The Business of Inclusion
Stevens School of Business teaches the importance of belonging.
That is not the typical answer you would expect during an exercise centered around inclusion, but it is a practical demonstration of why the Stevens School of Business Inclusive Leadership program is so important.
Faced with a scenario in which a group working on a marketing project that includes charts, graphs and other vibrant visuals includes a member who has trouble seeing colors, this particular set of first-year students went beyond the buzzwords and platitudes that come to most people’s minds and approached the question from a business point of view.
“Organizations that are more diverse and committed to equity tend to have a better track record when it comes to things like innovation, connecting with their market, and creating workplace environments that foster more satisfaction and higher levels of engagement,” said Peter Dominick, a teaching professor and co-director of the Inclusive Leadership Program.
Now in its second year, the program is presented to every first-year student in the School of Business during a two-hour block of orientation week. The curriculum, facilitated by faculty, staff and students representing the entire Stevens community, is centered around four main questions:
What is inclusive leadership?
Why do we need to be intentional about inclusion?
What does inclusive leadership look like?
How can you grow your inclusive leadership skills?
“This program facilitates deeper conversations among students than other activities,” said Joelle Saad-Lessler, associate dean of undergraduate studies. “It really helps them open up.”
When the university began the process of developing its latest strategic plan, Stevens 2032, in 2019, Dominick co-chaired the task force assigned to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the school’s inclusion and belonging efforts.
“I think one of the outcomes of that initiative was an opportunity for several Board of Trustees members to express their support,” he said. “Several of them approached (Dean) Gregory (Prastacos) to say, ‘It's important to the entire university, but the School of Business is sort of an ideal place to launch some initiatives because it matters for business. It's important for business performance and making society better.’”
Dominick, Prastacos and co-leader of the initiative, Wei Zheng, associate professor and Endowed Richard R. Roscitt Chair in Leadership, began formulating different types of programming. With financial support from members of the Board, the Inclusive Leadership program was launched in the fall of 2022.
“I've been having conversations with exemplary inclusive leaders as part of my research,” Zheng said. “We used that information in designing our program, and we got a lot of input from our advisory board members who are from large companies. We bring a lot of their actual practices. For example, in meetings, how do you make sure people who are newer or who are in less senior positions have their voice be equally heard?”
What is Inclusive Leadership?
It’s hard to define ways to be inclusive without first understanding what makes people feel included and excluded. One of the small group activities during the session was for students to first individually identify those feelings before working with their team to develop a common theme. The groups were then tasked with generating some form of creative expression about what they thought inclusive leadership looks like.
The experience of collaborating with people they didn’t know and finding a way to take different points of view into consideration was one example of translating the concept of inclusive leadership into action. The students were able to see how combining their capabilities helped build trust and make everyone feel empowered to engage.
“I definitely learned a lot of interesting stuff,” said first-year student Shyam Parikh. “The importance of allowing everyone to be open-minded and able to connect with one another was probably the most important thing that I took away from this.”
Why do we need to be intentional about inclusive leadership?
Inclusion can often be thought of in terms of larger terms like race, gender, age, religion, the LGBTQ+ community, etc., but people’s identity doesn’t exist in singular boxes. To demonstrate this concept, students were asked to fill out a “social identity wheel,” that could include not only those primary categories but also things like family status, work experience and hobbies. They were then asked to choose which ones were most important, which ones other people paid the most attention to, how they might be misunderstood based on those, and what they might miss based on others’ perceived identities.
“Like the Walt Whitman poem says, we all contain multitudes,” said Zheng. “We all have multiple identities. Each of us is multicultural in ourselves. There is the danger of looking at only one identity a person has because it activates stereotypes. You have all these ‘bubbles’ that constitute who you are, and when you can see someone else’s multiple bubbles, then we can really understand a person.”
That ability to go beyond preconceived notions and get to know an individual’s perspective makes people feel good and can have advantages in real-world business operations.
“There are a lot of examples that make the business case for inclusion,” Zheng said. “One of my interviewees in my research was from a huge technology firm, and they were competing for a multimillion-dollar contract with another huge organization. The two companies were so close in terms of qualifications and expertise, but my interviewee’s company won because they showed up with a diverse team. It showed they have this diverse and inclusive culture, and they won on that.”
“And then you have invisible examples like a person at a software company talked about,” she continued. “If somebody feels they're seen and valued, they're going to contribute 100%. When people feel they are valued and their opinions count, they're going to speak up and help so if somebody detects an error in their programming, they can raise their hand and point it out earlier in the development stage versus later when the product's already on the market.”
Learning about these concepts as a first-year student helped inspire quantitative finance major Melissa Shi to be active in the program and serve as a facilitator during this year’s session. While definitely understanding the social value, she already has an understanding of how being an inclusive leader could give her an edge after graduation.
“In finance, people will be listening and pitching ideas about why you should or should not invest in something,” she explained. “I think hearing people from different backgrounds express their own experiences is definitely important as you hear these different opinions and thoughts. Invite people to talk, because if someone on a team is uncomfortable or scared to speak up and share, you may be missing out on a huge opportunity.”
Another facilitator, Kevin Pitts, director of business development at the School of Business, was able to share his own real-world example. As an actuary at a national insurance company, he noticed a job posting for a group sales position. When he approached the vice president of group benefits about entering the training program, he was initially told no because there had never been an African-American go through it and they didn’t think he could pass it.
“Two days later I get a message on my desk asking me to go back to the VP's office,” he said. “I went there, and he said, ‘Listen, we're going to take a chance on you.’ Well, I passed the program and went to the Chicago office. I wasn’t the only salesperson there, but we were the number one office, and I was one of the highest salespeople in the organization for six years.”
What does inclusive leadership look like?
You’ve already seen one example of what inclusive leadership could look like. Remember the marketing class? To help students see what issues they might not have previously thought of that would require inclusive solutions, teams were given scenarios where they had to consider things like a classmate’s caregiving responsibilities or ability to attend virtual meetings. In addition to creating answers, the students also had to consider what negative feedback they might receive and how they would address those concerns.
“It was nice to see all the different perspectives, especially in all the scenarios and group work we did,” said Allen De Sagun, a junior business and technology major who transferred to Stevens. “I like the collaboration aspect, and there were a lot of things that were worthwhile.”
The discussion around all the scenarios demonstrated how inclusive leadership can impact talent acquisition, job satisfaction, creativity, academic performance, engagement, and individual and organizational well-being. Examples of intentional actions included asking open-ended questions, embracing other’s expertise, encouraging and expressing gratitude, and speaking up if you see others being excluded.
“A few years ago we did some research about Great Place to Work Certified™ companies,” Dominick said. “Not surprisingly diversity and inclusion were high on that list of the kinds of values those companies espouse whether you're looking at it from the perspective of innovation, employee commitment, customer connection or talent development.”
How can you grow your inclusive leadership skills?
The Inclusive Leadership Program goes beyond orientation week. Students have the chance to earn an Inclusive Leadership Certificate, a non-credit program, over the course of 3-6 semesters. The three pillars of the certification include attending 25 hours of workshops, training and events, reflections on these learning and one’s experience, including developing a personal inclusive leadership statement, and a real-world contribution through an industry project, service learning project, relevant course projects, etc., that focus on inclusion in one’s specialty area.
The certification is meant to develop the six core competencies of:
Motivating a Diversity Mindset
Resolving Conflicts & Working with Difference
“We’re building the program around those six competencies,” Zheng explained. “We are building workshops around each of them, making sure they have support and learning in those six areas. One day our goal is to be able to do assessments. Can you demonstrate your competencies in terms of showing self-understanding of your values and how you can contribute?”
Whether it’s for a certification, class project or real-world application, the concept of inclusion is actually pretty simple.
“It’s important that you make people comfortable, that you let the voices of these diverse people be heard.” Shi, the student facilitator, said. “We need to include them because there is nothing more saddening than feeling excluded or being ignored because of who you are.”