More than to simply advance their careers, Consortium MBAs Isabella Palacios, Elizabeth Blasser, Aria Aaron and Michelle Matsuba are empowered to use their MBA education to effect change in corporate America. On January 21, the women — all members of the class of 2021 at USC Marshall School of Business — saw this opportunity materialize, sooner than even they expected.
For their plan for how to inspire more Black girls to pursue STEM education, they received first place in the John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition.
“Moments like these are why I came to business school: to drive impact for good and push corporations to do the same,” says Matsuba. “There is no better time than right now to be empowering the future business leaders of America to use their skills, talent and creativity to create bold solutions for racial justice.”
Created by Consortium student Willie Sullivan and hosted by Emory University Goizueta Business School, the competition was designed to help companies think strategically about how to address issues of racial justice. From approximately 100 applications, a judging panel of academics, racial justice/equality practitioners and experts and corporate partners selected 24 teams from 18 institutions — including 11 Consortium member schools — to advance to the semifinals. Each team was tasked with developing a business solution based on their assigned company’s racial justice case prompt.
“I am still overwhelmed with the amount of energy this event created,” says Sullivan. “We had over 2,100 people register to attend the final round. It was amazing and just shows how anxious people are for action and real change.”
The USC Marshall team, Team Coalition 4 Change, was tasked with developing recommendations for Johnson & Johnson, a Consortium corporate partner. The company’s goal: to educate and inspire 1 million Black female students over the next five years to pursue STEM2D careers. With a month and a half to conduct primary and secondary research, the women began by examining the obstacles — real and perceived — that Black girls face on the path to STEM education.
“One of the things Willie and the case competition [committee] did was to remind all teams to not just jump in but to really make sure they researched the issues first,” the team says. “We took that to heart and really dove in to find out what the obstacles and challenges are that lead to the underrepresentation of Black girls and women in STEM.”
With a passion for education and empowering women of color, Team Coalition 4 Change knew that, although challenging, the project would be a labor of love. It was what they discovered through their research that tested them most.
“What challenged us most was really having to come to terms with the research on the disparities experienced by Black women and girls,” they say. “For example, Black girls are the only group of girls to be over-represented across the entire continuum of school discipline: explusions, suspensions, arrests, corporal punishment, referrals to law enforcement and restraints.”
This tendency for Black girls to be misunderstood “leads to over-punishment,” they say. “That was hard to personally process, but it just motivated us more to push through and come up with recommendations that could really make an impact.”
Using Dr. Kristina Collins’ Black Student STEM Identity Model — which includes four dimensions related to how Black students perceive themselves and their abilities with regard to STEM — Team Coalition 4 Change built the foundation for their recommendations. They also conducted focus groups to see how their research aligned with the experiences of Black girls and women. “We talked to girls aged 12-17 to understand their challenges, and women in STEM careers, to see what made the difference for them,” they say.
Armed with this knowledge, as well as an awareness of Johnson & Johnson’s resources, the team developed a robust proposal designed to address the obstacles — educational, social and financial — Black girls face on the path to STEM education. An online educational platform, social media campaign using the hashtag #sistaSTEM, college scholarship, quarterly STEM event, partnership with Disney and a traveling pop-up exhibit are all part of their approach to growing excitement and improving competence around as well as getting Black girls to see themselves in STEM.
More than just creative or empowering, Team Coalition 4 Change’s recommendations are viable. They propose rolling out the plan over five years — with the help of a dedicated internal team — creating awareness through stickers on some of the best-selling products among Black moms. Costs would be covered by donating a small percentage of every sale of baby, wound and beauty products. Not only would their plan allow Johnson & Johnson to educate and inspire 2.2 million Black girls to pursue STEM2D careers by 2025 — far exceeding the company’s goal of 1 million — but it would put the cost of doing so at just $9.50 per girl.
“At the end of the day, we wanted the Johnson & Johnson team, judges and all viewers to understand that our recommendation was based [on] a realistic and viable implementation model that drew from an understanding of the company’s current earnings,” they say. “We did not want anyone to be able to use finances as an excuse for not implementing this change, so it was key to us to make sure that everyone knew that it could work financially.
For Sullivan, the thought and ingenuity demonstrated by Palacios, Blasser, Aaron and Matsuba is indicative of their commitment to the cause of racial justice and equal opportunity. “I was so impressed with the Coalition 4 Change Team from USC Marshall. They did a fantastic job of being bold and innovative while also showing how their recommendations could become a reality,” he says. “These women are the embodiment of The Consortium mission.”
With an enthusiastic response from the judges, students and Johnson & Johnson and $25,000 in prize money — half of which will be split between the organizations StepUp and Black Girls Code — Team Coalition 4 Change was simply grateful for the opportunity.
“What will be the ultimate prize is seeing the recommendations become a reality,” they say. “Time will tell if that comes to fruition. Until then, we stand on being able to make an impact. This is exactly why we all came to business school.”