The Practice of Allyship at NYU Stern
Ask students who fall into the category of “diversity” and you hear about unconscious bias rearing its ugly head in both corporate and academic settings. NYU Stern created “Allyship” to attack the problem head on.
Political correctness is not a particularly good fit for the business world. The term conjures up images of making decisions based on how they will look to the outside world, not whether they actually create value or not.
It’s unfortunate, then, that political correctness is so closely linked to the idea of diversity. As if diversity is something we do in the business school world because it is what we should do, as if it serves only to insulate us from external criticism.
Nobody comes right out and says this, of course. Individually, you will hear that diversity is valuable in and of itself. But ask students who fall into the category of “diversity” – students of color, members of the LGBTQ community, women and others – and you hear from them tale after tale of unconscious bias rearing its ugly head in both corporate and academic settings.
No institution is immune from these unconscious biases. But at NYU Stern, our students implored us to attack the problem head on – to shine a bright spotlight on it. That meant asking tough and uncomfortable questions. It meant actually learning about each other. It meant becoming a community of allies.
It began in spring 2014 with the first SternSpeaks – a forum created by and for students to tell their story to other students in a classroom. Just that. Telling what it was like to be a person of color, or gay, or to come from a radically different culture or practice a faith different from most. Answering unasked questions, because those questions didn’t sound politically correct.
The practice of Allyship – real Allyship, not the politically correct nod to diversity – was being born.
At SternSpeaks, dozens of students in the audience soon became hundreds of students, all listening, all learning that it was okay to ask these questions. Our faculty and administration wanted to be a part of the movement. In the 2014-15 academic year, over the course of two months, hundreds of administrators and faculty requested to take part in a half-day session to become LGBTQ Safe Zone trained. A few months after that, another hundred or so of us became Diversity Zone trained, focusing on race, ethnicity and class. By popular demand, we now hold an annual Inclusive Leadership Day for MBA students each fall, lead by the highly interactive CSW Associates.
During Stern’s orientation week, known as LAUNCH, we carve out prominent time (among a parade of CEOs and inspirational luminaries) so that second-year full-MBAs who identify with “diverse” groups can share what it feels like to them to be, subtly or not, accused of achieving a position based on an affirmative-action mindset of employers or admissions offices. Students who are, consequentially (and ironically), held to a higher standard by classmates and colleagues.
This isn’t about political correctness. We are a business school – this is about results. Our aim is to take in a highly qualified diverse set of MBA students and turn that group into a tight community that produces high-functioning, diverse teams.
The solution, again, was through Allyship.
For the last two years we have strived to make being an Ally synonymous with being a member of the Stern Community. It means making your classmates and colleagues feel understood and valued (not just accepted), in order to get the most out of them. Not because it’s politically correct, but because it is the single best way to add value to business and society.
This past July, NYU Stern ranked #1 in support of LGBTQ MBA Students in the MBA Ally Challenge Rankings (organized by the nonprofit group Friendfactor). Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA) recognized Stern as having the second largest LGBTQ community as a percentage among MBA students. During NYU’s Ally Week this past April, 75 percent of Stern students signed up to be allies. At the same time, we instituted a gender-neutral restroom on each floor of the Stern building and added an LGBTQ self-identification to the school’s application.
This year focused on LGBTQ, but diversity extends well beyond. Our students, administration and faculty have shown an unprecedented eagerness to understand their classmates and colleagues, and to teach those willing to learn.
Scott Galloway, Clinical Professor of Marketing at Stern, in an introduction to Inclusive Leadership Day, put it this way: “My observation is that teams that consist of people with different backgrounds and different perspectives simply perform at a higher level, distinct of the political correctness of it.”
This is about a value proposition. History has shown over and over the perils of favoring exclusivity over inclusivity. At NYU Stern, we are Allies. We are all in. We want to know what we don’t know. We don’t want to do well and do good, we want to do well because we’re doing good. This is what defines our community. This is how we will add value to the world.
About the Author
Conor Grennan is assistant Dean of MBA Students, NYU Stern School of Business.