Established in 1916, Columbia Business School is known for not only being one of the oldest business schools in the world but also one with a long legacy of inclusion. Its inaugural class of 61 students included eight women, and in 1923, the school welcomed the first African American woman, Theodora Fonteneau Rutherford — decades before other business schools would do the same.
In the century since its founding, the school has continued to progress and, in the last few years, under the leadership of Dean Costis Maglaras, has become more intentional around inclusion and belonging. In addition to dedicating more resources for diversity, equity and inclusion — including new senior leadership roles — Columbia Business School joined The Consortium as its 21st member school in the summer of 2021, seizing on the opportunity presented by the nationwide reckoning around race.
“If you think about the protests and demonstrations in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, those were the largest in American history. So, there’s a window of opportunity to make real progress now,” says Michael Robinson, senior director of MBA admissions at Columbia Business School and Consortium board member. “It’s one thing to say something because it sounds good — to largely be performative — but far more important is what you do to demonstrate that you are putting your money where your mouth is.”
Joining forces with The Consortium is one way that Columbia Business School is doing this, as it moves with greater intention in turning conversations into action. In the classroom, this is translating to teaching students how to lead during these times of great social change. “This intersection of business and society and the big questions that we are tackling with greater urgency under Dean Maglaras [are designed] to move beyond conversations about racial reckoning to creating more systemic responses that lead to action,” Robinson says.
Perhaps the person most responsible for inspiring Columbia Business School’s recent efforts to produce inclusive leaders better prepared to tackle these issues was Professor Katherine “Kathy” Phillips, a diversity pioneer and leader at the school. “She was the first African American woman to become a tenured professor at Columbia Business School, in 2011,” Robinson says. “Sadly, Kathy died in January 2019 from breast cancer.”
An advocate for “pouring love into others,” Phillips was known for her empowering approach to driving change.
“She would often say, ‘I own Columbia Business School’ — and I think that’s important,” Robinson says, “because too many people, when we have these conversations about marginalized people, only see black and brown people as the victims, which is not the way I think change happens. Change happens when you declare, ‘No, we believe in our agency and power to drive this change, to make this world better. Or, as Maya Angelou once said much more eloquently, ‘You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.’”
Although no longer here, Phillips and her legacy live on at Columbia Business School through the Phillips Pathway for Inclusive Leadership. This unique co-curricular program is designed to help students understand and appreciate the inherent value in diversity and inclusion. It’s part of the school’s effort to prepare its students to be inclusive and ethical leaders, and all full-time MBA students are enrolled in the community-wide mandate.
“Being an inclusive leader is something that you earn every day,” Robinson says. “‘Was I an inclusive leader today? Did I stand up to protect or help someone who was being marginalized at the time, or was being shut down in a meeting because of some aspect of their identity? Am I expanding opportunities for that person?’ That’s a daily thing — it’s a pathway.”
He credits Phillips with helping spark Columbia Business School’s interest in joining The Consortium. A believer in the idea that more diversity at the table results in more meaningful change, Robinson is optimistic about what will come of the school’s new partnership with other like-minded top-tier business schools.
“It’s difficult to make the pie bigger and enhance opportunity as a single institution. So, one of the things about joining The Consortium is that it helps expose the Columbia Business School story to more people who are thinking about leadership and the MBA,” he says. “I also believe in the wisdom of crowds, and with all the schools, 21 schools all together working to enhance the pie, I think it’s better for all of us — we all win.”
Robinson admits that although the work will be challenging and the path perhaps long, he believes Columbia Business School is moving in the right direction. And he hopes students and alumni will do their part by holding the school accountable.
“It’s going to be hard, but I am more excited than I’ve been in many years because I think we have a chance to be more transformative as a school,” he says. “We don’t have all the answers, but I like the questions that we are asking.”