A group of about 30 students pose for a photo inside Hough Hall.

UF MBA students hone inclusive leadership skills at first diversity, inclusion conference

Cassidy Stepanek and Daniel Mbeyah reflect on insights they gained from professionals and their classmates on how to be inclusive business leaders managing diverse employees.

The first-ever UF MBA Diversity & Inclusion Conference was a fun and informative half-day event for full-time MBA students to connect, engage, and deepen our understanding of today’s most relevant diversity, equity and inclusion topics. The idea for this conference came from our UF MBA Association Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), John Scurto (MBA ’22), while recruiting for a summer internship. He noticed that a large majority of companies value D&I as an essential component of corporate strategy.

Given that the topic of D&I is not spoken about enough in the classroom, he recognized the need for an event to help our MBA program learn more about allyship and the importance of D&I in the workplace as we become inclusive business leaders managing diverse employees.

After the UF MBA program office gave John the go-ahead to move forward with the event, he and the rest of the D&I team committed to bringing the event to life.

Daniel Mbeyah and Cassidy Stepanek

UF MBA students Daniel Mbeyah and Cassidy Stepanek.

The conference began with a catered lunch in the Hough courtyard before we moved inside for a welcome kickoff from John Scurto, a welcome address from Assistant Dean and Director of UF MBA John Gresley, and a keynote address by Assistant Dean for Diversity & Inclusion Dr. Robert Thomas called “Friends and Foes in the Struggle to Achieve Diversity Equity & Inclusion.”

Dr. Thomas’s address was centered around systemic injustices witnessed in the country, people’s perceptions towards institutions such as the police and the justice system and how we can win people over from the other side. He emphasized the need to single out bad actors within these institutions and hold them accountable and avoid general condemnation of such important institutions while at the same time trying to win the hearts and minds of others in the quest to gain more friends.

Next, conference attendees were able to choose three different breakout sessions to attend. These interactive and poignant sessions were led by our D&I Club Presidents and D&I Chair from the Gator MBAbility Club, Women in Business Association, Veterans Association, Out@Warrington club, Black Business Student Association and Hispanic Business Student Association.

The breakout sessions were a favorite due to the interactive and engaging session leaders. It was a great opportunity to learn valuable information and hear personal stories from fellow MBAs that we never knew before. Hearing their personal experiences with discrimination and other diversity challenges, both at work and in their personal lives, was a true eye-opener.

After the breakout sessions, we had three amazing D&I professionals from top companies answer our most burning questions about D&I at their workplaces. This panel was very eye-opening and encouraging seeing how these three phenomenal companies are committed to creating an inclusive environment for their employees and making our world a better place. Each of the panelists spoke about how their companies are emphasizing D&I at the strategic level.

Finally, we attended a closing keynote from Andrew Robinson, Vice President of Inclusion & Diversity at Fortive. He shared his experiences both as a child and as a Black professional and highlighted two key aspects regarding diversity, equity and inclusion especially at the workplace: psychological safety and implicit bias.

He emphasized the need to create environments that make everyone feel like they belong and to always be on the lookout for implicit bias. This address was a great way to finish out the conference, after which a happy hour was held at The Social to decompress and discuss everything that we learned at the conference.

One big takeaway from the conference was that diversity, equity, and inclusion continue to be extremely pervasive issues in today’s world, and we have a lot of work left to do to help people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and identities feel welcome in our work and school environments.

We learned that there are simple, yet effective, changes in terminology and actions that can go a long way towards creating a more inclusive workplace. For example, from the Out@Warrington breakout session, we learned to use the term “partner” to describe our coworkers’ relationships, instead of heteronormative terms such as “husband” or “girlfriend,” for example. This will help to avoid alienating members of the LGBTQ+ community in these conversations.

From the opening and closing keynote speakers, the biggest takeaways were that we should be aware of biases, seek to win the hearts and minds of others and turn them into friends fighting for diversity and inclusion, and be committed to making a positive impact as individuals.

From our D&I panelists, the biggest takeaway was that diversity and inclusion needs to be embedded in every part of an organization. Rather than having D&I strategies only come from a human resources department, D&I should be part of every single area of an organization, whether it’s marketing, operations, finance, etc. A truly inclusive company will have strategic D&I initiatives throughout the organization.

The lessons we learned at this conference will be very helpful when entering future work environments. The conference speakers and breakout sessions shared excellent actionable tips for being an ally to underrepresented groups in the workplace. We can utilize these tips to help make our future workplaces as inclusive as possible, because we all perform better when everyone brings their unique perspectives and backgrounds to the table.