It wasn’t until Claire Barnett was an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University that she discovered she was on the autism spectrum.
The diagnosis changed his life – but not entirely in an immediately obvious way.
“I was like, ‘That’s really great information, I needed to know that,'” Barnett says Poets&Quants. “And I realized that part of the reason I even got a late diagnosis was that there were so many misconceptions – not just about autism and autism in women, but about disability and what people with disabilities look like, how they behave, what they’re capable of.
“And so that started me on a path.”
FOLLOW HIS PATH
Barnett is one of approximately 61 million adults in the United States living with a disability. One in four Americans, or 26%, has some kind of disability, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say, meaning they face chronic difficulties with mobility, cognition, sight, hearing, or another condition.
After graduating from Vanderbilt with a bachelor’s degree in human and organizational development, Barnett followed her path and began her career at Vanderbilt’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation as a researcher focused on workplace neurodiversity. As Director of Communications and Advocacy, she has worked with companies on recruiting, hiring, and managing neurodivergent talent, and she taught a freshman seminar on neurodiversity. Her research included a study of ADHD/autistic women in the United States
Barnett decided to pursue her career with an MBA, and in 2021 she joined the full-time program at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina. There she discovered that disability accommodations were limited to things like wheelchair ramps, and understanding of cognitive and other non-physical disabilities was lacking.
“When I came to the MBA program, I was frustrated that there were fantastic diversity supports for students of color, international students, women, LGBT students, veterans, and no conversation. even about disability,” she says. “There have been days dedicated to mental health and wellness as that conversation has broadened. And there were things like, “We need wheelchair ramps where there are steps.” But there is so much more here that needs to be addressed. Business schools tend to be less accessible than other graduate programs, and the MBA culture tends to lean much more towards ableist language and practices.
Barnett founded a diversity club called the Carolina Disability Alliance and, along with about half a dozen of his fellow MBA students, began planning what would become the Empwr Conference, a recruiting conference for people with disabilities. It draws inspiration from other MBA diversity conferences, such as those organized each year by ROMBA and the Forte Foundation.
“We watched last fall as peers and even some members of the leadership team attend conferences for the National Black MBA Association, as well as conferences hosted by Forte, as well as ROMBA and Prospanica,” says- she. “And we just thought, ‘How come these huge organizational supports exist for disadvantaged minority groups, and there’s no conversation – or anything – around disability?'”
After a year of planning, the first Employment Conference will take place November 11-13, 2022, in person at the Durham Convention Center & Marriott City Center and streamed live online. With $60,000 in corporate sponsorship funds – most of which came from McKinsey, PwC and Boston Consulting Group, the latter Barnett’s summer and future employer – the conference will include panels, breakout sessions , awards and a keynote address by BCG Senior Partner and Managing Director Brad Loftus.
It will also feature a variety of major recruiting employers, as its primary mission, says Barnett, is to connect students from B schools in the disability community with top employers.
RECRUITERS FROM GOOGLE, McKINSEY, BCG WILL PARTICIPATE IN EMPWR
Barnett points out that enrollment is open to both students with and without disabilities. “Allied” enrollment means attendance does not automatically disqualify a student as having a disability, she said; it also offers non-disabled students the opportunity to participate and learn about an often overlooked minority group. She hopes to have 150 in-person student participants and up to 250 virtual participants; early bird registration ends October 14.
“I think the demand is there, and I think students are still partially missing information about it, and partially wondering if it’s worth it, if it’s legit,” Barnett says. “It’s a big ask to say, ‘I’m going to stop further recruiting activities. If I have a family, I will leave them, I will focus on that for a few days. And so we want them to know that it’s extremely subsidized.
Hotel rates for students are substantially subsidized by sponsor dollars: $250 is the conference group rate per night, $50 is the stand-alone student rate, and $75 is the allied student rate. Participating students can apply for Empwr Awards/Scholarships to recognize impactful advocacy.
“We weren’t going to do it in person if it couldn’t be financially accessible,” says Barnett. “The fact that registration is $35 for MBA students, and that includes five meals and a t-shirt.”
Recruitment companies include Prudential Financial, Google, PwC, McKinsey & Company, BCG, etc.
“I can’t list 30 companies that will be there,” Barnett says. “But I have representatives from three big consulting firms, a big tech player, a big financial player, a startup. And I think I’m going to recruit a big player in finance and investment banking, and I think I’m going to recruit another group that helps find disabled talent for various companies.
On the Empwr website, a four-pronged definition of disability
According to the report, Status of Disability Inclusion in MBA Programs, by Access to Success, a non-profit organization that studies disability. Access to Success has created a scholarship for MBA students with disabilities.
AIMING FOR LONGEVITY
In an unpublished study published earlier this year, Access to Success, a Canadian non-profit organization that supports the development of future leaders with disabilities and annually awards scholarships to MBA students with disabilities, noted that 15% of the world’s population, or 1 billion people, experience a form of disability – yet only 7% of business leaders identify as having a disability. This presents a major dilemma: “How do we close this representation gap when it comes to leaders with disabilities? »
The group posits that one way to achieve greater representation of people with disabilities is to “build a pipeline of future leaders with disabilities” through business schools and MBA programs. “While business schools have made significant progress in promoting diversity and inclusion in their programs, little is known about the numbers and experiences of people with disabilities in MBA programs. We cannot address what we do not know.
Barnett hopes the EMPWR can be part of that pipeline this fall and in the future. For this to happen. she spends 20 hours a week not only planning the inaugural event, but also helping secure funds for the next one. Thanks in large part to a grant from the Ford Foundation, Empwr 2023 already has $75,000 in the bank. Barnett and other UNC MBA students have filed the necessary paperwork to establish Empwr as a nonprofit foundation independent of the UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA Student Association that will continue to organize annual diversity recruiting conferences in addition to possibly offering scholarships and networking opportunities for School B students who belong to the disability community.
DIVERGENT FROM NEURODIVERGENCE
Claire Barnett will graduate in the spring and return to work for BCG, where she completed an internship as a summer consultant this year. Despite everything she’s done to raise funds and awareness about disabilities, she isn’t convinced that’s where her path is leading.
“I would like Empwr to work like Forte or like MBA Veterans Network to work, to use the youngest of diversity organizations,” she says. “And I think if we’re a nonprofit, we’ll continue year two as a kind of volunteer management, with me leading the nonprofit group and board members who come from some of this year’s students, and keeping board members who are current students from different schools. So it’s like second year, third year. And the idea is that by year four, year five, we bring in enough money to hire one or two employees, and that’s what they do.
The need is there, she said.
“I think it serves a purpose for businesses and students, and I still want to be involved in this work. Even at BCG this summer, I spent a lot of time reminiscing about some of my past research experiences on neurodiversity and disability and asking people within the company, “What are we going to do about this? ? I got a lot of encouraging responses, so that was exciting. But my plan is that it’s still kind of a fifth of the work I do in my life.
“I definitely learned when I worked at Vandy that I don’t like the reputation of being a ‘disabled girl’. Don’t like that being the only label. I like an intellectual challenge. The consultation was fun and I was on the type of case this summer where I had no experience in this industry, and that’s the kind of work I’d like to do for four-fifths of the week.
“But I hope to continue running this non-profit organization, continuing to coordinate events, sponsorships, asking any other company I work for like BCG, ‘How are we collectively going to do better?’ And also I’ve done quite a bit of speaking and I’ve submitted opinion pieces to places, and I think that’s always going to be a passion. So in terms of the future of Empwr, I’d like that he joins the ranks of Forte, ROMBA, the National Black MBA Association.When it comes to who will run it, most likely someone else – but I plan to still be involved.
Learn more about the Empwr Conference 2022 here.
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