Case studies are essential for business school training. These are concrete examples of major business challenges. Most of these case studies were written by professors at Harvard Business School. The school has some 10,000 case studies used around the world. And the majority of them feature white business leaders.
HBS professor Steven Rogers wants to change that – with new case studies featuring black business leaders.
âIt’s imperative that our black students see role models first. They see people – great businessmen and women – who look like them,â Rogers says.
So Rogers wrote 14 new case studies that he teaches in a course he started this spring called “Black Business Leaders and Entrepreneurship.” The case studies cover a range of businesses and challenges. One case features Linda Johnson Rice and her decision to sell Ebony magazine. Another case study on Corey Thomas, CEO of Boston-based cybersecurity firm Rapid7, examines whether or not to go public with a startup.
“It’s hard to be what you can’t see”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Rogers introduced students to Dr. Eve Hall, who had to decide whether a Wisconsin chamber of commerce should set up an investment fund for African Americans.
Rogers presents the decision to the class and asks, “Why is such a fund necessary?” “
Student LaToya Marc responds, “Because African American loans are not approved at the same rates as others. Access to capital is just a huge issue in African American entrepreneurship.”
Rogers then explains how an investment fund could solve this problem.
âIf we’re going to increase the number of African American entrepreneurs, we need something that says target these people,â Rogers told the class of over 40 students. “[The fund] gives us the opportunity to increase the number of African-American entrepreneurs [and] it offers the possibility of increasing African American employment as a result of this. “
Marc, the student, is in his final year at Harvard Business School and is co-chair of the student body. She says these types of case studies are really important for her to see business leaders who are like her.
âIt’s hard to be what you can’t see,â says Marc. “So I think having the portrayal of someone who shares an experience like you, who is focused on solving a problem in an undeserved market, can be really inspiring.”
Marc comes from a low-income family and says examples of successful black business leaders – or protagonists, as subjects are called in Harvard case studies – will help her when she enters the workforce. .
âNo one in my family went to Ivy League college, no one in my family has an MBA. It’s a unique experience where I really don’t have anyone in my family to turn to,â says Marc. “So I rely on mentors, I rely on teachers like Professor Rogers, I rely on the connections I make with the protagonists to help propel my career.”
This is exactly the connection Rogers wants in all business schools. And he says it’s just as important for non-black students.
“When they’re at the head of their business, when it comes time to make a decision about investing in a black entrepreneur, they can say, ‘I’ve seen black people who were making a lot of money, who were successful and therefore, I don’t have any personal issues – I’ve seen the black shine in action, âsays Rogers.
Change the classroom to change the workplace
Attitudes in the workplace can mean that some people find themselves without a job.
“It’s a culture of brotherhood in a sense,” says Professor Paul Gompers, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies hiring practices.
He says people tend to work and get together with people like them, which can lead to bias, but that behavior can be changed.
âSubtle exposures are important,â says Gompers. “And there is research on this, that if the two of you come together, if you see a diverse set of protagonists in the case, it can start the process of depolarizing people from these subtle biases.”
And Gompers says Rogers’ class is a step in the right direction to have a more inclusive workforce.
But for now, the class is an elective course made up entirely of black students. Professor Rogers’s hope is to see more black business case studies integrated into compulsory courses.
Harvard says it is committed to diversifying its catalog of case studies to increase its number of black business cases. And Rogers is now working with other teachers to create more.