Minorities face corporate challenges

Ingrid Skjong

As one of 115 Asian-American students in the Carlson School of Management, Chi Nguyen knows she presents a different image in the traditionally white male business world.
But Nguyen is determined to make her mark.
“Even if a glass ceiling exists, I’ll either go through it or around it,” said the senior finance major, who is also president of Carlson’s Business Association of Minorities.
As business schools groom students for positions in corporate America, minority students like Nguyen are increasingly aware that statistics aren’t in their favor. Through aggressive recruiting and outreach, Carlson officials want to change the demographic landscape.
A survey conducted by Coopers & Lybrand in 1997 found that while the number of women and minorities on the boards of directors of American corporations is increasing, white males still dominate the ranks. Men fill 89 percent of the positions and 92 percent of all business people are white.
According to the 1990 federal census, 48.7 percent of Americans are male, and 80.3 percent are white.
But to make strides in changing those demographics, many say steps need to be made at the academic level.
Candelario Zuniga, an academic advisor at Carlson who has worked with minority students for 10 years, said the numbers of minorities has always been constant. This fall, however, the number of minority students enrolled increased to 175 from 123 a year earlier.
Some of this increase is attributed to the school’s recent opening of enrollment to freshmen, he said. Yet, Zuniga admits the numbers could always be higher.
Zuniga said he wants to make sure his students receive the best opportunities possible. However, receiving these opportunities solely based on their ethnicity is the last thing they want, he said.
“Students don’t want to be admitted because we’re lacking a certain group,” Zuniga said. “If a student’s not going to make it here, it’s not worth it.”
In Carlson’s competitive atmosphere, it is necessary for students to be at the top of their game. The students Zuniga advises consistently rise to the level of expectations the school sets.
Academic success coupled with solid graduation rates are the two most-telling factors. About 90 percent of Carlson’s minority students graduate from the two-year program in an average of three years — just two quarters shy of the seven-quarter school average.
Similar to the undergraduate program, Carlson’s master’s of business program takes steps to promote minority participation in business. While minority students consistently represent about 8 percent of the total program enrollment, steps are being taken to increase the numbers, said admissions coordinator Tracy Keeling.
Officials for the master’s program participate in searches geared toward minority students, much like undergraduates are sought through college fairs at area schools. They work closely with minority alumni by attempting to increase networking.
Although the support is strong at the academic level, the “real world” can offer entirely new challenges.
Giving minority students a hand, without having the gesture looking like a handout, is a precariously slippery slope. With recent attacks on affirmative action, corporations tend to take a cautious approach to their hiring practices, said Dennis Ahlburg, Carlson professor of industrial relations.
“Most people are concerned at the type of signal it sends,” Ahlburg added.
When minorities are hired, a “strange tokenism” is sometimes evident, Ahlburg said. In some cases minorities are not given the chance to do real work, and are instead used to show how much progress the corporation has made.
In an effort to discourage these practices, programs help expose minority business students to the corporate world. One of these is Inroads, a national program targeting African-American, Hispanic and Native American students interested in business careers.
Jesse Herrera, a 1995 Carlson graduate and employee at Minneapolis’s GE Capital Fleet Services, attributes much of his success to the opportunities he received through Inroads.
The program’s support helped to ease many of the anxieties he had about entering the corporate arena.
“It was an intimidating experience,” Herrera said. “I really had no idea what I was going into.”
Inroads helped him to get a feel for business culture from the appropriate way to dress to other less obvious protocol.
Raymond Burns, a developmental specialist at the Twin Cities branch of Inroads, said the program’s 7,000 alumni and 900 corporate sponsors is testament to its success.
“Just being there makes a powerful statement to the corporate world,” Burns said. “It’s a large step, but it can’t be the only step.”