There are a lot of ways people propose making an impact. For me, the medium varies, but the ultimate goal of helping other FGLI students navigate their future remains steady. Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, studies equality of opportunity. His findings suggest that my path is quite unique.
In 2014, Chetty interrogated the veracity of the “American Dream”. His research found that my hometown of Philadelphia was ranked exactly 25 in upward mobility among the 50 largest commuting zones. The study found a 7.4% probability that a child like me in the bottom quintile of the national income distribution, in a city with relatively average amount of upward mobility, could catapult to the top quintile as an adult. This was later validated by a study conducted by Harvard’s Opportunity Insights Program based on millions of anonymous tax filings and tuition records.
The dark orange and orange bands closest to the origin reflects that fewer than a fraction of a percent of my peers at my Ivy graduate university, and about 1% at my elite undergraduate university had a similar socio-economic background. Now, I occupy space in the professional managerial class, working in product management, a route in tech that has become increasingly sexy but still predominately white and male.
I’ve endeavored to pay it forward, sharing my experience with navigating the ivory tower and the tech sector and opening my network. I’ve given over 50 informational interviews in the last year and mentored junior colleagues and students in my undergrad institution’s scholarship program. I’ve also found a lot of value in showing in places where I’m not expected — like boards. Most recently, I joined the board of the Penn Club of DC.
The board is comprised of alumnus that are leaders in their industry and any board would be lucky to have free counsel from. It’s a who’s who of lawyers and doctors and CEOs that have been drawn together by their individual motivations, and school pride.
We were encouraged to take ownership of one or two events throughout the calendar year. Covid drove our approach this year, and for me, the purpose. I chose to organize the first external event of the year — an electronic drive for our members and the DC alumni at large. Partnering with DC public schools, the drive raised over $10,000 for distance learning supplies like laptops and headphones. The organization we partnered with shared the following quotes from recipients:
“A computer? You really giving us a computer like this? I can’t thank you enough, now there is no excuse. A is expected from everyone.”
- DCPS parent, JC Nalle Community School- Southeast DC
“So grateful for one less thing to worry about her not having.”- DC Public Charter School parent, The SEED Public Charter school — Southeast DC
“Having headphones like these made the kids excited to put them on. I’m embarrassed by what they had before, now they hear class in stereo.”- Montgomery County Public School high school parent
I had spent two months running the electronics collection, and contributed to it myself. I had also spent many hours in monthly board and committee meetings for the club. I was confident in my contribution. I try to approach all things that occupy my time or draw on my resources with intentionality, this effort included. That’s why when the next event for the club was for the club’s own annual fund, I chose not to donate.
Fast-forward a month of repeated contribution requests and sitting through a board meeting where the executive team piled on, saying, “We have full participation other than one member. You know who you are. We’ll send out an email naming you or maybe we’ll point you out in our next meeting.” I received an email on Christmas from the president of the club. He opened with well-wishes of holiday cheer for my family, and closed with a targeted appeal for me to contribute. I was taken aback, and after floating a draft response to a few close friends, I decided to wait until after Christmas to share the following:
Happy holidays. As you’ve mentioned, I’ve donated a significant amount of time, as well as contributed hundreds of dollars for the electronic drive for DC Public Schools just a couple months ago.
I find this email on Christmas day to be in poor taste. I can imagine it was uncomfortable to draft, considering how inappropriate it was to receive. A volunteer alumni board is not one that has a financial obligation, and as I mentioned when joining, it’s something I had interest in because of the opportunity to build a network for other first generation, low-income students. I have the privilege of knowing firsthand how short-sighted it is to assume someone has disposable income — it was just a few years ago that I was in the financial aid office, appealing for a bridge loan to cover groceries. Diversity and inclusion includes shifting assumptions and unconscious biases like these, avoiding coded language like the thinly veiled “joke” shared about this on our monthly call, and fostering a sense of psychological safety that a pressuring email like this unabashedly disregards. Your time would be better served making this a clear requirement given that you’ve prioritized this over any other type of contribution.
This serves as my resignation and I hope that you’ll be able to measure what matters for board participation going forward.
Since then, I’ve received several emails asking for further discussion. I’ve chosen not to expend further energy and time into the organization, and had hoped that my message was clear. However, I received a call from an unfamiliar number last week from a board member and after I reiterated that I didn’t have anything further to discuss, they appealed to me by saying they were calling personally, and not on behalf of the club.
They told me that the board had discussed my resignation at some length. They were appalled at the privilege and lack of empathy. The board still felt that it was within the means of every member to make some contribution. We closed the conversation warmly, with their hope that they could lead the club in a different direction, and that they fully supported my choice.
From what I understand, the only regional alumni club for Penn that has an annual drive is DC. It’s unclear to me what the funds will go towards, and others have voiced similar concerns about a lack of transparency.
I share this because I understand that changing the makeup of boards is considered an integral part of a global conversation about how to make meaningful change in existing power structures using mechanisms that were historically weaponized against BIPOC. I also am intimately familiar with how diversity and inclusion efforts are fundamentally flawed without a truly holistic approach.
My experience reflects that short-sightedness -I joined a board that touts a commitment to diversity and inclusion. The board didn’t have a required contribution to occupy a seat. The executive board members that targeted and ridiculed me for not donating to their annual drive remains in their posts, but I no longer have a seat at the table.
This is a familiar story for many others that have attempted to show up where they’re not expected, and will continue to be relevant as countries and states implement board mandates and other measures to increase diversity. Calling out microaggressions and tokenizing, accountability for those that are resistant to changing biased policies or norms, and comprehensive reform rather than milquetoast platitudes — we all need to work together to make boards and other positions of influence inclusive and accessible.
Wall Street Journal, Coveted Job Title for M.B.A.s: Product Manager.
Harvard Business Review, When and Why Diversity Improves Your Board’s Performance.
Raj Chetty’s study on the Geography of Intergenerational Mobility.
Harvard’s Opportunity Insights.
California Secretary of State, Women on Boards.