At the beginning of 2021, I decided to go back to school to study for an MBA in order to aid my career and further develop my skills and network. Having done the hard work of researching business school rankings and their accreditations, the relative specialisms of different schools, the economics of doing an MBA, and the programme content and style of delivery, I discovered which school I like best. Interviews and applications over, and with multiple offers received, I was delighted to accept my offer from Imperial College Business School!
Incredibly, and having spoken to many other Black students I realised I wasn’t alone in this, I started looking around for people like me! It is remarkable that one of the first things we all seem to do is look up and around to find people with whom we have a shared identity – be it nationality, age, industry experience, race or ethnicity. For me, my postgraduate degree is about more than just the qualification. So soon after starting my MBA, my attention soon turned to student life, community and ‘experience’.
I remember being a young student trying to select which university to go to. I visited a number of Russell Group universities and one of my litmus tests was ‘how many Black faces did I see on campus?’.
The underlying premise of the thought – if there were a few other Black faces and they seem relatively happy, then I could probably be comfortable in this environment too. I looked for small clues about the institution I considered attending as tiny can shed insight into its culture and aspirations. The small things matter.
If you’re a Black student and you’re thinking of coming to the Business School, why should you apply and accept an offer if successful? Here’s my view.
1. The power of the social network
One of the reasons many of us go to business school is to network and meet interesting, smart and driven people. It’s great to be in an open university in such a multicultural melting pot like London, but it’s also reassuring to be around the comfortable and family, especially when far from home.
Imperial College London has a thriving African Caribbean Society and also the Africa Business Club at the Business School, which brings together people who have a nexus with the African continent, either by heritage or by interest. As part of a student-led initiative, the university is exploring establishing a Black students alumni network, again as a avenue through which those with a shared affinity can connect, while studying and once they have graduated.
There is a growing community of Black and mixed Black students at the School, both on campus and via its pioneering online programmes, which draw people in from across the world. Knowing there are ‘others like you’ who if you find it easier to reach out to in time of need or discomfort, is a great psychological benefit on your academic journey.
2. Funding and scholarships
Not all Black students will come from the same socio-economic background. Some will come from very well-off homes. However, on the balance of probabilities, many more of them will not, and the cost of coming to a top business school will be prohibitive.
At the business school level, while many postgraduate students have more work experience under their belt and may be able to contribute to their Master’s or MBA, there is still a question about funding and how to make sure that each individual can get the opportunity to receive support where required. I was fortunate to receive a partial scholarship from Imperial College Business School towards my programme.
Imperial acknowledges that students from Black and mixed Black backgrounds are underrepresented in the current student body and want to improve on this. As mentioned before, being around other Black students and witnessing their growth and development is inspiring so it’s important to make sure that there is more representation at the School.
The Black Future Leader Scholarship is one of the ways that the School wants to encourage more Black and mixed Black students to apply and showcase their potential. Open to all regions, the scholarship is available for all programmes and covers 50% of the recipient’s tuition. I’d encourage all Black students to apply. It’s also worth mentioning that there is a certain element of prestige and recognition that comes with securing a scholarship.
3. The importance of role models
Seeing ‘people like you’ is one thing. But seeing them in positions of influence and esteemed by others, brings the unattainable that bit closer. When I spoke to other Black students at the Business School, one point that was consistently made, was the importance of seeking Black academic staff.
This was beautifully captured by Full-Time MBA alumnus Teniola Essen, who is also the former head of the Africa Business Club, who noted the positive impact of Black academic staff on students. It sends a meaningful message to all students, black and white students alike, and every colour in between.
While the challenge of the lack of Black academic staff in academia is well known, there are other incremental steps that institutions can take to inspire and level-set. For example, I enjoyed the recent Dambisa Moyo book launch event, run by the Brevan Howard Centre, which is one of the Business School’s research centre. Dambisa is a renowned economist of Zambian heritage and is a member of the Barclays Bank Board. Hearing her speak about the purpose of the Board, and experiences on them was inspiring to many white and Black faces in the room alike.
Being a dual national myself, a British-Sierra Leoneon (born in the UK), I’m pretty chuffed to have also attended a talk by Yvette Stevens, MSc Electrical Power Systems and Machines 1974, who after graduating from Imperial, became Sierra Leone's first female engineer, and consequently an ambassador for her country (also the country of my heritage coincidentally). She was recently awarded this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award by Imperial. In her own words, “Being a student at Imperial is an advantage you need to make the most of. And there are other aspects to life at Imperial beyond your degree. Working with people from different cultures was really important for me. Of course, I had no idea I would end up working for the UN, but my time at Imperial prepared me for this. The education you get from Imperial is second to none.”
4. Representative programme content
Having case studies of successful Black businesses people and businesses or citing Black academics can inspire confidence and welcomed familiarity to black students. At Imperial, the School has introduced a compulsory ‘Working in Diverse Organisations’ module which teaches the foundations of unconscious bias and the benefits of diverse and inclusive workplaces. This is a great step in the right direction, and staff are being encouraged to identify and utilise case studies and people that represent their diverse student population.
In summary, all of these things and more convinced me to join Imperial College Business School, and have consequently reaffirmed my decision upon joining. Is there more to do? Of course there is, but I am filled with sense of pride and hope when I see the steps that have been taken so far.