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Advocating for diversity: A Q&A with MBA student Ellen Rice Staten

In December, at the end of a year in which students across the country protested race relations on college campuses, Ellen Rice Staten, MBA ’16, co-president of the MIT Black Graduate Student Association and leaders from the MIT Black Students’ Union, presented two sets of recommendations on cultivating diversity to MIT’s Academic Council, which is chaired by MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

One set of recommendations targeted the graduate [PDF] student experience and the other is geared toward the undergraduate community, with the goal of increasing diversity and inclusion at MIT.

With her MIT Black Graduate Student Association co-president, Chris Smith, a doctoral candidate in the Urban Studies and Planning department, Staten urged MIT’s administration to strengthen the Institute’s commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive community.

At the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration on Feb. 10, Reif discussed his collaborative work with the MIT Black Graduate Student Association. Plans for the Academic Council to undergo a pilot of unconscious bias training in preparation for next fall’s graduate and undergraduate orientations is expected to be announced before spring break.

Staten did her summer MBA internship at Biogen focusing on diversity and inclusion. She has a Master of Public Policy from Georgetown University and eight years of experience in strategic policy analysis and six years of health care consulting. Staten talked about her work with the association and her future plans.

What has the MIT Black Graduate Student Association accomplished to date?

The recommendations made by the BGSA were compiled across all groups of students of underrepresented backgrounds—students of color, women, and people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual community. We have a comprehensive list of those recommendations, and the next step is implementation.

One of the recommendations calls for training for research laboratory personnel, including faculty, staff, and students, to recognize implicit bias. Other student groups, including the MIT Black Students’ Union, called for similar action, such as diversity training during orientation for all incoming undergraduate students. The Institute has been very responsive and proactive, and the announced training of the MIT Academic Council is a step in the right direction.

What is the goal of these recommendations?

Our goal is to make MIT a healthier and more inclusive place by increasing diversity at the school. The goal of the recommendations is to not only put a plan in place, but to actually move the needle, and get more people from underrepresented backgrounds, including minorities into MIT. Diversity is the first step in opening the door to the rich blend of different people with different ideas and perspectives.

Inclusion is equally as important as diversity. The way that the recommendations plan to increase inclusion is through the orientation training. Training throughout the lives of students, faculty, and staff are really meant to help them interact better and come together as a community.

Another one of the recommendations is to hire a mental health professional who has a background in dealing with underrepresented minorities and mental health. Providing this resource will help ensure a healthier environment for students.

There are 144 African-American graduate students enrolled at MIT for 2015-2016. Is this a number you hope to raise?

One hundred and forty-four out of a total of 6,804 graduate students is a powerful number. It is telling. If you do the math, it turns out that number represents about 2 percent of the graduate population. We have opportunity for growth.

The goals, in general, are to transform the school. We want to get as much done as we can by spring break, so right now that is to focus on the Academic Council’s orientation unconscious bias training. We’re also working on some of the harder issues such as increasing minority faculty and student enrollment, as well as financial aid.

How has your time at MIT Sloan helped with taking on such an important leadership role?

It’s really about working with strangers on a team—a high-performing team—in a quick period of time. It’s like that MTV show The Real World, but in a business setting—it puts you in a room full of strangers and you have to make it work. The MIT Sloan experience helped our team do this. All of us in the BGSA have different backgrounds. Yes, we’re black, but we’re very diverse. We come from different academic backgrounds.

What will you do after graduate?

I started an institute with my mother, who is an attorney. The Stratovia Institute focuses on pushing the boundaries of diversity and inclusion in the STEM-related workforce and in entrepreneurship. We are targeting large corporations, such as Google and Facebook, and working with them to build out pragmatic strategies that are scalable and sustainable over time in order to diversify the workforce in an inclusive nature. We believe that story and data equals impact.

What would you advise other MIT students who are interested in your mission?

Get involved, be active, and ask for support. I was incredibly active, working with other groups. This mission is a huge challenge. People don’t think it’s rocket science, tackling diversity and inclusion in STEM, but it’s incredibly challenging. People are still struggling to crack the code; and it requires the best hands and the best minds to tackle the problem. I would encourage students to use their strong skillsets to take on a problem like this.

For more info Zach Church Editorial & Digital Media Director (617) 324-0804