Inspired by their own educational experiences and having witnessed the disparity between others’ and their own, Consortium alumni Scott Lan and Alaina Flowers are working to be part of the solution.
Lan, a 2014 graduate of the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business, is providing low-income, first-generation students with the tools they need to succeed as site director for the Bay Area for nonprofit educational accelerator Braven. A 2015 alum of Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), Flowers is founder and CEO of leadership coaching firm Manager in Demand, through which she is paving the way for underrepresented minorities to have the same career advancement opportunities as their white peers.
For both Flowers and Lan, much of their work stems from a commitment to fairness and a sense of obligation to those who lack access to exceptional educational and professional opportunities.
“I am a person who can’t sit by and see a problem, especially something that’s important to me, and not do anything; that’s never really been my nature,” Flowers says. “My nature is always to say, ‘That’s a problem. Am I a person who has a skill set that I can lend to this problem to solve it? I am. Is this something that is important to me? Yes. So here is my plan for doing something about it.’”
Empowering Youth to Succeed
Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago in a middle class household, Lan says his parents instilled in him the value of education from a young age. As such, he attended one of the best school districts in the area.
“It was always a given in my household that I would go to college,” he says. “There was no other choice. It was, ‘You finish high school, you go to college, you work hard and you get a good job.’” So, Lan went to college and studied business economics with hopes of going into business consulting. First, however, he felt drawn to give back. “I felt like, at the very least, I could spend a couple of years and experience what it’s like to give back to the community,” says Lan.
It was through his time in Teach For America (TFA) — teaching 6th grade math and science to kids in South Los Angeles — that he realized his educational experience was not necessarily the norm. The school he taught at barely had a working computer, let alone a computer lab, and students often had to share textbooks.
“Some of my classes were overcrowded; I had 42 students in one class, and I only had 30 seats, so students had to stand or sit on the floor,” says Lan. “As a kid, this was just not a thing where I went to school. We always had a textbook, we had a computer lab, and I always had my own seat. It was just so clear to me that this wasn’t fair. The only difference was that they were growing up in a different zip code.”
The experience was life-changing for Lan, who ultimately decided to merge his long-time interest in business with his new passion for education. “My plan at the time was to teach for a couple of years and then go back to consulting, but TFA changed everything for me,” he says. “I ended up loving teaching – and my students – and I really got to see firsthand the inequities that exist in our nation’s public education system.”
He began consulting with institutions such as Milwaukee Public Schools, followed by Oakland Unified School District, assisting with human capital initiatives focused on talent/performance management and district transformation. But with a desire to hone his business skills, Lan decided to pursue his MBA, and as a fellow of The Consortium, was able to do so at USC Marshall.
Selected as a Broad Resident, he served as the director of business strategy at the largest charter management organization in Los Angeles for some time before launching his own nonprofit — when, he says, his desire to merge business and education truly came to fruition. An empowerment program for low-income and first-generation youth, Achieving Results by Overcoming Obstacles was designed to teach students how to persevere in order to tackle life’s challenges, achieve their goals and reach their full potential — all through the sport of obstacle course racing.
“It was a metaphor for life and the challenges they were going to face in the future,” says Lan. “The hope was that by accomplishing something so big, when they would encounter these challenges in the future — whether that be in high school or college — they would say, ‘Hey this is tough, but I completed a 10K or a half marathon with all of these obstacles. If I can do that, I can do this.’”
Now, with the foundational knowledge and skill set provided by his MBA — communication and project and stakeholder management — Lan continues to pursue his passions in his current role as site director for Braven Bay Area. The organization ensures that low-income, first-generation students have access to the skills, tools and networks they need to succeed — i.e., secure internships and ultimately a strong first job out of college.
“We partner with San Jose State University on our accelerator course,” says Lan, who oversees the entire program experience. “We start off by having them tell their unique story. That leads into updating and crafting an excellent resume. Then, they learn about cover letters and networking, and they learn how to perform interviews through our mock interview nights,” he says. “Then, the last one-third of the course, they do a design thinking challenge. We partner with a local company, and they pose questions to our students. It’s a very intense, real-world project that they can then translate to an experience they can put on their resume.”
Ensuring Opportunities for Advancement
For Flowers, the experience of coming up through the public school system in Detroit instilled in her a life-long desire to ensure that people from underrepresented minorities have access to the same opportunities as their white peers.
“I attended Detroit public schools for my whole life — where I was a Black kid growing up in a very Black city, in a very Black public school district, with lots of Black teachers,” Flowers says. “They told us growing up that education was the great equalizer. So, if we just worked hard, then we would be able to achieve anything we wanted to achieve.”
So that’s what Flowers did. “I put everything into schooling and worked really hard to get scholarships so I could go to college and be a first-generation college student in my family,” she says. Flowers went on to study business at Wayne State University — surrounded by a majority of white students — an experience she describes as a “culture shock.”
Feeling as if education had done so much for her, she decided – like Lan – to join TFA. The experience took her to Dallas, where she taught high school math. But, despite her efforts to prepare her students for the real world, she found herself struggling. “I just couldn’t handle the fact that I was an educator preparing kids for opportunities that they would unfairly be denied,” Flowers says.
So, with a desire to do more, Flowers made the decision to get an MBA, which she did as a member of The Consortium at WashU. The next few years, she worked as a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultant in the San Francisco Bay area, at a boutique DEI consulting firm, where she worked with companies in and outside of Silicon Valley on organizational culture and the employee life cycle with a DEI lens.
“Everywhere I went, I heard the same thing repeated over and over again about the pipeline problem. There were a lot of conversations about that, but the solutions, I feel like, were a little shortsighted,” says Flowers. “They missed the piece that frontline managers actually have the greatest impact on the employee experience. They are the ones who are making the hiring decisions; they are the ones who are creating the team culture.”
Compelled to fill what she saw as a gaping hole — and believing that the problem wasn’t, in fact, a lack of talent — Flowers, equipped with the skills from her MBA, decided to tap her entrepreneurial side. Inspired by her grandmother, who worked from home as a seamstress, she had been interested in entrepreneurship from a young age.
“I saw entrepreneurship as a pathway to do lots of other things that I wanted to do with my life, including getting out of poverty,” says Flowers. “I knew that I wanted a different life than the kind of life that I was exposed to growing up and to be able to have opportunities that people around me didn’t necessarily have. So for me, it started by pursuing those opportunities myself and then figuring out ways that I could help create those opportunities for other people as well.”
Through her leadership coaching business focused on people managers, called Manager in Demand, she takes a holistic approach to addressing common issues that managers face and that direct reports deal with that cause conflict on teams and create inequitable environments. Flowers teaches leaders to be authentic and adaptable in their approach as employees’ needs can vary greatly. “The root of all of my programs and work is really using design thinking and trust-based leadership in order to build and develop healthy teams,” Flowers says.
In the early stages of developing a new program, Flowers is trying to shed light on another issue in hiring where she also sees shortsightedness. “One of the things that was common in my experience as a DEI consultant was to hear that the problem was a lack of experience,” she notes. Through Flowers’ new executive fellowship program, participants will have the opportunity to get actual executive experience, with the idea being to help them advance faster within a company and in their careers.
“Otherwise we’re waiting potentially decades,” she says. “People like to say, ‘Well, we hired a lot of junior talent back in the 2020s, and we’re going to wait for them to slowly, slowly advance their careers — and hopefully, maybe, they’ll end up as executives one day.’ But there are so many barriers along the way, and that’s not the only way that we can solve for that problem.”
For both Lan and Flowers, improving fairness in the system is what it’s all about — and that means taking meaningful action.
“If you don’t see the diversity that you know should exist within a space or an organization,” Lan says, “you need to go out and find it.”