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Is HBS Really That Diverse?

On the face of it, HBS appears extremely diverse. But how truly diverse is HBS, anyhow?

During my first week at HBS, I was amazed at how many people I had met from all around the world. Prior classmates cautioned that I would enter the “most diverse place I would ever encounter,” and my initial interactions with students seemed to confirm this.

But now in my third year at HBS, the allure has faded.

HBS really is not the diverse, all-encompassing melting pot that many purport it to be.

There is a world outside the HBS bubble and believe it or not, the world looks nothing like HBS. We must be realistic about our diversity if we are serious about making a difference in the world. Otherwise, we’re just fooling ourselves.

Upon some reflection, I’d like to present several areas where HBS lacks diversity.

Economic diversity
Although some may deny it, HBS students are highly privileged. This is no secret and although there may be instances where a student grew up in low-income or humble circumstances, this is more the exception than the rule. Let me provide two short examples to illustrate this point.

Example 1
One Western Avenue garage, where there is no shortage of imports and German engineering. During my first year at HBS, I was especially surprised to discover an Aston Martin in the underground student parking garage. Thinking it was just a visitor in the Executive Education program, I did not think much of it until I discovered that the car belonged to a student from Spain! In fact, two of my very own international section mates purchased cars upon arrival to HBS, both in cash of course.

Example 2
Whenever I meet someone from Houston, one of the first things that comes up is where we grew up. Nine times out of ten, the HBS student in question answers that he/she grew up in a wealthy suburb or a wealthy pocket of central Houston. Of course, they also attended prestigious high schools that cost more than the average college/university. This does not occur only in Houston but also in other cities where HBS students call home.

This disparity in upbringing is especially accentuated amongst our international students. As a friend of mine once said of HBS, “the only middle class kids are the Americans.”

Geographic diversity
The HBS class profile shows that approximately 35% of students are ‘international,’ which sounds like a pretty significant percentage of the student body. I must admit, the accents and well-traveled HBS crowd was very enticing during the initial weeks of my RC year.

After a few months, however, the stark reality of the ‘international’ crowd hit me square in the face. Soon, I realized an individual’s country of origin had little to do with his or her mentality, belief systems, and outlook on life. Many of the students I met from the ‘developing world,’ for instance, had not actually lived in their home countries since high school. Instead, these ‘international’ students went to boarding school in the U.S., then an Ivy League, then worked in Manhattan, then applied to HBS.

There is nothing wrong with going to school and working abroad (personally, I did just that on three separate occasions), but the reality is that a student’s country of birth does not actually mean he or she represents a particular country. I still recall to this day how at least 3 or 4 students in my section were cold-called throughout our BGIE course to represent a particular country or region, despite having little current knowledge of the particular issue under discussion.

Intra-group diversity
Despite representation from various regions of the world, the intra-group diversity of particular regions is quite low. Among students from Asia, for example, a class card search reveals only one student that lists Indonesia as his home country. This is despite the fact that Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world behind China, India and the United States.

As another example, many comment that South Asians are over-represented at HBS. Only two students call Bangladesh home, however, despite it being the seventh most populous country in the world with over 150M inhabitants.

Interestingly, all three of the students mentioned above went to college in the United States (please reference the geographic diversity section above).

Experience diversity
Let’s face it – an overwhelming number of us worked in either the consulting or financial services industry. At last count, HBS reports that at least two-thirds of students worked in either industry. Not only do an overwhelming number of students work in these two industries, they worked in a handful of firms that represented these industries (e.g. McKinsey, Morgan Stanley, etc.).

This lack of experience diversity becomes especially clear when you hear of someone who actually did something outside of the HBS norm prior to business school. Last semester, for example, a friend mentioned that he worked as a process engineer inside an industrial carpet manufacturer. After a discussion of his working environment and the types of people he interacted with day in and day out (non-college graduates), the several of us listening were at a loss of words. The truth is that we could not relate to his experience because it was so completely out of the realm of our own experiences.

How to overcome non-diversity.
The question now becomes, what do we do about HBS’s homogenous population of Type-A, over-achieving, cookie-cutter students?

First, I think we must get out, explore the world around us and interact with more people that may not be exactly like us. Year after year, I hear the fundamental shortfall of recent HBS graduates – their inability to effectively lead and inspire people within their companies. I’m going out on a limb here, but perhaps this inability to interact with the non-HBS student is due to the fact that we have all been crammed into stage-like amphitheatres for 80 minutes at a time for the past 2 years.

Secondly, I believe HBS should explicitly try to recruit a student body that is more representative of the true status of the world around us. Harvard University, for instance, has recently tried to diversify its student body along economic lines by offering a scaling financial aid package that offers free tuition for students from families making less than $60K per year. Last I heard, HBS was not offering a similar deal to stellar applicants from humble backgrounds.

Last, I believe we must face the blunt reality that we exist in an environment that is truly not reflective of the world around us. The vast majority of us, for instance, will leave HBS with six figure incomes (if we believe the data furnished yearly and broadcasted by our very own Career Services department). This puts us in the top 5% of the income distribution of all wage earners in the United States. This means that we will exist at the far right tail of the U.S. wage distribution (and the far, far, far right tail of a worldwide wage distribution). The sooner we realize this, the softer the landing will be once we go back out into the real world and interact with individuals outside of the HBS bubble.

HBS tries to “educate leaders that make a difference in the world.” As these potential leaders, the least we can do is recognize that we are not at all representative of the real world beyond the plush grounds of Harvard Business School.

January 20, 2009
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