In the midst of a significant period for civil rights in U.S. history, Boston University alumni from a diversity of backgrounds joined together for a virtual seminar to discuss their experiences in the workplace.
Five panelists from various graduation years, schools and underrepresented backgrounds gathered virtually Thursday for the event, titled “Own it: A Conversation with Alumni about Diversity and Inclusion in the Workspace,” which included a Q&A and networking component.
Josee Matela, a 2020 alumna from the College of Communication, is currently the community and special projects manager at FinTech Sandbox and the founder of Matelamade, a digital marketing agency. As a panelist at the event, she said she learned to use her life experience as a low-income, first-generation, minority student as motivation and something to be proud of.
“There were different ways that I thought at first I had to be ashamed of because how can that move me forward,” Matela said at the event, “but rather it became a strong point to say ‘It’s not just me, it’s for who I was when I was five years old and also who I look up to now.’”
Koga Akinsola, a 2017 alumnus from BU’s Metropolitan College, spoke at the event about adjusting to a foreign workplace as an immigrant to Boston from Uganda.
“One of the things that took me a while to notice was that I was different,” he said, “because when I went to school in Uganda, the teachers were Black, your friends were Black, everybody was Black … if someone was mistreating you, it was never because of your skin color.”
He said despite companies saying they are devoted to diversity and inclusion, actually adjusting to the workplace was a “different ballgame.”
“Most of the time, people need to feel comfortable with you, no matter how you talk about it,” Akinsola said, “Sometimes you think is it about race, is it about you? No. I’ve seen people of the same race come in and they’re not comfortable with them.”
At the event, Akinsola emphasized the importance of finding a mentor in the workplace to assist with that adjustment.
“You have a good champion, a good mentor, whatever the race that person is, they will take you to the promised land, all the time,” he said, “because they know what you feel.”
Panelist Senwei Horng, a 2017 Questrom School of Business MBA alumnus, spoke at the event about his experiences with companies shifting their attitudes toward a more diverse and progressive business model. Horng is a product category manager at Wakefern Food Corp. — the country’s largest cooperative owned by retailers in the United States.
“The food industry can be very, very conservative on diversity and its philosophy is very conservative,” Horng said at the event, “My company has been trying to move away from that mentality, which is actually one of the reasons why my division was created, led by my VP to bring in outside talent and create more diversity, inclusion.”
However, Horng said there are still barriers companies must work against to bring real, lasting change.
“Even though this division is new, I’m still the only Asian in my division,” Horng said. “There’s a lot to work on, but it’s good that they’re going to the right direction.”
Brian Nguyen, president of Pride in Business — a Questrom student club dedicated to promoting equality in the workplace and providing resources for LGBTQ+ students in business — said in an interview companies must stay true to their word when they market themselves as diverse and inclusive and include the LGBTQ+ community in that conversation as well.
“I think a lot of companies advertise or like to say that ‘we’re inclusive’ and ‘we’re and all this stuff,’ but it starts from the inside out,” Nguyen said, “You can’t just wave around a flag or have a rainbow colored logo all year round, I think for a lot of institutions, it takes real change.”
He said true internal change is not always comfortable, but always necessary.
“For a company to be very inclusive, I think they have to make an effort to push themselves to be uncomfortable,” Nguyen said, “look at what are the issues within the company themselves.”
Jonathan Woodson, a professor of the practice, markets, public policy and law in Questrom, said the current generation entering the workforce must “seize the moment” and continue the momentum toward greater change and equality.
“What we’ve got to understand, in part, is this old saying of ‘seek to understand before being understood,’” Woodson said. “What we’ve got to do is make everyone understand that if we produce a level playing field in society, everybody benefits because it’s about the ability of individuals to achieve their potential.”
At BU, Matela said the University could improve its support of students in minority groups. She emphasized the importance of taking advantage of BU resources such as the Howard Thurman Center, which she said profoundly and positively impacted her experience at the university.
“At my time at BU, it was really great, but I will also not lie and say there weren’t issues in supporting marginalized communities or underrepresented students,” Matela said. “I felt like that [HTC] was one of those places where you have the opportunity to connect, the opportunity, to organize, the opportunity to really create lasting change, not only for yourself but also for the people and students who are going to come after you.”