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Elevating The Consortium’s Mission: Two Alums Create Conference Focused on Value of Diversity in Business

As members of The Consortium at McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, Ashley Fox and DeAndrea Staes took their roles seriously. In addition to serving in various leadership capacities within The Consortium — Fox served as vice president of events while Staes was a co-liaison — they worked hard to advance the organization’s mission.

“A big part of what we did as Consortium leadership was find ways to take the mission of The Consortium and blend it everywhere else,” says Staes. “We carried our responsibility as Consortium members into leadership roles across the entire campus.”

Fox served as president of the Graduate Marketing Network and vice president of the Sports, Entertainment and Media Association (SEMA), and Staes contributed as president of the Black Graduate Business Association and as a member of SEMA and Graduate Women in Business. Through these roles and others, they worked intentionally to advance diversity, inclusion and belonging across campus and beyond.

Several years ago, when both women were looking to make a career change, The Consortium seemed a natural fit. With a passion for diversity and ensuring equal access to opportunity for people from underrepresented groups, Staes and Fox saw an opportunity with an organization whose mission aligned with their own values and aspirations. So when Staes and Fox met at McCombs, the two quickly joined forces.

“Within the first month or two in an MBA program, you kind of find your tribe,” Staes says. “Ashley just very quickly became a part of my tribe, and we really leaned on each other a lot in the first semester.”

More than a support system, though, they found common ground in their desire to effect change at McCombs, a school they were both passionate about and where they had an opportunity to address diversity in real, meaningful ways. “We wanted to take The Consortium mission and apply it outside of the [organization] to the greater student body,” says Fox.

With this mission — “to enhance diversity and inclusion in global business education and leadership” — in mind, they worked to attract more Consortium members and other underrepresented students to McCombs. One approach that was important to both women for executing on this vision was getting involved with admissions-related activities — whether that was through formal Discover McCombs events or informal chats with prospective students.

The 2019 inaugural Elevate: Diversity & Inclusion Conference

“We made personal phone calls. We would talk to them and answer any of their questions, and we would be very candid,” says Fox. “I think they appreciated how open and honest we were, how willing to help we were. I think that really drove our numbers for the current first-year class.”

Thanks to their and their peers’ efforts, McCombs was able to more than double the number of African American Consortium students in its class of 2020, beating the school’s record for total number of Consortium members. But for both Staes and Fox, this was just the first step in what they envisioned would be a major transformation for McCombs’ MBA program and how people perceived it as supporting diversity, inclusion and belonging.

They also wanted to show students that they could — and should — work to have even greater impact outside of The Consortium.

“Another thing we really [stressed] … is that we hold Consortium students to a higher standard,” says Staes. “We expect that the students who come to our campus are prepared to uphold The Consortium’s mission but also really leave a mark. I think it is our duty to make sure we’re upholding that mission and also taking it to the next level by asking the question ‘how are you applying this, not only by supporting incoming students who are underrepresented minorities, but also in your personal life?’ The only way you can do that is by digging deep and going into organizations to effect change.”

They also saw the need for creating more opportunities for all McCombs students and community members to have conversations about the impact of diversity and the value of inclusive practices in business. So with Director of Full-time MBA Student Services Kellie Sauls’ advice to “think big” in the back of their minds, Fox and Staes decided to create a conference designed to demonstrate to students and professionals alike the importance of diversity in the workforce as well as provide tools to enact change.

“On top of understanding the business impact of diversity and inclusion, we wanted attendees to actually walk away with how they can make diversity work in their organization — actionable strategies they would be able to apply to their careers as soon as they left the conference,” says Fox.

Additionally, a conference would provide an outlet for demonstrating McCombs’ “superior” commitment to diversity as well as attracting more prospective students from diverse backgrounds, says Staes.

With a committee — and a lot of patience and grit — Fox and Staes set out to create a framework for the event, looking at the social and political climate as a starting point, then identifying what other Consortium schools have done that has worked well. This was followed by research and brainstorming what would make the event an unforgettable and meaningful experience for all participants.

Michele Thornton Ghee gives the keynote address at the 2019 inaugural Elevate: Diversity & Inclusion Conference.

“Ashley and I started with a framework. We started with topics that we wanted to propose and then began to think about the speakers who would fit into those topics,” says Staes. “Then we focused on breaking that down to cover various industries, like entrepreneurship, venture capital, consulting and tech — even entertainment. We really wanted to have a broad sweep when it came to industry so that people would have a full perspective.”

Building the conference from the ground up, much of their work involved pitching the concept to gain buy-in — not just from McCombs but from sponsors and guest speakers as well. This process, Fox says, gave them an opportunity to really home in on the event’s objectives.

“By running our idea consistently through different parties, we were able to get amazing feedback,” she says. “That feedback then helped us tailor [what] we wanted our attendees to gain from the conference as well as what some of the key topics and key learnings [would be] that they would walk away with.”

On Feb. 8, 2019, their hard work paid off with the successful launch of the inaugural Elevate: Diversity & Inclusion Conference, held on McCombs’ campus. The goal of the event, which will occur annually, is to “identify how companies and business leaders create effective strategies to transform their current culture into one where both diversity and inclusion become embedded in the organization’s DNA,” according to the conference website.

Speakers were business as well as diversity and inclusion experts in global companies spanning a range of industries; they included Michele Thornton Ghee, who at the time was senior vice president of BET and is now executive vice president of business development at Endeavor Global Marketing; Ada-Renee Johnson, senior director at Google; Brian Reaves, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Dell; Carolina Huaranca, principal at Kapor Capital; and Roger Montgomery, NBA sports agent at Roc Nation Sports; among others.

“Our keynote speaker Michele Thornton Ghee was amazing, and I think every person in that audience walked away feeling inspired,” Fox says. “My takeaway was the importance of simply having a seat at the table and what you can do when you’re given that opportunity and actually have a voice.”

“Michele talked so much about her experience and her challenges,” Staes adds, “making sure that you not only fight for that seat at the table but you also show up and prove that you deserve to be there.”

The event attracted more than 200 attendees, including both students and Austin-based leaders, and according to Fox, feedback was very positive. “[Attendees] gained invaluable lessons, and they were able to really walk away with knowledge that they didn’t have before,” she says. “[Many said they] felt empowered after the conference.”

Fox believes the event offers students in particular critical soft skills they can’t get from the classroom alone.

The 2019 inaugural Elevate: Diversity & Inclusion Conference

“In business school, you may have one or two classes that kind of touch on what it’s like to be diverse in the workforce or leading diverse workforces, but what I think is really impactful is when you’re able to hear [it directly] from leaders who are actually working in the industries that you want to go into,” Fox says. “Being able to hear from those leaders is something that is impactful way beyond the classroom or way beyond any classroom learnings.”

Yet the conference’s impact is more than what attendees take with them when they leave: All proceeds from each year’s event will go toward a diversity scholarship, which will be awarded to a Consortium student the following year.

“Consortium students who are not given the full fellowship will be able to apply through McCombs and be awarded this scholarship next year and for years to come,” says Fox. “We wanted to help alleviate one of the reasons why people may be hesitant to come to business school.”

Although Fox and Staes graduated in May, it’s important to them that Elevate is carried on. They will continue to serve in an executive capacity on the conferences’ steering committee, but current Consortium MBAs will take over the reins each year.

“It’s very important for us to maintain the conference via Consortium leaders,” Staes says. “Ashley and I are focused on making sure that, together, we find the next leadership who we know will be as passionate about it and ensure its success.”

Staes will be moving to Atlanta to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers as a senior associate in the People and Organization Practice focused on the industrial products and services industry, while Fox will move to New York to join PepsiCo as assistant marketing manager. And although the two will no longer be working in close proximity to one another, the lessons they learned through both the conference and the experience of planning it together will inform their professional lives for years to come.

“I’m so proud of the fact that we were able to accomplish something of this magnitude, and happy that I was able to accomplish it with DeAndrea because I can’t imagine [doing] it with anyone else,” Fox says. “I think that we complemented each other so well. To be able to put together a conference and run it so smoothly, we became closer because of it.”

According to Staes, however, this is just the beginning.

“This is really just a start for both of us,” she says. “I’m saying to myself, ‘What’s next? What else can we do? What’s the next big thing we can accomplish where we can continue to drive forth The Consortium mission, really supporting underrepresented minorities to and through business school, but also just our personal passions?”

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