The Economic Virtue of Teaching Diversity

The Economic Virtue of Teaching Diversity

You don’t have to travel the world to learn diversity’s value

After traveling the United States in the early 1800s, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville noted, among other things, that cooperation and association are not easy virtues to learn, but embracing both makes possible freedom and democracy. If today Tocqueville toured an American university or corporation with a diversity and inclusion program, I believe he would see freedom and democracy at work.

U.S. companies and institutions of higher education that embrace diversity lead our nation away from the divisions that sometimes parade as patriotism. The definition of diversity isn’t as clear to some people as others, though. I recently visited a New England college with my daughter. When leaving the campus, she said, “I saw a lot of Black Lives Matter posters, but I didn’t see a person of color the whole time we were there.”

Measuring diversity by race alone would be a mistake in the opinion of Wendy Lewis, global chief diversity officer for McDonald’s Corp. According to Lewis, who is responsible for diversity and inclusion across all the restaurant chain’s businesses, there’s no place where there isn’t diversity.

“Diversity is inclusion; that’s what we say here. Diversity can be complex — sometimes the differences are obvious, sometimes hidden,” Lewis said. “In any population there will be differences. Consider marital status, age, religion, a disability or a person’s motivations for work itself. If we have any hope about a better future for businesses and our families, we have to be inclusive.”

Be wary though of relying on metrics alone to ensure the creation and propagation of a culture of diversity. It’s overly simplistic to think because your employee population consistently employs “X” percentage of a certain group an organization is open to diversity.

“I think one of the best ways to foster diversity is understanding how intrinsic motivations help employees relate to others who may have different needs,” said Sean Murphy, a Columbia University-trained social psychology practitioner and founder of Inside8, which provides tests for understanding personal motivations.

“When employer and coworker understand what’s motivating someone on the team, they can appreciate how differences elevate a company’s and employee’s performance,” Murphy said.

Some organizations intrinsically know that embracing diversity is the right thing to do. But others misunderstand or even feel threatened by what they don’t know. Convincing these organizations and their employees, at least initially, may require an effort that defines in economic or professional terms how diversity programs can advance everyone’s fortunes.

“There’s a notion in business and academia that what gets measured gets done. But we need to disaggregate the data and look at how diversity and inclusion help us,” said Kevin McDonald, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the University of Missouri System, who came to Columbia in the wake of the 2015 protests to change the culture around issues of race.

In fact, the best companies and schools practice what Lewis and McDonald preach: Diversity and inclusion (and the cooperation and understanding they both spur) lead to success. Businesses, especially multinationals, want students who can work in interdisciplinary groups with team members from many different countries.

McDonald says the university’s curriculum is now intentional in showing how diversity plays a role in the academic discipline and career aspirations of students. A student might be studying engineering. But they’ll also have the chance to apply that learning in a real-world setting through an internship that puts a student into a setting unlike his or her experience. McDonald contrasted this with a story in which he recalled his role at a previous institution when an employer declined to hire some of the university’s students.

“I asked the employer what was wrong,” said McDonald. “And he said, ‘It isn’t that your students aren’t gifted, they are; they just don’t have the multicultural competencies or the interdisciplinary experiences we need to be successful.’ ”

If academic leaders and corporate executives promote diversity and show how we’re all better for it, then we’ll see the virtue of this spread and begin living the best of what we all believe America to be.

Lee Maxey is CEO of MindMax, a marketing and enrollment management services company. To comment, email