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A Voice for the Voiceless: Using an MBA as a Force for Good

Nsombi Ricketts’ career has been anything but linear.

She went from earning a bachelor’s degree in education and social policy, to working at organizations such as The Princeton Review and Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, to earning an MBA and working as a marketing manager, then manager of diverse talent acquisition at American Express. Now the inaugural vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. — where she leads the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — Ricketts can say she is following her passion. A claim not many can make.

Nsombi Ricketts

Her passion — diversity, access and inclusion — has been the one thread throughout all of her professional life. But while it took Ricketts a while to find her true calling, The Consortium alumna of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School says that all of her experiences, including earning her MBA and working in corporate America, have aided her in the long run.

With the knowledge she gained in business school and the industry, Ricketts gained a solid foundation from which to jump into higher education and, specifically, diverse student recruitment. An area in which she’s been highly successful.

In her previous role at The Graduate School at Northwestern University, she developed and led a strategy that resulted in the most diverse PhD class in the school’s history. Prior to that, at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, she helped recruit the school’s most diverse MBA class ever.

We recently spoke with Ricketts about her passion for diversity and inclusion, her decision to get an MBA and the differences and similarities between higher education and corporate America.

When you were in undergrad, majoring in education and social policy, what field or career did you want to go into?

I was one of those students who changed their interests several times in undergrad, and I kept switching majors as my interests changed. I eventually decided on the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern because it had a very practical focus. You had to do a practicum before you graduated, where you worked at an organization for an academic quarter, which allowed you to gain real work experience.

Initially, I was focusing on management consulting and then became more interested in psychological services; I had an interest in social work or being a psychologist. I did my summer practicum at the Sunnydale Housing Development in San Francisco with the Girls After School Academy and worked with low-income, high-risk pre-teen to teenage girls. The experience was illuminating, and I gained a greater understanding of the societal challenges that affect low-income and underrepresented minority populations, but it also made me think about wanting to make an impact at a larger level.

The practicum shifted my interest from being a social worker or psychologist, and working individually with people, to working on a broader level on issues of diversity, inclusion and access.

How did your passion for diversity, inclusion and access carry over into your early professional life and throughout business school?

My earlier professional roles were a mix of human resources (HR) and marketing. It was in my role at Kaplan that I had more agency to implement what would be considered a multicultural marketing strategy, or diversity strategy — trying to engage populations that typically don’t have access to test prep, finding ways to make test prep affordable for those populations and doing presentations in different languages for communities that typically wouldn’t know about test preparation. I think that’s where — professionally — diversity and inclusion started to become a focus for me; it was also solidified in business school when I was much more of a leader on campus than in undergrad, because I had to work a lot during college.

In business school, I had the Consortium fellowship, which made me think about what I was going to do individually to advance diversity and inclusion as a fellow and a Consortium liaison. Also, at the time, our school was dealing with a lot of diversity challenges and issues, so I ran for president of the Goizueta Black MBA Association. In this role, I worked with the administration on requests from students to appoint a director of diversity and community initiatives and to increase the number of diverse MBA students. As a group, we also created Goizueta’s Diverse Leadership Conference to educate the community on the benefits and advantages of diversity and inclusion.

When I started at Emory, it was ranked the No. 1 business school in leadership, so a lot of the conversation on campus was about “What legacy are you going to leave here? How are you going to lead here?” So I felt that I could have the most impact on diversity and inclusion, and I really became a leader in this work as an MBA student.

What inspired you to go to business school?

My interest in business school started when I worked at Kaplan. That’s where I first heard about The Consortium — from one of the tutors at Kaplan who worked with a lot of students to get the GMAT scores they needed to be competitive for The Consortium fellowship. I also looked at Kaplan leadership and noticed that several people had MBAs, and I began to discover the versatility of the MBA degree.

I previously had a very narrow vision of what an MBA was and what it could do. I learned at Kaplan that business education is really learning about organizations, leadership and management — so you can use it to go in any direction.

Prior to this, I was still on the psychology track and had taken the GRE to apply to PhD programs. However, an MBA program was much shorter, and I thought about the better return on investment of doing an MBA as opposed to a PhD. I also wanted a degree that was always going to be relevant. So, I took the GMAT and applied to business school through The Consortium.

What prompted your move from corporate into higher education?

During business school, I was a summer marketing intern at American Express. I was splitting my time between doing the internship and planning the first diverse leadership conference at Emory. It was almost like two full-time jobs.

I completed my internship and got the offer to return after graduation, but when I came back in a full-time marketing role, I was volunteering all the time to help with diverse talent acquisition — going to The Consortium’s Orientation Program and to National Black MBA Association and National Society of Hispanic MBAs conferences to recruit diverse candidates for American Express. Even though I was working full time in my marketing role, I was spending so much time volunteering and supporting diversity efforts that when a full-time position opened in HR in diverse talent acquisition, I asked my manager for permission to leave my role after only one year to apply. I knew this work was my passion, and it was the perfect opportunity to transition to doing diversity and inclusion work full time.

I was in that role for about a year and a half before the financial crisis of 2008 hit, and that changed everything. In my transition from American Express, I did a lot of soul searching and thought about whether I wanted to stay in diversity, go back to marketing or just do general HR.

A coach I had at the time asked me what I would do for free, and initially, I said nothing — but it wasn’t true. He reminded me about all the diversity and inclusion work I had volunteered to do in business school because I cared and wanted to make a difference. That’s when I decided that I was going to only pursue diversity and inclusion opportunities.

I applied for a lot of different higher education and nonprofit roles and finally got the position as director of diversity and inclusion at Cornell University. 

You have worked in diverse talent acquisition and recruiting in both corporate and higher education, achieving impressive results at both Cornell University and Northwestern University. How did your experience with The Consortium, earning your MBA and working in corporate America help you?

At Cornell, I came into that role with a lot of knowledge from being a former Consortium student and liaison. Johnson had just become a Consortium member school, and the relationships I made during my time at American Express were very advantageous. I was able to partner with several companies and alumni to financially support recruitment efforts, diversity weekends and women’s weekends on campus. I think my strategy, which comes from business school, has always been to assess the landscape, do competitive benchmarking and leverage best practices to figure out where the gaps are and how to fill them.

So at both Cornell and Northwestern, we eventually doubled the number of recruitment events and pipelines we participated in, which led to those historic recruitment numbers.

But, it’s about more than just showing up at events and getting some names. It was about building relationships with those candidates, being there for them when they had questions, being a resource to them throughout the application process and having authentic conversations about what it would be like to be a diverse student at those schools. So it was a change in strategy in terms of where we recruited and what pipelines we were a part of, but it was also continuing to engage and always following up — which is what I learned from my mentors at American Express.

Are many of the strategies for recruiting diverse talent the same or similar in higher education and corporate?

I think diversity recruiting always boils down to relationship-building and having really strong pipelines of talent. That’s the same whether it’s at a company or an academic institution. So, what organizations are you working with — such as The Consortium — to ensure that continued pipeline of talent? It’s also thinking about the environment you’re bringing diverse candidates into and whether that environment is going to be supportive and inclusive. On the academic side, having sufficient financial aid and scholarship funding to attract top diverse candidates is also essential.

So, I think that the populations are different, but the principles are the same, and it just requires continued effort, strategic focus and financial investment to be successful.

What have you learned along the way in your career?

My career has taken a lot of unique twists that have led me to my current position. Because of this, I have learned to be open to new experiences and opportunities that are out of my comfort zone. And I continue to invest in my leadership and professional development so that I am always prepared for my next role.

I’ve also learned to be very intentional about networking and relationship-building because you just don’t know when people are going to show up in your story and what role they’re going to play. I never thought when I was in business school that I would wind up on The Consortium Board of Trustees with colleagues I met years before at Consortium recruiting events.

Impressions matter, the connections you build with people matter, and you always have to be mindful of that. Such connections can also lead to great opportunities through mentors and sponsors.

How has the business acumen you gained from your MBA helped you in your professional roles in higher education?

I’m always the person in the room asking about the return on investment or questioning why we are doing something. I also have a relentless focus on results. I think that has helped me move up in higher education very quickly. I went from director to senior director to assistant dean to assistant provost to vice president in about eight and a half years, which is not typical for someone without a PhD who didn’t start their career in higher education.

Getting an MBA fueled my ambition and my drive to very quickly prove my worth. My corporate experience taught me to navigate organizations to make decisions, solve problems and get things done as efficiently as possible. I also push myself to start every role with very clear goals about what I want to accomplish in year one, year two, year three. So I came into higher education with a different perspective that has been very beneficial in advancing diversity and inclusion.

What has been your driving force throughout your career?

I’ve always tried to make my mark and leave organizations better than I found them. I’m someone who is really good at coming in and fixing what’s broken — looking at what’s not working and what can be implemented to improve results.

My parents are both Jamaican immigrants. They have always stressed that I have to work really hard to be successful and to fight for what I believe in. So I work extremely hard and try to do my best to make them proud.

Access and support for underrepresented minorities is really important to me. I have always tried to put policies and programs in place that are going to increase our numbers and improve our experiences at various institutions.

My goal is to not just leave a legacy, but to create a foundation that won’t crumble when I leave — like the conference I started at Emory and the programs I implemented at Cornell and Northwestern that are still having an impact.

I’ve always felt a personal responsibility and strong motivation to do this work; it probably comes from my parents.

With access, diversity and inclusion being your area of focus?

Yes — wanting to be a voice for the voiceless.

As someone who has a few different underrepresented identities, I have always fought for those voices to be heard, for people who are underrepresented to be seen, valued and included.

What do you enjoy most about your current position? What is your ultimate career goal?

My ultimate career goal was to get to the role I have now. Every step I’ve taken, from that first switch into diversity at American Express in 2007, has been to become a chief diversity officer (CDO). It actually happened earlier than I thought it would, so I’m not sure what will be next.

As Pratt’s vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, I enjoy working closely with our president and serving as a senior leader of our institution. I also love the variety of diversity, equity and inclusion work, because no matter how much you plan, no day is ever the same. This work constantly forces you to think outside of the box, learn something new and be a creative problem solver. It really utilizes a lot of the skills I learned during business school.

A business mindset is helpful in an academic CDO role because you need to effectively impact the entire institution. You’re working with HR, communications and marketing, admissions, student services, academic programs, advancement, finance and information technology — basically every part of the organization — to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. It is very much aligned with what you learn in business school about leadership, influencing without authority and relationship-building.

I’m blessed and fortunate to have the job that I have. I get to make a difference and improve access for diverse students, faculty, staff, alumni and community partners every day. Diversity, equity and inclusion will always be hard and emotional work, but it’s very rewarding.

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