Dean’s Q&A: Erika Walker, UC-Berkeley

The UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business. Courtesy photo

You used to teach a course on diversity in the workplace. Tell us a little bit about your thoughts on the topic.

I positioned the class for entering managers in companies, helping students think about what they need to know about human capital as managers. They can look at it from a compliance level, but also from the perspective of leveraging the talent they have to get the most productivity out of their teams. Students also think about the pitfalls they need to consider beforehand in terms of diversity, and we work to help them think more interculturally.

When it comes to multiculturalism and diversity, it sounds like a wonderful environment, but its true value is the extent to which the cultures interact with each other and build subcultures out of it. Interculturalism is about moving beyond tolerating other cultures, to grow and learn from them. The more we appreciate other cultures, the more we work better with them. It’s about how to respect and honor every culture without having one dominant culture, and if you can move there as a manager, you are in the best position to manage the talent you have.

I haven’t taught it in a while, and I really need to get back to it. We start off the class by talking about what happened historically in the U.S., with a comparative analysis of race and diversity issues here. We stop the students for interpersonal and intrapersonal reflection on their identity development periodically throughout the course, and students also go out and engage with a community-based organization by doing research for them.

Our largest enrollment was 44 students, but because of the team research projects, it was challenging and we dropped the class size to 30. We’ve had the most diverse class of any class in the business school, with both business and non-business majors.

The biggest challenge was helping the students figure out what view had been imposed and which were their own. They had to take a moment to think about how they are socialized to believe certain things, which beliefs are based on their own experiences, and which are based on the experiences of others around them. The first step in that class was having the students reconsider if they truly knew what diversity was.

How do you think potential students and their parents view Haas and do you think they have any misperceptions that need to be corrected?

Because we are a two-year program, some of the things I typically hear is the worry that first, they have to get into Berkeley, and then get into the business school. We often share with students and their parents that even if they don’t get into the business major, they can still access the Haas community.

We have business clubs and organizations that students can join to interact with other like-minded students. Many of our students have it ingrained in them to be competitive, and we teach them how to be collaborative in a competitive environment. There are many ways to engage with business courses, faculty, and resources, and the value of a degree from Berkeley is no less worthwhile than the business degree.

Many people also make the big assumption that all business schools are the same, but some schools require that you take only business school classes, while we expect you to take classes outside of the business school. This allows students to learn to be flexible, and if they want to double major, they can customize their areas of study. For those who are not absolutely sure of what they want, they can pair up majors as different as dance and business. They can take freshman classes in theatre and performing arts, and apply to the business school later on.

What advice do you have for high school students and their parents that are interested in studying business in college?

While you’re looking at colleges, look for the best fit. This means looking for a school that is a good size for you, whether it’s big or small. Narrow in on your interests, and the specific area you’d like to emphasize in, and consider if you’d prefer more flexibility with course choice, or a more prescribed set of courses and schedule.

Think about where you get the greatest sense of belonging, and look at the required courses for any major. Read the course descriptions, and talk to students and faculty to find out what they are doing, and if it’s a presentation, discussion, or writing based. Are they working in large teams, pairs, or individually, and think about whether the set up speaks to you and your learning style.

If out of 10 core classes, you only like three, and you have to take seven classes you don’t like, maybe you don’t want to be a business major. Perhaps you should consider taking them as electives. If you like marketing, take marketing courses. You don’t need to be a business major to take business classes, but you need to think about what you’ll enjoy being engaged in.

For parents, it’s about moving to become a consultant. Present your student with the advantages and disadvantages, and call out what you think they like and dislike, to help them make informed decisions and choices for themselves. Your job is to help them navigate the decision-making process because they just haven’t had to make a ton of decisions that are as weighty. They’ll have to deal with the consequences of their choices for the next four years, and you can help them get the college experience they want.

At the end of the day, they should feel proud of and love their decisions. They should be able to say that they’ve done their research, and found a place they’ll enjoy. And remember, there’s a college and university for everyone. Sure, many people look at the same few, but you need to look at what’s the best fit for you.

What is the golden rule you hope that students keep in mind as they go out into the working world?

Our four defining leadership principles for students is that they be students always, question the status quo, look beyond themselves, and have confidence without attitude.

We remind them to always ask questions, and be curious, and allow for innovation to happen. They should always be humble, always be students, because they can always learn something from someone else. They should look beyond themselves, because everything we do today should impact generations after us, and they should be thinking about their long-term impact. And they should be confident but not arrogant, to educate themselves on situations, but have the emotional intelligence to be self-aware on how they enter and leave spaces.

Carry these wherever you go, on this campus, and beyond, and you have the key ingredients for success as a leader for business and more.