Opinion + Voices

UCLA faculty voice: What leaders can learn from Los Angeles

Communities like Los Angeles can teach leaders the importance of embracing diversity and inclusion


Kimberly Freeman is assistant dean for diversity initiatives and community relations at UCLA Anderson School of Management. She also currently chairs the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles Board of Directors and serves on the boards of the California African American Museum and the Women’s Foundation of California. This op-ed appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Diversity Journal.

California has been called many things, including an “experiment in social diversity.” If California is the experiment, then some may agree that Los Angeles serves as the laboratory within which the bulk of this experiment is carried out. In Los Angeles, a city with exceptional multidimensional diversity, it only makes sense that we, as leaders, begin to re-think how we cultivate and embrace diversity across communities for the benefit of all who learn, live, and work here.

Having recently joined the UCLA Anderson School of Management as assistant dean for diversity initiatives and community relations, the school and its traditional MBA program have been my laboratory for observing diversity. I accepted this position at Anderson because, as an alumna of the school and an active member of the greater Los Angeles community, I was intrigued by the opportunity to change the way the next generation of business leaders think and act. I believe influencing how we leverage cross-cultural diversity is key to that mission.

This is what I have observed:

First, UCLA Anderson is a natural gateway for grooming business leaders who are fluent in cross-cultural diversity. Why? Because our students represent more than 45 countries. By virtue of this class composition, our students have the potential to learn a great deal from one another by participating in class together, serving on teams, and being involved in student clubs.

Second, while attending classes here, our students are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this global crossroads we call Los Angeles by virtue of where they choose to live. As a global business school located in an incredibly diverse city, the school offers students an opportunity to be educated and exposed to the cross-cultural diversity that lies beyond the walls of Anderson. If one can deal with the traffic, options abound to live in culturally and ethnically diverse communities throughout the region. For instance, the Los Angeles Times published a diversity index, which measures the probability that any two residents, chosen at random, would be of different ethnicities. If all residents are of the same ethnic group, the probability is zero. If half the residents are from one group and half from another it’s .50

Nearly 150 of the 265 communities in LA County ranked higher than .50. Home to more than 10 million people, where else in this country can you find such cross-cultural diversity?

En route to a degree, there are also available internships, travel opportunities, and applied research projects with a global flair that can deepen our students’ understanding of cross-cultural diversity. However, to master cross-cultural diversity, one need not look to opportunities abroad.

Upon graduation, a healthy percentage of our graduates choose to stay in Southern California. At last count, approximately 31 percent of UCLA Anderson’s 35,000 alumni reside in Los Angeles County. Fluency in cross-cultural diversity matters at the local level for many of our students who remain in the area.

But there’s a deeper commitment our students and alumni can make to leverage cross-cultural diversity. Business schools train leaders, and that leadership takes on many forms, including civic leadership that reaches into local communities that touch their campuses. This education and exposure can help deepen our students’ connection to the region and encourage them to use their MBA skills to serve their local communities. In Los Angeles County, nearly 40,000 registered nonprofits provide a huge opportunity for MBAs to make a difference.

Years of volunteering on boards and commissions led me to recognize this leadership imperative of embracing cross-cultural diversity. As a former director of community relations for a Los Angeles-based utility company, I had to develop emotional intelligence and increase my capacity as a leader to work across multiple communities. Armed with my MBA, and bitten by the international travel bug, I participated in a number of community-based programs that spanned gender, race, geography and issues — an effort that helped sharpen my awareness of other cultures.

Applied Learning

Moving that awareness into a corporate culture need not be too difficult, but organizations don’t really have the luxury of waiting for change to happen. In fact, smart organizations with diverse employee populations have been mastering the challenges of creating affinity organizations, celebrating and embracing ethnic and cultural diversity in the workplace, and developing key partnerships within the community.

Companies may consider accelerating employees’ skills development by enrolling them in a community-based leadership and development training program. While many companies spend considerable amounts of their training budgets on diversity and inclusion training that is designed from an HR compliance point of view, a more cost-effective solution may exist in training programs offered through local chambers of commerce and nonprofits.

Here is where a system can be created that knits together desired internal professional development with external, tangible examples of challenges and issues affecting the world we live in. Add to that the benefit these external-facing programs provide with the real-world exposure to local communities and the people-to-people networking with leaders united by a common purpose.

As well, there is the practical advantage in understanding what the shifting demographics can mean for the future in areas of product development, customer service and market growth. In a state with an increasing population under age 40 (the students and leaders of tomorrow) alongside a Latino community whose buying power is expected to reach $363 billion in 2015, it is imperative to determine how best to serve the converging populace. Overall, understanding and mastering the ways and means to integrate knowledge and shared experiences across communities creates a bigger framework within which creativity and innovation can thrive.

I believe it’s not enough to just look at diversity in its traditional silos; that is just the starting point. In a place like Los Angeles, where identity, culture, and community play a huge role in shaping our collective destiny, we have to get sophisticated in our approach to matters of diversity and inclusion. And you know what they say, “As goes California, so goes the rest of the country!”

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