Two Months Later, Here’s Where We Are: HBS, Diversity & Frameworks for Social Change
Two months ago to the date, I wrote a case about HBS and their record on race and gender. I timed the case to launch as the academic year began (Aug 25th was the first day of first-year classes).
The strategic plan, framework and marketing plan were developed using HBS thinking and alums that are experts in their fields. It should be clear that if students of the school can do this work, then the school itself has no excuse for being slow to act if they were to apply what they sell to the market (as cases and books) to areas that might not make them money in the short-term. Similarly, institutions that cannot find Black or female talent, but can maximize profits, beat market expectations or expand into new markets, do so from a lack of trying.
If your CFO, CMO or COO were your head of human resources, would you meet your diversity targets or have more equitable processes? Corporations and institutions have underinvested in areas they deem less important or non-revenue generating — a lens that views capitalist aims over moral claims fully. If the reason for pursuing diversity requires a business case or increased financial returns, it in fact relegates all humans to producers of capital solely — and not as humans who have other purposes.
I put the below note together for those interested in leveraging my blueprint for social change. Here’s the table of contents:
- Framework for Action
- Finding Inspiration
- Building a Team
- Timeline of Events
- Thank Yous & Ways to Support
- What’s Next
A guiding word by an amazing author and thinker of our time, Toni Morrison.
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
(I) FRAMEWORK FOR ACTION
Here’s an example framework for those interested in pushing for social change, but not sure where to start. There are a myriad of other initiatives you could study, but this is what I used to bring light to Harvard Business School’s monopoly on business and leadership education toward the goal of pushing for change.
One framework for social change that I learned at HBS (the second-year course, Power & Influence) describes 3 roles individuals can play: Agitators, Innovators, & Orchestrators.
- Agitators generally take to the streets and push for the most progressive change. Innovators often focus on finding new ways to get to better outcomes. Orchestrators work behind the scenes with key figures.
- In a way, Agitators often think about “what” should be changed and is not working, Innovators often think about “how” to create change, and orchestrators often think about the “who” to ensure the change can occur.
One person can play all of these roles within the same change paradigm or choose different roles based on context and experience. For example, BLM protestors are agitators within the context of police brutality while policy makers would be innovators or orchestrators. The same protestors within their workplace might serve as orchestrators for D&I work. An important caveat is that context matters. An agitating strategy in a very conservative community might be viewed as an orchestrating strategy in a more progressive community — pushing for police reform might be seen as innovating in some circles (where abolition is agitation) and the same actions in other circles might be agitating for that circle’s status quo.
I had several ideas, including a few that received zero traction, before I found one that made sense for me. Initially, I attempted to work with HBS’ Black alumni association, but for many reasons an optimal solution did not materialize. After believing an orchestrating approach was not aligned to the severity of the climate during a summer of COVID, racial advocacy and unemployment, I leaned into the mode that I have generally employed: innovation & agitation.
The agitation approach was to write an editorial for well-known newspapers, an approach that was in process for 5 weeks during the early summer. Those editorials were passed on, so I decided to be creative and operate within a realm I best understood: case writing. I put case writing into the innovation bucket because it uses the tools exclusively used and taught by the institution I am seeking to change. It would be similar to using a business case to change a business, a new financial model to influence an investment and a new operating thesis to change core company operations. As someone that was paid to write HBS cases about Black protagonists, I had full knowledge of the system from both the side of writer and student.
In order to reach key decision makers, I understood I needed to amplify my efforts to activate the full agitation-innovation-orchestration value chain. Receiving local and mainstream press was essential in amplifying the primary message. Written interviews by and contributions to student newspaper, The Crimson; the preeminent source for all MBA program news, Poets & Quants; and respected business paper, The Wall Street Journal, were pivotal in getting more eyes on the case. Through a mix of inbound requests and outreach, I tailored my messaging to outline why that reader base should care. I was not successful with every news outlet or even the first time with the entities I contacted.
Once the content is out in the world, the goal is to activate individuals and entities. What it takes to be activated may differ, but it should begin with an understanding of the problem’s root cause in order for subsequent actions to be sustained. For example, making donations to well known charities without thinking about the root cause of the problem to be solved is activation, but not likely a sustained one.
Some of the most notable activations with this case have included:
- The classmate that posted on LinkedIn to her professional network, which led to someone within her network reaching out to me. This individual had a direct line to HBS leadership.
- The friend that circulated the case to the company’s top leadership team, which includes alumni of HBS and other MBA programs.
- The classmates that suggested a section discussion, convening their group and leveraging their voice to provide a platform for discussion.
- The classmate who reached out to a VC (unprompted), connecting me to their contact asking “what can your VC do to help?”
While it might be tempting to wait for direction of what to do, it is often useful to think about what you can do first and then ask if that action would be helpful. In the course of the work that I’ve put together, I have been asked about being “tactical” and “specific.” I view these asks as low-effort questions that shift the burden of work away from the asker. Over the summer, I put together a very tactical guide for what folks could do by industry. Asking for action without understanding — to me — can be read as a desire for absolution of guilt rather than fundamental understanding. A CFO is rarely asked to solve the problems for marketing, operations or strategy; but the marketer should typically approach the CFO with a few options they’ve considered from their own deep understanding of marketing.
(II) FINDING INSPIRATION
I served as AASU Co-President from 2015 to 2016 and worked with the administration (behind the scenes) to increase the number of Black case protagonists. I was also enrolled in a course with two senior faculty members focused on reducing stereotype threat at HBS. Both of these efforts with orchestration strategies that led nowhere meaningful. Many of the solutions proposed in the course were disregarded and the administration only allowed us the opportunity to speak to course heads about diversifying their cases 2 weeks before our graduation — an impossible feat that I believe was institutional stalling.
As an alum, I was contracted by a Black Professor, Steven Rogers, to write cases for his course about Black protagonists. Professor Rogers, now-retired from HBS, created a course to address a problem (an innovating strategy) that the administration of HBS ultimately undervalued. Seeing the dissolution of his course and his departure from HBS (a school of which he is also an alum and advisor to AASU), I was motivated to keep up so much of the work he started and advocated for the entirety of his tenure as a professor.
As the events of the summer unfolded, HBS sat by and did very little beyond form a taskforce as other MBA programs released detailed plans or at least made commitments that were meaningful. In fact, the biggest motivating factor for me was seeing HBS’ indifference while an abundance of data existed that the school decided they needed the summer to research. The data included in the case I wrote was from public reports produced by the school. This data was sat on for 2 years with no action until a murderous summer led to a tepid statement without teeth. Institutions that have missions ought to be beholden to their stated mission. And ones that purport to consider themselves exemplary models of how to run an organization deserved the same level of accountability they teach their students to seek and that were occurring across several well known companies over the summer.
(III) BUILDING A TEAM
Activating social change is not a one-person endeavor. Individuals all have a role to play — both big and small (see prior work from Alterrell). If we believe that social change requires one person to have all the ideas, ways to reach people, solutions to effectuate change, then we put the bar to do anything beyond the reach of most. Furthermore, we perpetuate a notion of individual heroism and martyrdom. And nothing of importance has been done solely by one person without a support system.
All leader of social movements in the past worked with a team (even if you do not know their names). If we look at the Civil Rights Movement in the US, we’ll unearth a few surprises. Martin Luther King is the face of the movement for many. However, Bayard Rustin served as architect and council to MLK, Aretha Franklin paid the bail of agitators, and Rosa Parks had the backing of the NAACP. All of those are names we now know, but consider how many unnamed folks helped make change possible.
The team supporting the development and amplification of this case was gender and race diverse. It was a coalition of leaders who believe the status quo has not served us well and getting to a goal of equity requires innovation, partnership and action!
In the early stages of ideating, I leveraged a diverse group of thinkers to get feedback on a very long first draft, input on curating the best exhibits, and how to refine the case narrative to maximize impact. This group included former MBB consultants and finance professionals, communicating across Google Docs, text and phone calls. I also leveraged some members of this group to brainstorm how best to reach a wide audience and how to engage others — key strengths of those provided input.
Editing & Proofing
As I moved through iterations of drafts, I reached out to friends with a strong editorial eye to assist with proofreading. Being very close to the work often allows your brain to fill in the gaps for missing words, phrases that don’t make as much sense to a general audience, and ensuring consistency in voice and framing. This group included folks who work in publishing and those with an eye for detail.
In order to ensure widest reach and extending beyond my own network, I reached out asking friends to help amplify the body of work. I reached out to friends with expertise in brand and marketing, and one, Verdell, took my initial outreach email and turned that email into a marketing template with specific calls to action. I provided those templates to friends to share within their sections, workplaces, and on social media. Not everyone in the group who sent an email, posted on LinkedIn or reshared on Instagram works in marketing — in fact, most do not but felt an easy role they could play was posting content.
Two more specific forms of content amplification includes corporate outreach and community connectors.
In addition to personal outreach (friend to friend, reaching people outside of my primary network), corporate outreach included finding contacts willing to share with their H&R, D&I and management teams. The companies reached included a wide range of industries.
In order to expand beyond HBS, my network was able to connect me with communities that included their college alma mater and MBA alumni groups. Community connecting was essential: HBS is a proxy for institutions wielding immense influence and reaching similar institutions was necessary to “activate” others.
(IV) TIMELINE OF EVENTS
In my view, HBS has been slow to the mark compared peer institution, Stanford GSB. Here’s a timeline of exposure this case and its related work has received:
- Aug 25: HBS Case goes live along with its accompanying petition!
- Aug 26: The case is featured in Poets & Quants / Yahoo.
- Aug 31: Discussion guide questions published.
- Sep 4: The case is featured in The Crimson & HBS acknowledges case.
- Aug 26 — Sep 15: All HBS 2016 sections (A through J) received copy of the case.
- Sep 23: HBS releases Action Plan.
- Sep 23: Alterrell quoted in The Wall Street Journal in response HBS action plan.
- Oct 6: Alterrell writes featured editorial in The Harbus in response to HBS’ Action Plan.
- Oct 9: HBS selects a new Dean.
- Oct 14: Alterrell’s editorial covered in Poets & Quants.
- Sep 13 — Oct 24: Virtual section discussions including D 2016 on Sep 13, G 2016 on Sep 19, and B 2016 October 24.
HBS has acknowledged the case and the work itself has created space for necessary critique of the status quo. The tone of HBS’ emails to their alumni base about social justice has been significantly more actionable and courageous after the launch of the case. Other MBA programs are aware of the desire for transparency, as alums from other programs have used this case to push for longer-term changes within those administrations.
It is also essential to create space for awareness as a critical outcome. Many alumni were not aware of the data. As a data-driven group of alums, many needed the case and its exhibits to embolden them to have difficult conversations. Unfortunately, an over reliance on data creates a disincentive for valuing how people feel. Not everything can be measured easily and data cannot capture every injustice. In fact, most institutions are not transparent with their data — and the primary perpetuators of data over feelings — in order to stifle progress.
“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free. It is our duty to fight for our freedom.” — Assata Shakur
(VI) CREDITS & WAYS TO SUPPORT
Everyone who is listed below provided their time for free — including myself. A typical HBS case costs $7K — $10K to develop, and is sold for between $5 — $8 per case. For example, one class of ~1000 HBS students (at this math) covers the cost of case development in its first year. Any cases taught outside of HBS (they sold 14.5M in 2019) are pure profit.
If you wish to contribute to allow me to pay those involved, I would greatly appreciate you buying me coffee. I’ll be sure to get my team a cup of coffee as well.
- Strategic Advisors: Lauren M, Arthur GS, Lami O, Bradley O, David NW.
- Core Support: Jasmine R, Ruani R, Alissa N, Lami O.
- Amplifiers: Atima L, DeRon B, Keren C, Cliff F, Tsion H, Martina AI, Maia M, Anndrea M, Marina N, Shannon NT, Nkem O, Erin P, Arthur GS, Selena S, Verdell W, Ben W, Adia M, Tess K, Stephanie M, Obi O, Bradley O, David W, Larry A, Anne K, Erin P, Saron T & Eden Z.
(VII) WHAT’S NEXT
The work is far from being over. This case is a proxy for institutions reticent to change, and can be used as a guide to social change of other educational and corporate entities. I will continue to advocate where I can, but strongly encourage you to consider what you can do.
A few tips and what’s next for me:
- Connect me with your HR / D&I to speak with your leadership team. I do various engagements and approach the work as a business practitioner (work experience includes American Express and Tesla).
- Hire Black and women entrepreneurs for paid work. Pay them your highest rates. Two women to consider include the founders of Evolute Consulting & You Had Me at Black.
- Follow DEI experts on LinkedIn including two favorites of mine Aaisha Joseph and Lily Zheng. Both women post tactical solutions, theory and reflections that are valuable or business leaders to consider.
- Reflect on this document and get to work. It outlines industry and role-based suggestions toward racial equity and anti-racism.
- Bring me in (or make requests for the team I’m connected to) to speak to your community or alumni groups. Panels are a great way to elevate the work and push for real change.