By Ben Mattison
"Business has historically been the professional area that has been most closed to minorities," says John Rice (YC '88). "And most misunderstood." Rice founded Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the number of under-represented minorities in business schools and in the management profession in general.
As medical schools and law schools have become more diverse, management schools—and the major companies that recruit from them—have lagged behind. According to MLT, minorities make up 12-13 % of the student bodies at law and medical schools, but just 6-7 % of business-school students. Only 3 % of senior managers are black or Hispanic.
MLT runs programs that help young people "navigate key transition points" on the path to an MBA—getting into college, finding a first job, and applying to business school. And the organization's efforts are bearing fruit: about 40% of the minority students in the Harvard Business School class of 2007 are alumni of MLT.
But in order to radically expand the pool of minority applicants to business schools, MLT must grapple with a broader problem: relatively few young people in minority communities aspire to a business career.
In part, that's because they aren't familiar with business. Rice says that minority students are less likely to have parents or other relatives with experience in business. "They're encouraging their kids to go in other directions. Or when they do encourage them to pursue careers in business, they're not necessarily in a position to give them the best guidance," says Rice. "We spend a lot of time at the high school and college level communicating to people the importance of business skills to any career path they might pursue."
Rice says that another reason many ambitious minority students choose to go into law or medicine is because they see those professions as opportunities to help their communities. "People associate becoming a doctor with saving lives and helping people," he says. "And a lot of high-profile minority political leaders have been lawyers, so there are role models of people who achieve great things in the community who have backgrounds in law.
"The connection between doing good and going into a business career is not as clear," he adds.
There's also a very practical reason why minority students are more likely to pick law school or medical school over business school: a perceived guarantee of steady work.
"Historically in minority communities, becoming a doctor and becoming a lawyer are very prestigious and safe career tracks," Rice says. "When you have a license to practice medicine, or you pass the bar and you have a license to practice law, historically you could practice largely in your own community. A business degree doesn't give you a license to practice anything. Navigating in the corporate and business world is perceived to be more risky."
Ultimately, says MLT chief operating officer Fred Smagorinsky '87, management is simply not regarded as a profession in the way that medicine and law are.
"There isn't a credential at the end," he says. "There isn't a test at the end. There's a certain body of knowledge that you have to absorb to become a lawyer or a doctor, and that's just not true with business. You learn things in business school that help you become a better and more effective businessman, but there isn't a standard body of knowledge that is required. Because of that lack of structure, business is seen as being a fuzzier entity in terms of your career.
"This is not specific to the demographic groups that we work with," he adds.
Perhaps if management had more of the qualities of the traditional professions—with a better-defined body of knowledge, a service ethic, a code of conduct, a certification exam—it would be more appealing to minority students.
Rice and Smagorinsky are skeptical. Says Rice, "The challenge that minorities face is a historical lack of understanding of what the business world is all about. I don't think just introducing a test or making it into something that you deem a profession would address that. They still have to be out in the business world and navigate that world."