BCG & Other Consulting Giants Sponsor 3-Day Forum For Disabled MBAs & Allies
It wasn’t until Claire Barnett was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University that she found out she is on the autism spectrum.
The diagnosis changed her life — but not in ways that were immediately evident.
“I was like, ‘This is really great information, I needed to know this,'” Barnett tells Poets&Quants. “And I realized that part of the reason I’d even had a late diagnosis was that there are so many misconceptions — not just about autism and autism in women, but about disability and what disabled people look like, behave like, what they’re capable of.
“And so that started me on a path.”
FOLLOWING HER PATH
Claire Barnett: “How is it that these huge organizational supports exist for disadvantaged minority groups, and no conversation — or anything — surrounds disability?”
Barnett is one of an estimated 61 million adults in the U.S. living with a disability. One in every 4 Americans, or 26%, have some kind of disability, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, meaning they contend with chronic difficulty in mobility, cognition, sight, hearing, or another condition.
After her graduation from Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s degree in human and organizational development, Barnett followed her path and began her career at Vanderbilt’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation as a researcher focused on neurodiversity in the workplace. As communications and advocacy director, she worked with companies on recruiting, hiring and managing neurodivergent talent, and she taught a first-year seminar in neurodiversity. Her research included a study of ADHD/autistic women in the U.S.
Barnett decided to further her career with an MBA, and in 2021 she joined the full-time program at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. There she discovered that accommodations for disability were confined to things like wheelchair ramps, and understanding of cognitive and other non-physical disability was lacking.
“When I came to the MBA program, I was frustrated to find that there were fantastic diversity supports for students of color, international students, women, LGBT students, veterans, and no conversation even around disability,” she says. “There were some mental health and wellness days, because that conversation’s gotten broader. And there were some things like ‘We need wheelchair ramps where there are steps.’ But there’s so much more here that needs to be addressed. Business school tends to be less accessible than other grad programs, and the culture of the MBA tends to lean a lot more towards ableist language and practices.”
‘EMPWR’ COMES TOGETHER
Barnett founded a diversity club called the Carolina Disability Alliance, and, with about half a dozen of her MBA classmates, began planning what would become the Empwr Conference, a recruiting conference for those with disabilities. It is modeled after other MBA diversity conferences, like those held annually by ROMBA and the Forte Foundation.
“We watched last fall as peers and even some members of the leadership team went to conferences for the National Black MBA Association, and went to conferences that Forte organized, and ROMBA and Prospanica,” she says. “And we just thought, ‘How is it that these huge organizational supports exist for disadvantaged minority groups, and no conversation — or anything — surrounds disability?'”
After a year of planning, the inaugural Empwr Conference will be November 11-13, 2022, in-person at the Durham Convention Center & Marriott City Center and streamed live online. With $60,000 in corporate sponsorship funds — the bulk of which came from Boston Consulting Group, Barnett’s summer and future employer — the conference will feature panels, breakout sessions, awards, and a keynote address by BCG Senior Partner and Managing Director Brad Loftus.
It will also feature a variety of major recruiting employers, including donor-sponsors McKinsey and PwC, because its principal mission, Barnett says, is to connect B-school students in the disability community to top employers.
RECRUITERS FROM GOOGLE, McKINSEY, BCG TO ATTEND EMPWR
Barnett stresses that registration is open to both students who have a disability and those who don’t. “Ally” registration means that attending doesn’t automatically “out” a student as having a disability, she says; it also provides an opportunity for non-disabled students to attend and learn about an often-ignored minority group. She hopes to have 150 in-person student attendees and as many as 250 virtual attendees; early bird registration closes October 14.
“I think the demand is out there, and I think students just partially are still lacking info about this, and partially are wondering if it’s worth their time, if it’s legitimate,” Barnett says. “It’s a big ask to say, ‘I’m going to stop other recruiting activities. If I have a family, I’m going to leave them, I’m going to go focus on this for a few days.’ And so we want them to know, this is tremendously subsidized.”
Hotel rates for students are significantly subsidized by sponsor dollars: $250 is conference group nightly rate, $50 is self-advocate student rate, and $75 is the ally student rate. Attending students can apply for Empwr awards/scholarships geared at recognizing impactful advocacy.
“We weren’t going to do in-person if it couldn’t be financially accessible,” Barnett says. “The fact that the registration is $35 for MBA students, and that includes five meals and a T-shirt.”
Recruiting companies include Prudential Financial, Google, PwC, McKinsey & Company, BCG, and more.
“I can’t list 30 companies that’ll be there,” Barnett says. “But I do have representation from three big consulting firms, one big tech player, one big finance player, one startup. And I think I’m going to sign up one big player in finance and investment banking, and I think I’m going to sign on one more group that helps source disabled talent for a variety of companies.”
From Empwr’s website, a four-pronged definition of disability
From the report, State of Disability Inclusion in MBA Programs, by Access to Success, a not-for-profit organization that studies disability. Access to Success has established a fellowship for MBA students with disabilities.
AIMING FOR LONGEVITY
In a first-of-its-kind study released earlier this year, Access to Success, a Canadian not-for-profit organization that supports the development of future leaders with disabilities and gives fellowships each year to MBA students with disabilities, noted that 15% of the world’s population, or 1 billion people, experience some form of disability — yet just 7% of business leaders identify as having a disability. That presents a major dilemma: “How do we bridge this gap in representation when it comes to leaders with disabilities?”
The group posits that one way to achieve greater representation for those with disabilities is to “build a pipeline of future leaders with disabilities” through business schools and MBA programs. “While business schools have made meaningful strides in fostering diversity and inclusion in their programs, little is known about the number and experiences of people with disabilities in MBA programs. We cannot address what we do not know.”
Barnett hopes that EMPWR can be part of that pipeline, this fall and into the future. To make that happen. she’s been spending 20 hours a week not only planning the inaugural event but also helping to secure funding for the next one. Thanks in large part to a grant from the Ford Foundation, Empwr 2023 already has $75K in the bank. Barnett and other UNC MBA students have filed the paperwork to establish Empwr as a nonprofit foundation independent of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s MBA Student Association that will continue to host annual diversity recruiting conferences in addition to eventually offering scholarships and networking opportunities for B-school students who belong to the disability community.
DIVERGING FROM NEURODIVERGENCE
Claire Barnett will graduate in the spring and go back to work for BCG, for which she interned as a summer consultant this year. Despite all she’s done to raise funds and awareness about disabilities, she’s not convinced that’s where her path leads.
“I would like Empwr to operate like Forte operates or like MBA Veterans Network operates, to use the youngest of the diversity organizations,” she says. “And I think that if we are a nonprofit then we will continue in year two as kind of volunteer-run, with me leading the nonprofit group and board members that come from some of this year’s students, and keeping board members on who are current students at different schools. So that’s like year two, year three. And the idea is that by year four, year five, we’re bringing in enough money to hire one or two staff people, and this is what they do.”
The need is there, she says.
“I think it serves a purpose for the companies and the students, and I always want to be involved in this work. Even at BCG this summer, I spent a significant amount of time bringing up some of my past research experience with neurodiversity and disability and asking people inside the company, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ I got lots of encouraging responses, so that was exciting. But my plan is for this to always be like sort of one-fifth of the work I do in my life.
“I definitely learned when I worked at Vandy that I don’t like the reputation of being ‘disability girl.’ Don’t love that being the only label. I like an intellectual challenge. Consulting was fun and I was on the type of case this summer where I had no background in that industry, and that’s the kind of work I would love to do for four-fifths of the week.
“But I’m hoping to continue running this nonprofit, to continue coordinating events, sponsorships, to be asking whatever other company I work for like BCG, ‘How are we collectively going to do this better?’ And also I’ve done a fair amount of speaking and submitting opinion articles to places, and I think that’ll always be a passion. So when it comes to the future of Empwr, I would like it to join the ranks of Forte, ROMBA, the National Black MBA Association. When it comes to who will run it, most likely someone else — but I plan to always be involved.”
Learn more about the 2022 Empwr Conference here.
AND DON’T MISS MY STORY: FROM THE PARALYMPICS TO STANFORD GSB and AN MBA’S AIRBNB FOR THE DISABLED
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