How B-School Students are Overcoming Blind Spots

A hallmark of the William & Mary Raymond A. Mason School of Business academic experience is the opportunity for graduate and undergraduate students to participate in numerous experiential learning events that, as Dean Larry Pulley says, “brings business into the Business School.”

One such event was held during the spring semester, pre-COVID-19 closure, called Blind Spots. The event was hosted in conjunction between the Mason School and PwC, a corporate partner of the business school.

Eliminating unconscious bias is a trending topic among business executives and has become a major focus for organizations across all industries. Blind Spots connected the students with PwC’s approach on the topic and sought to empower them with knowledge and strategies they would need to become more effective and inclusive business leaders.

“Events such as this are valuable for many reasons,” said Rex Holmlin, Clinical Lecturer and Chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee at the Mason School. “The ability to work in diverse organizations is an absolutely critical skill for anyone in business. You don’t need to look very far to see the emphasis business organizations place on this skill or the academic research supporting the better performance of diverse organizations. Events like Blind Spots provide an opportunity for students to hear directly from those businesses.”

Representatives from PwC delivered a presentation that focused on the science of bias and blind spots, and how the brain’s natural tendency to make cognitive shortcuts using past experiences to make assumptions can affect how a leader makes a decision related to say, hiring one candidate over another.

Students were led through a series of activities like network assessments and “How Well Can You Read a Face?” to uncover their own personal blind spots and look at how conscious and unconscious bias can affect their ability to cultivate a diverse professional environment rooted in inclusive leadership. The presenters then provided students with tools or strategies they can use to “outsmart their minds” and eliminate the blind spots that inhibit their ability to build relationships and create a culture of inclusivity.

“This self-awareness helps students take a different approach when they have decisions to make and helps them interact with others in a more effective way,” said Holmlin. “It reinforces our existing Diversity & Inclusion classroom instruction.”

Using Experiential Learning to Facilitate D&I Initiatives

Experiential learning opportunities at the Mason School range from site visits to regional businesses, to global immersion trips, to more locally, guest lectures and events hosted by external and internal partners of the graduate and undergraduate programs.

It’s through this teaching vehicle that the newly formed Diversity & Inclusion Committee comprised of students, staff, faculty and executive partners hope to bring more opportunities like Blind Spots to the Mason School community. By using experiential learning events in addition to developing several new Diversity & Inclusion programs, the committee hopes to execute against their goals and initiatives to support underrepresented groups in the Mason School.

“The D&I Committee is finalizing its annual report but some highlights include the formation of a new, broader committee that includes representation from all segments of the Mason School community as well as future training for faculty and staff,” said Brian Baines, Senior HR Business Partner and Diversity & Inclusion Committee member. “Work is also being done to expand the reach to international students with a program focused on enhancing the inclusivity of students who are likely far from home and don’t have many of the comforts they are used to.”

Baines also outlined plans for the Diversity & Inclusion Committee to create an outlet through which people across the Mason School can speak with non-employee representatives to talk through difficult situations revolving around diversity and inclusion that they would otherwise feel uncomfortable speaking with colleagues or co-workers about.

All of the committee’s efforts are in response to the results and recommendations outlined in a report that was released by the Diversity & Inclusion Task Force which was launched in December 2018 by Dean Larry Pulley to take a snapshot of the current diversity and inclusion environment at the business school.

“Unfortunately, many of our plans were put on hiatus due to COVID-19,” Baines said. “But we are thoroughly looking forward to implementing programs and hosting experiential learning events in the future that further cultivate an understanding of diversity and inclusion for all of the members of our Mason School community. These activities make our students better leaders when they enter the workforce and strengthen the relationships among the professionals who work hard to provide them with a quality educational experience.”