Keeping Diversity in the Foreground
The five students sitting behind a table were all very different from one another — and that was the point. They were there to discuss their differences and how it has impacted their careers for an event called Modern Workforce in Real Life: SOM Student Stories. The panel, which was co-sponsored by the Black Business Alliance, opened this year's SOMunity, a series of programs designed to be educational, and to increase awareness of and celebrate the diversity of Yale SOM's student body. "We're trying to stress that diversity is something that we encounter on an everyday basis," said Prem Tumkosit '11, who serves as the chair of diversity for SOM student government. "It's something we see socially and managerially."
This is the second year for SOMunity, which launched as a way to highlight the diverse culture at SOM. Events range from panels to speakers to cooking classes. Last year, students participated in the Chinese New Year, a networking event for international students, movie night, a Korean cooking class, and a Leaders Forum lecture with Indra Nooyi '80, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, which SOMunity cosponsored. While this year's events are still being planned, they will include reprises of many of last year's; new events will include a panel with several chief diversity officers from various corporations. In addition, SOMunity will partner with the International Club for its annual food festival, which is always among the most popular student events.
The theme for this year is Live Diversity, building on the idea that students need to treat diversity as part of the fabric of their lives and not a separate idea they consider once in a while. To that end, the Modern Workforce panel seemed a fitting launch for SOMunity. Students discussed the kinds of daily issues they faced at work before enrolling in SOM. One highlighted how being Muslim changed after September 11, 2001; another spoke of how he dealt with complaints about an employee who clients said was too open in discussing his homosexuality; a third explained how he dealt with a manager from a foreign country who seemed unwilling to adjust to American business culture; a fourth shared her difficulties as a woman working in male-dominated Jordan; and the fifth student asked students to consider situations from differing viewpoints. Audience members were then invited to comment on each scenario and dilemma, with the aim of promoting further converstations. "We should look on these as teaching moments," said Chris Grey, associate director of admissions and student services, who moderated the event.
While all the stories were different, there were a few common themes in the presentations: for example, the difficulty of being a minority in the workplace, especially if other people there are hostile toward differences. But even when a problem is obvious, many students made clear that addressing it is never easy. Ethan Brown '11, who cofounded a business producing Off-Broadway plays, found it very difficult to speak to an employee whose style of talking openly about his own homosexuality when selling plays with gay themes spurred complaints from a number of clients. "I decided to be as open as possible," Brown said. "I don't know if I handled it the right way. But we did see improvement in his results."
Rafael Torres '12 confronted problems in work not from a subordinate but a superior. His team leader managed like a dictator, Torres said, something the supervisor attributed to the style in his home country. Complaints from employees had no effect on the manager, who eventually left the company. Torres said he learned the importance of not assuming that the way you're used to conducting business works no matter where you go. "Anytime you go someplace new," he said, "you need to observe the cultural differences and adapt your own leadership style to fit."
Sometimes, a diversity issue can be so subtle it can be missed if you're not looking for it. Claire Ruud '12 talked about the power of language, especially when it's used as code. "You need to drill down when someone says they're not sure she'll 'fit in' or 'is not a good fit, culturally,'" she said. "What are people really trying to communicate?"
Tumkosit said he saw the event as a fitting start to SOMunity, as it is designed to provoke discussions about diversity in all facets of student life. Considering that just about every student participates in SOMunity in one way or another, he said he expects those conversations to go on long after the panel concluded. "Ultimately, we're having these conversations so we can understand where each of us comes from," he said. "What's great about SOMunity is no one is imposing their own views on people. It's shaped by what students want to express and engage in."