everyone. To accommodate this breadth of campus participation, the Embracing Diversity Conference became Embracing Diversity Week in 2019. In 2021, EDW expanded even further with the participation of the Executive MBA, Master of Science in Business Analytics and Master of Financial Engineering programs.

We spoke with Dean Caruso, along with Embracing Diversity Week participants Wanda Denson-Low, retired senior vice president of the Boeing Company and vice chair of the board of trustees for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UCLA Anderson students Christopher Low (’22) and Deidre Willis (’23) about the importance of Embracing Diversity.

Q: Why is it important to “embrace diversity”?

Heather Caruso: For a long time, people were taught that what was most important about each of us was what fit the mold — the aspects of us that seemed similar to past models of success. There was a lot of trying to live up to these old inherited models.

But the differences in each of us deserve more appreciation. A world where there are many different models of success is one that expands options for everybody. Embracing diversity is about embracing that fuller potential, that fuller suite of successes that we can have as a society. It’s the charge and the opportunity for every organization and organization leader to try to figure out how to support the emergence of all of those different paths forward.

Wanda Denson-Low: There is a distinction between committing to diversity and embracing it. A commitment implies an obligation or a pledge of support but that pledge of support may not necessarily be given willingly. That obligation could arise from a sense of political correctness or a penchant to blow the way prevailing winds may be blowing at the current time. Embracing diversity, in my mind, is welcoming diversity with open arms and without reservation because one truly respects and values all differences. Those differences create unique individuals with unique perspectives that, when brought together, create stronger, better, more well-rounded and well-informed experiences for all.

A world or workforce that truly embraces diversity is a world where all opinions are heard, where all feel respected and everyone feels they can contribute their best. Whatever that contribution may be, in an embracing diversity world, it will be respected and valued. No energy would be wasted because of disenfranchisement, because everyone would be contributing their all.

Deidre Willis: I think everyone knows what it feels like to be in a room where you’re surrounded by love and your presence is wanted as opposed to required, tolerated or even expected. That’s what it means to truly embrace something, even diversity: It’s making someone feel that who they are, the things that make them unique, are welcomed and even celebrated. Embracing diversity starts with a mindset until it becomes intrinsic in your actions.

When we start to think of diversity as that favorite, cool uncle that lights up as a room, who you want to bring everywhere, as opposed to a blind spot we didn’t notice before, then we can really say we’re “embracing diversity.”

Unconscious and implicit biases are deeply rooted in every single one of us. True advocacy is first recognizing this, then being constantly vigilant for biases and almost demanding openness about how we think about, converse, work and socialize with people we may have nothing in common with besides humanity.

Diversity is just the start. It’s like entering a building in the basement, a bare minimum of a foundation. For those actively and more recently advocating for diversity, we should be striving toward equity and taking it a step further to inclusion. If diversity is like receiving an invite to a party, equity is each of us hearing music we enjoy. But inclusion is being free and able to dance like no one is watching.

Q: As you think about the next generation of leaders from underrepresented backgrounds, what do you see as the value of graduate business education? How can these rising leaders best leverage that education for the good of their careers and communities?

Christopher Low: Graduate business education will allow the next generation of underrepresented leaders to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. As an underrepresented individual, you tend to gravitate toward finding spaces where you feel comfortable, whether in social or professional circles. In business school, you will be surrounded by brilliant and accomplished classmates from around the world, which gives underrepresented individuals the opportunity to interact with a unique group of people that they may not otherwise cross paths with. Although it’s an uncomfortable environment for a lot of us, business school provides a safe environment to explore ourselves, expand our knowledge, strengthen our network and feel comfortable being uncomfortable.

DW: It’s been a longstanding, unspoken rule that if you’re from an underrepresented background you have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as your majority white counterparts to get the same recognition, opportunity and pay. Graduate business education has been incredibly valuable in leveling the playing field and giving rising leaders equitable opportunities. The best way for rising leaders to leverage their education for good is for them to live out loud and lift as they climb.

The more underrepresented leaders who can gain a seat at the table and find ways to even get others in the room, the more we shift away from the tendency of tokenism and placing the weight of the success of a race, gender or background on one person. Leveraging that education for the good of their community looks like sharing your experience as often as possible to help others learn from your mistakes. This can include leveraging social media, being a mentor, speaking on a panel, volunteering at local colleges or schools. The more students and younger rising leaders can see successful leaders who look like them, the sooner their background can stop being considered underrepresented.

Q: Some of our alumni have been embracing diversity for a long time, correct?

HC: Yes. There are Anderson alumni who are pioneers, and we all owe an enormous amount to them for starting the conversation when that conversation had a very small following. That takes an enormous amount of courage. They built a foundation for future generations to come and do exactly the work we are doing together on campus today — the work necessary to keep learning just how much the conversation about embracing diversity can offer us all.

As one critical part of this, we have invested in thinking through what the terms equity, diversity and inclusion really mean, so they can be more meaningful as focal goals. Equity is about getting people in the door. And it can be many kinds of doors. It can be the admissions door. It can be the hiring doors. It can be the door to the next level of seniority in your organization. It’s about making sure that people have the appropriate support to ensure them equal opportunity to walk through that door. It’s not pushing anybody through that door or giving people some kind of arbitrary advantage. It is about accounting for the fact that throughout history, there have been inequities in the resources and support that have been provided to people to get access to opportunity and to seize that opportunity.

Diversity is about trying to create an environment where people can be authentic with one another, where they are encouraged to seek out people who have different perspectives, where people can really engage openly with one another’s differences. That is an explicit part of what we’re here to do. It is in some ways a response to old models of success that presume past examples of leadership are the only promising examples to follow. We don’t want to be so short-sighted. To try to create a more diverse world, I think we have to really encourage exploration and give people the expectation that we’re all here to discover the different kind of successes we can each be.

The last piece is inclusion. Let’s say we succeed on the first two fronts. We get everybody in the door and then we get people actually sharing their different ways of succeeding and contributing. We want to make sure that is met with respect, with belonging, with appreciation. That is what makes all of this diversity sustainable: Once the diversity starts coming out, we know how to respond to one another in ways that allow everybody to feel like they are a meaningful and a valued contributor to the environment, and that their contributions will be given acknowledgement and consideration.

Q: To what extent do you see mentorship and cross-generational communication as critical for advancing diversity in the business landscape? Do you see a need for those from underrepresented backgrounds to give and seek more mentorship, and what kinds of topics should be their focus?

WDL: Mentorship and cross-generational communication are critical in any profession, but especially so for advancing diversity in the business landscape, where the barriers to entry have been high or closed for those from underrepresented backgrounds. It has always been difficult for many underrepresented people to ask for help for fear of being thought of as “lesser than,” despite the kind of mentorship in the majority community known as the “old boys’ network.”

Success in business, law, architecture and so many other professions involves specific expertise, but also relationships, which are harder to build if you are underrepresented. Mentorship is tricky, as you must have two willing participants, a mentor and a mentee. So, the mentee has to encounter a willing mentor and many mentees are often looking for someone who looks like them. A mentor who looks like them, though a scarce commodity, affords the mentee with the comfort that the mentor would have a better understanding of the issues the underrepresented face, and would be perhaps more willing to share experiences and knowledge.

Mentorship can involve any topic you need help with, whether that’s how to build relationships in your profession, what jobs or experiences should be sought out for your advancement, how to balance work and family, how to obtain new clients, how to ensure your personal financial viability for the long term. It’s critical for the underrepresented to be willing to not only seek out mentors but also to act as mentors. Wherever we are in our careers, a well-respected mentor can always provide another perspective, a different input and useful guidance.

DW: Without mentorship and cross-generational communication, each generation is bound to repeat the same mistakes and see no advancement in diversity as a community.

Mentorship is essential for personal and professional growth, identifying red flags and also identifying opportunities. I think everyone should have not only a mentor but a sponsor as well, someone aware of your skill set and with your best interests at heart who can be in conversations where you may not even be in the room.

For those with underrepresented backgrounds to become represented and advance diversity in the business landscape, mentorship is the key to showing up in the best light and being aware and prepared for the nuances and difficulties experienced in business.

It is equally as important to seek mentorship as it is to give, no matter the level of experience because there will always be someone who could use your experience and insight. I’ve found mentorship to be truly impactful when the conversation topics are all-encompassing.

I’ve learned the most when I’ve had mentors with whom I could be fully transparent and authentic around. My mentors are like having a board of directors, each with unique perspectives to provide guidance.

Q: How important is it that the school’s top administrators “embrace” diversity as one of Anderson’s core values?

HC: I think it’s enormously important. EDW is a community moment, and I think the endorsement of our senior administration is what really makes that clear to everyone in our ecosystem. All of Anderson’s deans are very clearly in support of EDW and have celebrated seeing the community take the opportunity to run with it. In classic Anderson fashion, it’s been entrepreneurial, with great student leadership.

Note that EDW started as a recruiting event, as a conference for prospective students. The key, when I drove the expansion of it into a full week in 2019, was recognizing how much the event meant to the current students — the ones who had been working just with the full-time MBA admissions staff to put on the recruiting conference. Seeing their passion and their dedication and their energy for these topics, I asked them why all of the focus was on sharing that passion only with prospective students outside of our community. Are we showing the rest of the Anderson community how much you all care about this? Are they getting to share their own passion for this with you?

I was also starting to see that a much broader swath of our students felt a pent-up desire to get engaged in EDI, although they didn’t have the formal position in leadership around these issues. But that didn’t mean they didn’t care. Staff and faculty members were interested in EDI, too, but there wasn’t a place where everybody at Anderson could gather and see what issues we were each wrestling with.

We expanded the event to give more space to what matters to our students on the ground. What are the exciting EDI topics? What’s going to prepare them for futures in leadership of diverse organizations? The administration has been thrilled to see people take this as far as they can, and to see everyone — from EDW organizers to the alumni to the current prospective students who pop in for different elements of the conference — just thrilled to see where people’s interest gets piqued and where they build connections that then, in my favorite cases, become conversations that go on throughout the year.

Portions of this conversation appeared in a preview of Leading Across Difference: Embracing Diversity Week 2021.