A small, but powerful group on B-school campuses, African-American and Hispanic MBA associations often serve as the voice -- and as a comfort zone -- for minority students. BusinessWeek Staff Editor Jennifer Merritt talked with Colbert T. Boyd, a 31-year-old second-year student at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and co-chair of school's Black Management Assn., on why more minorities aren't interested in B-school. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: It seems like so many organizations give scholarships and fellowships to minorities who want to get an MBA, realizing that many are first-generation college grads. Yet it hasn't seemed to make much of a difference. Why do you think that is?
A: It's really important to provide the funding and financial support for minorities to attend graduate business programs. But you have to start a step before that. If I don't have an interest, then I don't really care about your money.
Ideally, [getting minorities into B-school] is a continuum, and I don't think there's an effective hand-off. There's a missing link from the beginning of undergrad studies to work experience. If you don't have someone in your life to continue to push those interests, the interest is lost. And instead you become a lawyer or a doctor, or go into the other types of careers you see represented all the time. Nine times out of 10, you know someone that's a lawyer or doctor, or you have a lawyer or doctor somewhere in your life who inspired you.
With business, success isn't as clear. If you go to law school, you become a lawyer. But if you go to business school, what you do afterward is so varied and unclear. If you don't have someone showing you the different options, it's difficult to say you'll go down a path of the unknown. B-schools need to get in this continuum, going back to high school, connecting with undergraduates, making sure that those open links are closed.
Q: Could you tell me about some of the things you've done at Kellogg to reach out to younger minorities?
A: Last year we started a high-school business-plan competition. It's open to any high-school student, but we pretty much pull from Chicago-area high schools. We also established a mentoring program for undergrads with the black undergraduate law and business society. We take undergrads to MBA classes, show them what an MBA program is like, and give them opportunities to meet some of the admissions staff.
Q: What about minorities who are interested in business who are already working in Corporate America -- what's keeping them away from B-school?
A: Over the last couple of years, Corporate America has pulled back on its recruiting efforts, and that has had an impact. Minorities are more risk-averse when they look at the opportunities that are available right now after B-school. Maybe they don't want to make that huge investment.
Looking at historical and anecdotal data, minorities and women have had the toughest time finding success in Corporate America. You hear a lot of stories, and perception becomes reality.
Q: Has the path of business been a successful one for you?
A: It's daunting, I've been fortunate to have had a great career and have good opportunities, but then again, I never worked in a large company. In larger companies, you look up, and you see several hundred or even several thousand people, but only a couple of people look like you, and you start to wonder about your career path.
There are many talented minorities in the workforce. But the reality is you have to put in the time to be effective, and putting in the time can mean dealing with some [discrimination]. To get more minorities in B-schools, it's a combination of getting people up through the ranks and of the people in charge putting their words into actions. In Corporate America, only a select group of companies are actually putting diversity into practice.
Q: Have you experienced discrimination in the workplace?
A: Prior to B-school I was a consultant at a small firm. In one project, we were developing a turnaround strategy for a unit of a company, and I was the lead on the project. I was on site at the company with one white counterpart. I was invisible in the first meetings, even though my colleague told them several times that I was the lead guy, and it was clear that I was the one who had all the information . But they would go to my white counterpart.
After he repeatedly sent them back to me, they realized I was the owner of the info, but it took three or four weeks. I can't imagine any reason other than racism. It kind of hurt, because you work really hard to do a good job, and then you're invisible. But you realize you have to fight through it. After they came around, we worked well through the rest of the project, and it was a success.
In my career, time and time again, I've sat in meetings with senior executives and been the only minority, and in a lot of cases, they've been less receptive to me, at least in the beginning.
Q: Why would any minority want to be in the business world, let alone business school, if that's their reality?
A: It's not just in business, and I don't think you can escape it. If you want to attain a certain level of success as a minority, you learn how to deal with it and learn to use your experiences to implement change as you move along.
It's going to take some executives who are willing to take some chances -- chances as they may see it -- and some minorities who are willing to step up to the challenge and stick with it. After you work hard for so long [and still face discrimination], it gets tiring, and you start to feel like it's just part of the landscape. A lot of minorities have dealt with this on some level their whole life, even successful minorities. You learn how to play and over time, implement change.