Religion, race, gender, sexuality, and politics. These are the topics the MBA-student-run Return on Equality group brings to the forefront each year during One Wharton Week. The annual weeklong event series touches on an array of diversity, inclusion, and belonging topics with help from students, faculty, and staff.

If a week dedicated to “belonging” sounds off-course for a business school, think again. These future business leaders don’t just believe that building inclusive workplaces is the right thing to do — they know it leads to better business outcomes and financial returns.

“Students are coming here to get to another level in their own leadership and recognition of their place in society. I think it really starts with understanding yourself and understanding the people around you,” said Yiqin Jiang, WG’20, Co-President of Return on Equality.

“The more that students feel, and myself included, exposed to parts of the community and perspectives they have not been in the past, then that just makes us better people and better leaders going forward,” Yiqin said.

Carolynn Johnson, CEO of Diversity, Inc. agreed. “I don’t like to talk about diversity as the ‘nice thing’ to do or the ‘good thing’ to do. It’s the profitable thing to do. It’s the competitive thing to do. There are a lot of organizations that have connected better business return on investment to [a] proper diversity and inclusion strategy,” she said on a February 2020 episode of Wharton Business Daily.

Building #OneWhartonWeek

To achieve their goals, Yiqin and her co-organizers produce One Wharton Week each year with student needs in mind first. In fact, the MBA students are asked to send their feedback, suggestions, and thoughts to the Return on Equality board members. The group convenes to consider the most requested and standout recommendations. This year, input from students led to the addition of events on socioeconomic status (“The True Cost of FOMO”) and politics (“Conversations on Political Differences”).

Students are also encouraged to sign up for Small Group Dinners. Just as the name suggests, small groups of eight to 12 students meet at a classmate’s home to break bread. Whether it’s a home-cooked meal or takeout, every dinner is assigned a theme and a conversation on that topic is facilitated by a One Wharton Week organizer. These prompts lead to far-reaching conversations and spark new connections among attendees.

When it comes to encouraging a cross-section of participation across the MBA classes, peer groups invite their members and lead discussions. Wharton Women in Business, the African American of MBA Association (AAMBAA), Muslim Student Association, the Catholic Club, Politics and Public Policy Club, and the Media & Entertainment Club are a few of the groups that partnered with Return on Equality this year.

Opening Hearts and Minds

The success of One Wharton Week programming largely depends on the participants’ willingness to share their real experiences. Thanks to the alignment with student interests and a supportive culture, the enthusiasm to be vulnerable comes naturally.

“Students almost always hear positive feedback from their peers when they do share stories, and this open environment positively reinforces more sharing,” Yiqin said. “People are open to sharing because they want to use their personal experiences to start an open dialogue about issues at Wharton they are passionate about or think impact them greatly.”

Vice Dean Howie Kaufold shares this goal and supports One Wharton Week through the MBA Program’s Vice Dean’s Diversity and Inclusion Fund. “These conversations are so powerful because the presenters are willing to share their true experiences, and that in turn inspires attendees to ask questions that might seem off-limits in day-to-day conversation. The result is a deeper understanding and connection across groups, which is the only way to achieve a truly inclusive community,” Vice Dean Howie said.

While the specific events evolve from year-to-year, the mission to spark meaningful conversations remains the same. Yiqin said, “Success is reaching as many students as we can with either a new perspective on a topic they’ve never considered before, helping them feel a greater sense of belonging at Wharton or being better equipped on diversity and inclusion topics in the future.”

— Mike Kaiser

Posted: May 18, 2020

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