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ND Diversity Conference examines capitalizing on differences

April 2, 2012

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On a recent Saturday morning, Marv Russell was sitting in the Notre Dame Hammes Bookstore café, looking over his notes for a talk he was about to give as the keynote speaker for the Notre Dame Diversity Conference.

A young black student introduced herself and asked the former Notre Dame football player to sign a copy of his book, “Linebacker in the Boardroom.” Russell, who was a member of the 1973 National Championship team, has led a successful global human resource career and is now the managing partner of consultancy firm Marv Russell & Partners.

“We chatted for a few minutes and I told her how important ND was to me,” said Russell. “Part of its importance was the role that this University has played in support of diverse thinking and behavior for over 100 years. All the way back to when young Irish Catholics began coming to ND, and during WWII when black naval officers were trained on our campus.”

He pointed out to the student the many ways that President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh supported civil rights, from his service on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, to opening Notre Dame’s doors to women, to being awarded with 2011 Diversity Champion Award.

A short time later, Russell’s casual chat with the student formed the basis of the message he had to deliver at the Diversity Conference. “Diversity is a state of mind; it is courageous thinking and action and pride in who we are and what we can be,” says Russell.  “You are Notre Dame students, the future leaders of this world. And the University of Notre Dame is an institution that supports and is a foundation of diverse thinking and spiritual leadership.”

About 135 students, company representatives, community members as well as Notre Dame faculty and staff attended the Fifth Annual Notre Dame MBA Diversity Conference, “Capitalizing on Differences: What do You Bring to the Table?” held March 23-24.

Sponsored by the Notre Dame MBA Association, the event featured executives from GE, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Coca-Cola Corp. speaking about the importance of diversity in their organizations and how it influences business decisions. Panelists from companies including the Kellogg Company, Skanska, Chase, Exelon and The Summers Group discussed what "differences" mean in the workplace, the role of differences in organizational change, and challenges of integrating a diverse organization.

“The primary takeaway that was common across most all of the presentations was that modern workplaces are becoming more heterogeneous,” said Kathryn Pelletier (MBA ’12), who organized the conference. “As future leaders it is critical for us to embrace the notion that diversity is embedded into the culture of organizations. We must appreciate the role that diversity plays in achieving the goals within the organizations we work for.”

Corporate sponsors for the conference included Bank of America, Chase, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, Exelon, GE, Kellogg's, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Skanska.

“It was interesting to hear senior executives from major corporations discuss their take on the nature of diversity and how they promote it within their organizations,” said Ammar Zafar (MBA ’13). “It was also beneficial to hear real-life examples of how greater diversity within a team helped drive its success. For me, it reinforced the importance of going beyond your comfort zone to work with others who may have different backgrounds.”

The conference included a case competition, where 14 teams competed from schools in analyzing a case sponsored by Ernst & Young that centered on supply chain optimization. The panel of judges, which included E&Y representatives as well as Mendoza College faculty members, awarded the top four awards to Indiana University, University of Chicago, Purdue University and Rutgers University, respectively.

“Speaking at the conference was an honor and wonderful experience with many great minds exploring ‘diverse’ perspectives of personal and professional life,” said Russell.  “A point that I tried to convey is that diversity is a state of mind that demands a willingness to continuously change. But we know that change is difficult because each of us has blind spots that come from our cultural habits attitudes and beliefs. So creating a diverse world does take time and patience.”