Tackling Socioeconomic Diversity: Alexis Jackson (MBA 2021) Makes Her Own Path at HBS
At the outset of her career, it seemed like Alexis Jackson (MBA 2021) had it all. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Jackson loved a good challenge and strived for financial success. She was a brilliant student of math and science, earned an engineering scholarship to Penn State, and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. She landed a position at a multinational oil and gas corporation and moved to Louisiana with her mother to embark on the rest of her journey.
However, Jackson discovered that a lucrative job with a promising career path did not guarantee satisfaction. She was a great engineer working for a company that promised advancement and financial security, but something was missing. “Even though I enjoyed the company and people, I began to realize that it wasn’t a good fit for me,” remembers Jackson. “I had ambitions to explore a variety of industries and technologies. I also wanted to approach innovative challenges that created another layer of problem-solving depth.”
Through colleagues, Jackson learned of Management Leaders for Tomorrow (MLT). Launched in 2002, MLT is a training, coaching, and networking program whose goal is to drive diversity in leadership roles. Tapping into a bast network of leaders and partners, the organization equips individuals from underrepresented communities—Black, Latinx, and Native American—with the tools necessary for economic mobility while transforming the pipelines of organizations to diversify the corporate world.
In the United States, a third of the population is Black, Latinx, or Indigenous. However, only a handful of senior executives at Fortune 500 companies represent these communities. Ensuring representation at the highest levels of leadership requires that business school programs practice diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Jackson’s six-month experience in MLT was transformative. At first, she wasn’t convinced that leaving a lucrative job to pursue a business degree was the right move. The costs of obtaining the education, tools, and resources that an elite MBA program provides are a concern for prospective students who don’t come from wealthy family backgrounds and must weigh those costs against supporting themselves.
“There was a real momentum, being with people who have a dream for themselves that is bigger than one company and one goal,” she said about her time in the organization. “MLT’s focus on knowing your own story, what’s important to you, and what you’re trying to accomplish—those were things that no one had really asked me about until that point in my life. I just knew that life was bigger than what I was experiencing.”
Jackson decided that to achieve her goals, she would apply to business school for an MBA. HBS became her first choice after a campus visit showcased the casual classroom environment and student enthusiasm. After meeting students from the African American Student Union (AASU) and the Latin American Student Union (LASO), it was clear HBS was going to be a supportive environment where she could grow.
Jackson would reach another obstacle once she was accepted by the MBA programs to which she had applied. HBS did not offer her the financial aid package that other schools had.
What Does DEI Really Mean?
Conversations about DEI must include socioeconomic diversity. Socioeconomic inclusion covers everything from the diversity of the class itself to tuition costs, including the costs of extracurricular activities, vital to the experience. Equally important is addressing socioeconomic diversity in the curriculum and how socioeconomic status impacts career choices.
“From my college major to my first job, every decision I’ve made has been from a financial security standpoint because I understand that my finances are more than myself,” said Jackson. The financial aid equation looked at her last three years of income rather than her broader financial circumstances, which has a significant influence on choices for Jackson and others like her.
She turned to her MLT colleagues for advice. She eventually decided that she could best achieve her long-term goals by choosing the school that offered her the program she desired most. “Everyone was telling me to choose the school that could offer me the most flexibility in the future, not just for my first job after graduating,” recalls Jackson. “For me, that was HBS.”
Her experience visiting campus and meeting students involved with AASU and LASO encouraged her to get more involved once she was in the program. Jackson decided to run for AASU co-president. “Being a part of Black groups has always been a part of my identity,” said Jackson. “I knew early on that I wanted to be AASU co-president because I believe in Black excellence and the power of the community for support and inclusion. Students from AASU and LASO were always willing to let me knock on their doors, to give me mock interviews, and to talk. It’s a network where you always pay it forward. I think I’m here because of them, and I wanted to be a positive influence for the incoming class.”
Channeling Strength Through Adversity
But her early success in the MBA program was tested in the spring of 2020. First, the pandemic upended everyone’s lives, and then, she suffered a personal tragedy in the sudden loss of her brother. As the year wore on, the trauma of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent violence against the social justice movement that followed took a heavy toll.
“I’ve always worried about what’s next—I always have an answer and some certainty for the next step,” said Jackson. “Losing my brother made me realize that bad things will happen—it is the worst thing that has happened to me, but I am still here and have to live my life. I went from a person who didn’t cry much to crying weekly, from someone afraid of failure to someone who embraces it.”
Jackson focused her grief on making a difference in her community, embracing risk as a tool for making change.
In 2020, Jackson and her AASU co-president Bukie Adebo (MBA 2021) partnered with the administration to form the HBS Anti-Racism Task Force and the Racial Equity Action Plan. Equity is a crucial component in DEI efforts. For example, in financial aid, equality means giving everyone the same amount of assistance without considering the individual’s circumstances. Individuals from different backgrounds need different levels of support to create an equal experience, and that is equity.
Work by the task force produced significant changes for MBA program admissions, including expanding the financial aid formula to include socioeconomic background and, in June of 2021, introducing a need-based application fee waiver. The work of the task force continues with current students.
For Alexis Jackson, her future is a position with Bain in New York City. She is excited to embrace the challenge of the unknown in new industries and experiences. “Over the last year, I’ve realized that we don’t know what the future will bring,” said Jackson. “I’ve learned to be ok with that uncertainty and the failure that may come with it—to live in the moment and be present in every way possible. I think we’ll remember taking the chances and the leaps more than the slight hiccups along the road.”