African Americans are starkly underrepresented in business schools, and the largest underrepresented population group among US business school candidates.
According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), less than 10% of people from the US who take the GMAT—the world’s leading business school admission test—are black.
Low representation in the business school pipeline has implications further upstream where African Americans account for less than 5% of executive and senior-level positions within private industry, according to GMAC’s report.
The Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the death in police custody of African American George Floyd have once again highlighted the challenges faced by black people in society today.
Here, we investigate the issue of African American representation in business school.
Why is Diversity Important?
Without diversity, ideas disseminating from the academy to wider society reproduce a status quo that effectively excludes underrepresented groups. Our leaders look more similar—pale, male, stale— and fail to understand the interests of marginalized groups, let alone represent their needs.
However, diversity is not just about ensuring equal opportunities within society.
A report produced by the American Council on Education and the American Association of University of Professors indicates that the educational benefits reaped in multicultural settings cannot be found in racially homogenous environments:
‘Education is a two-way exchange that benefits all who participate in the multicultural marketplace of ideas and perspectives.’
In addition to creating a more dynamic educational environment, McKinsey notes a strong correlation between diversity and profitability. Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic diversity are 33% more likely to outperform the industry average, indicating that inclusive enterprises are also more lucrative.
Despite persuasive evidence for diversity, figures reflecting MBA cohorts continue to lag behind. In the case of African American representation, initiatives are tackling barriers to entering business schools and disrupting negative stereotypes of the community.
Barriers to African American Representation at Business School
For many African Americans, cost is a barrier to pursuing higher business education.
GMAC's Key Diversity Statistics show that more than two-thirds of black candidates plan on taking out student loans, compared with 53% of non-underrepresented applicants. Around 30% of the latter group plan on receiving financial support from their parents to fund graduate school, as compared to 14% of African Americans.
“Part of the problem of underrepresentation is economically driven,” says Jesse Tyson, former president of the National Black MBA Association (NBMBAA).
To address this issue, the NBMBAA has established collegiate partnerships with schools to provide scholarship funding to black students. Jesse says the goal is to have 100 schools pledged to this initiative.
“The representation of black people clearly needs improvement. Our collegiate partnerships are designed to close the gap, to eliminate some of the barriers facing individuals who have the credentials, but not the resources to pursue higher business education.”
Mentoring is crucial to the process of getting black candidates more exposure to skills required for business school. The NBMBAA's annual conference attracts between 8,000 to 10,000 participants. Not all attendees are looking to be recruited at the conference; they are seeking to be part of a valuable network and black business community.
Recognition of Black Achievements
In addition to dismantling barriers to higher business education, dominant stereotypes of African Americans must be challenged to ensure fairer representation.
Professor Steven Rogers, senior lecturer in business administration and expert in entrepreneurial finance at Harvard Business School (HBS), says he was struck by the dearth of black figures in case studies. According to Steven, less than 1% of the case studies published by HBS feature black business leaders.
This lack of recognition inspired him to design the Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship initiative at HBS—a course that utilizes cases focusing exclusively on black protagonists. The aim of this is to showcase ‘black brilliance’ and, he says, to challenge the narrative that associates African Americans only with sports, music, and crime.
One of his case studies includes Ebony magazine, an outlet created by publishing legend John H Johnson. Steven explains that opportunity and innovation come from identifying a gap. In the spirit of a true entrepreneur, John Johnson identified a distinct lack of black representation within the media and publishing industry. His magazine challenged distorted stereotypes of African Americans perpetuated in mainstream outlets, addressed an underserved market, and positively contributed to society in its support for the civil rights movement.
Steven explains that around 80% of case studies used in business schools globally are produced at Harvard, indicating the potentially wide-reaching impact of this course.
In 2018, HBS's African American Students Union (AASU) celebrated its 50th anniversary. Professor Tony Mayo, senior lecturer of business administration and director of the HBS leadership initiative, notes that there were only 42 black graduates of HBS between 1915 and 1968. AASU was set up in the spring of 1968 by five students seeking to increase black representation within the school.
“It's important to celebrate the activism of these students,” he says.
Recognizing black achievements not only disrupts negative stereotypes of African Americans, it presents a powerful alternative narrative—charismatic, ambitious and hugely successful leaders have risen from marginalized communities, and changed our political, economic, and cultural lives for the better.
This article was originally published in March 2018 and updated in June 2020.