“Wharton is THE place to stretch beyond your comfort zone; in time, these stretch experiences will be what defines your Wharton experience,” Kembrel repeated emphatically when we first arrived on campus last August. In many ways, we have followed Kembrel’s advice to the letter.
We both lead cultural affinity groups on campus (Aria is the president of the African-American MBA Association and Eric is the co-president of the Wharton Hispanic-American MBA Association) and helped found the Return on Equality Coalition, which seeks to make Wharton a pioneering institution that deliberately equips students to be leaders and advocates of inclusive organizational practices. We both participated in bone-chilling leadership ventures that pushed us to our physical limits.
Yet, the most difficult stretch experience we have undertaken has been the stretch experience within. As many of you already know, we are two of very few people of color in business school, and both the pipeline of potential students after us as well as senior management ahead of us remain disproportionately small. However, we felt it was important to share how our Wharton community has become an endless source of support and our launch pad, enabling us to exceed our own expectations of ourselves, as well as, be our whole selves thousands of miles away from home.
For Eric, standing in front of his peers and revealing a deeply personal story at Wharton Storytellers was a pivotal moment. Despite the frigid February night, my hands were clammy and my heart racing as I made my way to Time, the casual venue where Wharton students share important stories and lessons learned with their classmates. Earlier that day, I was so nervous that I contemplated backing out, several times. However, when I got to the stage, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming urge to be completely open, honest and free. Free from the years of shame and self-doubt I had harbored in my heart. Although I didn’t use my prepared speech, the words came freely; it was almost as if I had been preparing them my whole life. I revealed to my classmates how deeply ashamed I had felt of so many aspects of my identity: from my Mexican heritage to my family’s socioeconomic status. Following Storytellers, so many of my classmates reached out about how moved they were by my words. At Wharton, my previous insecurities have become huge sources of pride and strength—and this gave me the courage to travel the last mile on that journey by exploring and discussing my sexual orientation. For the first time in my life, I feel supported and encouraged to be my whole self. I am proud of all of me.
For Aria, it was a moment over the summer. A CNN alert flashed across her phone: “9 killed in a shooting at AME Baptist Church. Shooter identifies goal ‘to shoot black people”: I had a somber day at work that day—it was hard to go about business as usual. I felt a fierce sense of urgency about how much needs to be done to make the world a more equal and just place, and I felt that the event could not go unmentioned. I wrote a letter to the Wharton student body, calling people to action: if you were a business leader in Charleston, what would you do? How would you react? What responsibility would you feel to channel the power of the private sector toward societal change? By the end of the day, I had over 50 responses in my inbox—a testament to a culture that supports dialogue on tough issues, a willingness to share diverse perspectives, and, most importantly, care and compassion for the people around us.
We know diversity matters—to everyone. Studies have shown that diversity promotes sharper thinking for people in both minority and majority groups. McKinsey & Company found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. However, diversity isn’t just a bunch of different kinds of people in the same room; rather, diversity is when every voice is heard at an equal decibel.
Creating such a room takes an incredible amount of work, reflection and vulnerability. More importantly, it requires the courage to ask probing questions. Otherwise, we stay surface-level, and presidential candidate Trump’s hateful speech, protests at Mizzou and Yale, and acts of violence in France and across the Middle East affect each of us differently, and we never gain a full understanding of how they impact the way our communities form and function. These events are fruits from the same tree, whose roots lie in marginalization—a system that will self-perpetuate until we can learn how to fully understand each other.
Wharton provides the space to practice and engage. To ask pointed questions and have tough conversations. Wharton is where you can discuss your dreams on top of a mountain, share your fears on the ski slopes, and beat the s*** out of someone at Fight Night (or get beat up—either way, you’ll learn from it!).
Over the course of your two years, you will learn about your classmates’ identities and experiences as well as share your own vulnerabilities and goals. In the process, you’ll step into a better version of yourself as well as help your classmates do the same.
Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Those who came before you at Wharton have worked hard to make this a place where you can tell your whole story, no holds barred. Now, our Wharton days are numbered—and it’s up to you to continue that legacy.
As you travel to other Welcome Weekends and other schools try to woo you—ask yourself if the space is one in which you can be your full and authentic self. The way we see it, this is the essential function of business school; accepting who you are, standing in your power, and reaching out to grab what’s next. Come, make your mark.