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Shaking the MBA Martini: Diversity is the New Cocktail

(published in Forbes, August 2011)

Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not a typical feeder to the world’s top business schools. But assuming that James Bond could ace the GMAT and provide enough non-classified information in his essays to satisfy the admissions team of his significant accomplishments, then many MBA programs would welcome his perspective on working under pressure, negotiating a better deal, and meeting tight deadlines.

For Jake Zim, an MBA graduate from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School, and responsible for overseeing the digital campaign associated with next instalments of the James Bond franchise in his position as Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing at Sony Pictures Entertainment, the diverse backgrounds and abilities of his fellow business school classmates made for one of the best professional decisions of his life. “Business school put me in the room with sharp, talented and ambitious classmates, many of whom are now in executive positions across a variety of industries and with whom I consult on business issues regularly.”

With a BA in history from UC Berkeley, and several years of developing digital marketing strategy in the heart of the Hollywood, Zim may not seem to fit the classic MBA profile, dominated as it is by students from the fields of finance, engineering and consultancy. But he is categorical about the benefits of the MBA for those with an atypical background. “It gives you a 360 degree perspective on business that allows for real opportunity to seek out leadership positions, especially in emerging industries like digital entertainment and technology.”

And the traditional tide may be turning, as business schools seek to encourage not only more women and ethnic minorities to do an MBA, but also those with more diverse backgrounds including media, military, not-for-profits and entrepreneurship.

With 43 per cent of the incoming Harvard MBA class coming from humanities and social sciences disciplines, and a record 45 per cent women admitted to the Wharton School class of 2013, there are clear signs of progress. As Wharton deputy director of admissions Ankur Kumar explains, attracting such levels of diversity is no overnight occurrence. The school has worked hard over several years to bust some of the stereotypes and myths of being unqualified and outnumbered. To build awareness and encourage more women applicants, Wharton has reached out to undergraduate schools and organised on campus events that enable women students and alumnae to tell their own stories.

But is it important for business schools to also strive for professional diversity? Many academics, administrators and students would say so. In fact, it’s been argued that restricting the MBA course participants to a limited range of experience means that traditionally accepted patterns of thought go unchallenged. They argue that a wide-ranging group of students helps to put business decision-making into a wider perspective, and thereby reduce the risk of a herd mentality that leads to ill-informed decisions. Perhaps Wall Street should take note?

Finding this balance, however, is not easy. Jenny George, outgoing dean at Melbourne Business School, says “There is only so far you can go with diversity of experience. It would be great to have an MBA class with a strong representation of people from the arts and humanities, but the reality is that an MBA student needs to be highly numerate. If they can’t do the numbers, they’re going to struggle.”

A growing number of schools bridge the gap in numerical capabilities by offering extra modules to bring everyone up to the same level. The Desautels Faculty at McGill is one example, and Professor Omar Toulan, Associate Dean of Masters Programmes explains, “There are students who do not necessarily have the quantitative background for the MBA core. As such, we provide a 40 hour Base Camp prior to the program for students to reach a common level for the fundamentals of statistics, accounting, and maths.”

Though Craig Buntin may be more comfortable with a figure of eight, the Olympic pair skater is now studying for his MBA at Desautels-McGill. He feels that professional diversity is an important factor in the learning process: “Our generation of business leaders will work in a world which requires us to think globally and work with people from different backgrounds and cultures. Class diversity teaches you to listen, and value the opinions of others. They may be approaching a problem from a completely different perspective than mine.”

At Jake Zim’s alma mater, USC Marshall, almost one-third the class joined the school following careers in media, real estate, non-profit and government. According to Keith Vaughn, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions, this is partly to do with the location and reputation of the school in question. “The culture here at USC Marshall, and the creative and entrepreneurial community that surrounds us makes a big difference. For example, the media focus of LA already attracts a lot of people in the creative industry, and the university’s internationally renowned film school contributes to a campus culture that makes them feel welcome when they get to the business school.”

The decision to study in France, home of fashion and luxury goods, was the driver for atypical MBA student Ryan Pleva to apply to HEC Paris. “Paris is the fashion capital of the world, and if I want to be at the forefront of what is happening in my industry there is no better place to be.” Previously working in fashion PR in New York, Pleva aspired to a top managerial role. He has made the most of the school’s impressive network of alumni and faculty, including former executives from some of the major luxury groups, and is now a product manager in the luxury division of L’Oréal. “If you work in a creative industry, you will still need to run a business, and an MBA is a great way to understand both sides of the business.”

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About symondsgsb

Matt is chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world's outstanding business schools. He is an internationally recognised business and graduate school expert, consulting to the world’s top business schools, and has written for many of the world’s leading publications including : Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, BBC, Newsweek, CNBC, America Economia, Washington Post, The Independent, Boston Globe, Handelsblatt, 21st Century Herald, South China Morning Post, Vedomosti, San Francisco Chronicle, Expansion, Beijing Daily. Matt was Co-Founder of the QS World MBA Tour Matt is co-author of Getting the M.B.A. Admissions Edge, a B-school admissions bestseller sponsored by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. His new individual school guides will be available in the fall.

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