Filling in the Gaps

Guest Post By: Erin Leddy, a Foster MBA Candidate. She is a Global Business Center Study Abroad Scholarship Recipient, and she studied abroad through the Race, Culture, and Immersion Trip to the American South, during Spring Break 2023.

As a child, I went on a school field trip to the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, CT. We learned about Whitney’s life, accomplishments, and most famous inventions—including, of course, the cotton gin. Our discussion about that machine focused only on the positives: the innovation and simplicity of its design, and the degree to which it improved the efficiency of cotton production. 

They did not teach us the rest of the story. We did not learn, for example, that the cotton gin accelerated the growth of slavery in America by vastly increasing the profitability of the cotton industry. We did not talk about the millions of people who were enslaved by the owners of the expanding cotton plantations, or the conditions in which those people were forced to live. Instead, we were made to briefly feel proud of American inventiveness before being hustled back to the school bus. 

Similar gaps exist throughout our educational system. The result is that many of us make it to adulthood without a deep understanding of the throughline that connects the institution of slavery to modern capitalist systems. Without that knowledge, we are stunted in our ability to challenge and correct those systems. For those of us studying business, a nuanced education on this subject is particularly important: such an education would help us enter corporate America with a more holistic understanding of how our actions will impact diverse groups of stakeholders—and how we can adjust those actions to create more equitable systems.

With that in mind, I feel immense gratitude to have been able to participate in the Global Business Center’s Race, Culture, and Business MBA Immersion trip to the American South this past spring break. Over the course of nine days, I traveled through Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia with a group of fellow students. We were led by faculty instructors, Ed de Haan and Norah Fisher, and a remarkable local nonprofit called Sankofa Impact, which is run by Felicia Ishino and Nathan Bean. 

For me, the trip filled in critical gaps about how systems of racial oppression in America have mutated over the centuries to meet ever-increasing demands for profit. Though I already understood the broad strokes, filling in these details helped answer questions I hadn’t even known to ask and left me feeling better equipped to process new information about ongoing injustices.  

I was also inspired to meet business leaders who are leveraging economic systems that were designed for oppression to instead improve conditions for underserved communities and advance racial equity.  For example, we met with leaders of the New Orleans Business Alliance, which invests in and provides tools for businesses in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods; with Keyra Lynn Johnson, the Chief DEI Officer at Delta Airlines, who is helping Delta become a model for thoughtful and effective corporate diversity practices; and with small business owners and nonprofit leaders who are improving their communities through art, food, education, and economic development. 

This trip was absolutely a highlight of my experience at Foster. I walked away not only with a better sense of how I can be a more responsible citizen and business leader, but also with a new community within the school. The Race, Culture, and Business trip provided us with a safe space in which to have difficult conversations about the ways we are all implicated in systemic racism. Or, to put it in a more optimistic light, the trip helped us all think more deeply about how we—armed with our MBAs and headed for corporate America—can be part of the movement toward change.