Roused by recent racial injustices, including the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and other members of the black community, a group of Consortium MBAs felt compelled to act. Together, they launched a fundraising initiative to support the work of the nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change to strengthen the voice of Black Americans.
This effort is being led by Harshita Pilla, an incoming first-year MBA at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business; Lauren Abu Ouf, a second-year MBA at Michigan Ross; and Cagney Spears, a second-year MBA at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School. After launching the campaign the first week of June, they quickly exceeded their initial $20,000 goal and have since set their sights higher. (To contribute, click here.)
Pilla, Abu Ouf and Spears recently discussed with The Consortium their motivation and goals for the campaign and how they’ve worked to pull it off.
How did this campaign come together, and what inspired you to lead this effort?
Lauren: After seeing events unfold over the past few weeks, starting with Amy Cooper’s 911 call in Central Park, followed by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police a few days later, there was a strong motivation around what we could do as a Consortium community to respond.
We have a group chat with all of the 2021 liaisons, and I reached out to see if anyone was interested in doing a fundraiser in response. Cagney, representing Simon Business School, was one of the first 2021 liaisons who expressed interest in joining the planning committee. I then received a message from Whitney Pollard , a student in the class of 2022, who mentioned that the Class of 2022 was working on a similar initiative. She introduced me to Harshita, and we realized we were both at the same stage of planning at the same time, so it made sense to combine efforts.
Harshita: I think everyone in our group and the country was stirred by these acts of injustice. I can speak for myself in saying that I was feeling pretty helpless given the situation. I felt really dejected, but I knew that I could reach out to this Consortium community that I was just getting acquainted with as I started my MBA journey. Within our Consortium group chat, lots of people were speaking up about how they were feeling. We were all looking for ways to do something, to act and respond to the situation, so I saw an opportunity to band together. I posted a message saying, “Hey, is anyone interested in a strength in numbers strategy where we launch a fundraiser together instead of everyone doing this on their own?” I got a lot of immediate responses, and within hours, I was connected with Lauren who had already been thinking about this.
Cagney: I had a similar feeling of helplessness, as well as a feeling of anger and frustration, and I wanted to funnel that into action using my Consortium network. It was like, “OK, how can we as MBA students say that we hear and care about what’s happening and try to effect change immediately? What can we do right now? What organizations can we partner with?”
Tell me about the goal of the campaign. How have the goal posts or your strategy shifted?
Harshita: The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness, primarily, and give people a way to contribute to something that’s happening right now. I know that a lot of people, like we mentioned, were feeling helpless and angered and didn’t know how to direct their time or their resources. We started the campaign with a $20,000 goal to encourage a collective effort and provide a place where people can donate their resources. Now, as the goal has been met twofold — which is amazing — we’re trying to think long term about our strategy of being a hub for resources. There is a wealth of information that has been shared over the past few weeks and will continue to be. We are looking at a more sustainable fundraising strategy while also looking into how people can donate their time later on.
Lauren: Harshita, thank you for raising that point about awareness. I can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve had on campus where students are just not aware of some of the issues that black communities face and how that impacts the black students on campus. One of the reasons why we picked Color of Change for our fundraiser is because the organization tackles injustices across many sectors and is a robust platform for organizing issues around economic justice, criminal justice and the underrepresentation of black talent in corporate America.
Building on our original goal of $20,000, our new goal is to raise $100,000 during the month of June. That is a big, aggressive goal, but if I’ve learned anything in business school it’s that you have to aim high and think big.
Cagney: Originally, it was Consortium schools coming together trying to raise awareness, but then, after we hit our goal, it was like, “OK, how can we really engage with these other MBA programs through other networks that we are a part of, and how can we [do] this on a larger scale?” Here at Simon, I shared the fundraiser with our Consortium chat, then our recruiters in admissions and our president of the Graduate Business Council; she sent it to the entire school — the entire faculty, staff and students in the class of 2020, 2021 and 2022 — to get more engagement around the campaign.
I also posted it on my LinkedIn. For some of our classmates who want to be allies, that gave them the opportunity to do check-ins: “How are you doing? How can I help? Other than posting it on our stories, what can we do?” I think that was the goal of this. We want to reach $100,000, but we also want to engage with everyone so that this can be a conversation that continues. It’s not something that once we meet our goal, it’s one and done. How are we ensuring that this campaign starts conversations that can truly effect change at our universities on a larger scale and once we enter the workforce?
What went into your decision of what organization to support through this effort? Why did you select the organization that you did, Color of Change?
Lauren: Color of Change is an online social justice organization that puts pressure on governments and corporations to address some of the issues facing black America that don’t always rise to national consciousness. They call out and mobilize people through petitions or advocacy work to promote legislation that affects the lives of black Americans. So, we felt it was a good organization to target because their work applies not only to what’s happening on the ground right now but to thinking long term as an educational tool — giving people, one, awareness of what’s happening and, two, an action step; they can sign a petition, or they can donate. There’s a strong call to action in their messaging.
Harshita: The only thing that I would add to that is that Color of Change provides a platform for discussions on how to be better businesses. Their push for getting Zoom’s chief diversity officer in place was huge, and it was very timely and important, especially given how big Zoom is as a COVID resource.
At this time, we need to see clear examples of black leadership. Supporting an organization that not only provides a platform for petitions and organizing for black lives but is also a place where we can talk about how to be better businesses made a lot of sense to us as Consortium students.
How have you gotten the word out about the fundraiser and worked to achieve your goal?
Cagney: Originally, it involved just reaching out and posting things on the group chat’s that we are a part of, so The Consortium GroupMe ’21 and the Consortium GroupMe ’22, and then using our networks. Lauren and I are part of Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), so we posted in our MLT ’21 chat. It was really everyone who’s part of the fundraising committee posting to their chats, their social media, any networks that they have, as well as using Consortium liaisons to get the word out to people who might not be on the committee. Then we reached out to the women’s organizations and the Black Business Student Associations (BBSAs) at large to get the word out.
Lauren: In addition to being a Consortium liaison, I’m involved in the leadership here at Ross in the BBSA. I’m starting to talk to BBSA leadership across other non-Consortium schools about what action steps they are asking their students to take. If they want to donate to an organization, we’re letting them know that this fundraiser exists to see if we can get other MBAs to be a part of it.
Harshita: The last thing I would add is, as an incoming ’22, we are still trying to understand the depth of these communities that we’re now a part of. It’s been an amazing thing to watch unfold. All of these incoming students are extremely excited and energized about not only being part of The Consortium but about pushing businesses and corporate America to be better. I definitely did not anticipate so much camaraderie prior to the Orientation Program & Career Forum (OP); I didn’t know that our community would be able to band together so quickly.
Within the class of 2022, our methods for communicating this fundraiser have been primarily via our GroupMe. We have used this platform to reach all of the ’22s and galvanize as many of them as possible to donate. I’ve been happy to see so many people sharing and actively following these efforts. I’ve never met them before, but we’re already so connected. I think the fact that this effort involves multiple Consortium classes is why this campaign is so strong right now.
How many schools have joined in this effort? How much have you raised thus far?
Lauren: Seven schools are primarily highlighted within the planning team, but we have reached out to The Consortium through our liaison network, so communications have traveled throughout the 20 schools that are part of The Consortium member network.
We just exceeded $50,000, with over 1,000 individual contributions.
On the donate page, you mention that you will be sharing educational resources and that you have additional plans to help these efforts endure. Can you tell me more about these plans?
Cagney: As of right now, we’re centered around education, so we’re using social media to provide education around Color of Change — what the organization is, what their pillars are, how they’re pushing the needle forward. We want to use the momentum we have and the ability to galvanize everyone to see how we can continue this in the long term so that this isn’t something that we’re just doing now because there’s all this attention around what’s going on.
What would you say to someone who is considering donating to the cause? What about those who want to help but may not have the funds to do so at this time?
Lauren: We always ask people to consider donating if they have the means, but we understand that we are in a very interesting economic climate right now and that may not be the best way they can help. I don’t think that you have to donate in order to show that you care. I would like to clarify that for people who feel that’s the only way they can make meaningful change. Self-education is huge. This is a platform by which people can do that. Take action steps like signing a petition or sharing on social media — that is also contributing to the cause. For those who are able to contribute, that is great, but otherwise, there are plenty of opportunities to help through Color of Change.
Harshita: The only thing that I would add is that if people are on the edge in terms of whether or not they should donate, yes, our goal is to raise a certain amount of money, but the overarching goal is to give people a way to donate anything that they have, whether that’s five minutes to read the fundraiser page itself or to visit the Color of Change website. We’re just trying to provide assistance for people to get from point A to point B, because it [can be] really confusing [understanding] how to show support as well as really overwhelming. I think the fact that 1,000-plus people have already donated to this means that people have looked at the website, people have read something and learned something that perhaps they didn’t know 24 hours ago. I think that is a win in and of itself.
Overall, what impact do you hope to have through this campaign or other efforts?
Cagney: I feel like the biggest goal of this is to provide people with education around what people of color, particularly black people, have been experiencing for years and how to be an effective ally, how to simply check in. There has been so much conversation amongst our class around what actions we can take to hold our schools accountable. What are other things that we can do that can hold this institution accountable for the mission that they promised to uphold by joining The Consortium? It’s not just about admitting us and providing funding; it’s also about when we get to campus, what do we see, what kind of cases are we reading, and are we educating everyone around the mission and the purpose of The Consortium? I look at this as a starting point for really effecting change in the MBA world.
When I think about what I would want my kids to experience if they decide to get an MBA, it’s “Are there black and brown people who are educating you? What cases are you reading? Are the cases that you’re reading around equality and what happened in 2020, 20 something years from now?” That’s my mission, now that I have this fire inside of me. How do I carry this into the workplace to effect the change that I want to see there? We need to be educating people who may not understand [on] how to go into the workforce and be a true ally.
Lauren: I think it’s twofold. First, being more intentional about the opportunity that The Consortium offers us and how we use that to create the change that we want to see. This campaign is a great example of how we not only came together very quickly but of how powerful this network is. I think there’s a lot to learn, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have something that can bring us together besides the OP experience long after we graduate.
I feel like there’s more openness to have these conversations now, and I think this is a moment where we’re practicing to be the leaders we want to see in the corporate world — to echo what Cagney said, how to be a good ally in the workplace, how to speak up, how to avoid being a bystander when you see something out of place and really take a stand on what values we have going into the workforce. I’m proud that this campaign was started by Consortium members. We’re rising to the occasion, and it’s a great thing to be a part of.
Harshita: I think Lauren and Cagney really eloquently summed that up. My personal goal in this is continuing on in my journey to be a good ally. I know there are a lot of students like me who are itching for ways to be supportive and be valuable allies to our black community, and I’m excited to continue that journey here in business school.
I think The Consortium provides a wonderful, almost self-selected group of people who already are invested in advancing diversity within the world of business. The most impactful thing to me so far in this process has been seeing how much people truly care and want to create space for conversation to discuss what effective allyship looks like and how we can support one another. I’m excited to grow alongside my peers in The Consortium and at Ross, as well as carry that over throughout the rest of my career and my personal life.
To learn more about this Color of Change fundraising campaign or to donate, click here.