My almost all white, all male, all non-African Africa Innovate panel

My wonderfully diverse Africa Innovate Edtech panel

This past February I started panicking. After having intentionally reached out to about 70% African women and 30% African men to participate in my MIT Africa Innovate Edtech panel, my list of likely panelists had turned out all white, all male and all non-African. How could this have happened? How could I organize a panel for the Africa Innovate Conference that didn’t have any Africans? Diversity and inclusion in the classroom and in conferences is very important to me. What had gone wrong?

I ended up with an absolutely amazing panel with fantastic perspectives from K-12 to University and Technical education, young innovators and seasoned experts, brand-new start-ups and established players and yes, a good mix of both men and women, African and non-African, but I’m eager to share what I learned to help peers get to that kind of diversity faster than I did.

Think about what diversity means for your panel

True diversity is not about tokenism or checking off boxes- it’s about reflecting on whether or not the ideas and experiences brought forward will generate insightful conversation and debate. It can be helpful to ask yourself what that means for your particular question. Does it mean making sure you have women of color on your all-female panel? Does it mean featuring non-profits in addition to start-ups or large corporates? Does it mean not everyone is from Shanghai or Nigeria or Boston? Does it mean having both 18 year olds and 65 year olds? It will mean something different for everyone.

Start early and over commit

When I started reaching out in December I thought I was golden. I had done a lot of research and reached out to mostly amazing African women in the space in the hopes that I would end up closer to 50–50. It became clear that I hadn’t included enough people on the initial list and I hadn’t started early enough- asking people to fly and stay in Cambridge for free is an incredibly big ask (whether it is from Africa or the US). Many of the people I spoke with referred me to others in their organization who had more flexibility, reasons to be around Boston and the visas to enter- no surprise that a lot of these were male Americans who go back and forth.

Getting ready for the big event!

Ask for help — intentionally

Whether it is your Professors, fellow students, moderator or other panelists- you’ll find a lot of people eager to help connect you with great potential panelists. These are all amazing resources, but take the time to be thoughtful about what you ask for and who you ask, since most of us have networks of people who look and think like us. You might realize too late that the handful of emails that have just been shot out by a friend were to five different people with very similar perspectives and backgrounds.

I was thankful for having a great list of really experienced people who would have no doubt added a lot to our discussion- I just wanted to make sure that their voices weren’t too similar. I therefore made a point to hold off on inviting some people while I waited for women to respond and I asked our club and friends to specifically direct me to badass women leading educational innovation. Although I ended up asking too late, I also sought out funding to make it easier to bring in these voices. Next time I’ll have this top of mind earlier in the planning cycle.

Designing a panel for one of our many conferences at Sloan is a great way to network and learn with leaders in the industry, practice leadership and enrich the experience of your fellow students. We just need to work together to make sure that we’re truly broadening the perspectives brought to the table. If you have other tips please share them in the comments! We’re working with the Senate and Student Life to collectively do a better job of this here at MIT Sloan.


Originally published at mitsloan.mit.edu on April 17, 2016.

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