Questionnaire Response

Candidate for Overseer 

Diego A. Rodriguez MBA ’01 with distinction

Executive Vice President, Chief Product and Design Officer, Intuit Inc.
Palo Alto, California

1. How important should diversity be at Harvard? What strategies should the University pursue regarding this? (Please discuss specific programs and policies if you can.) 

 

The power of a diverse community lies in its ability to bring together individuals with different perspectives and experiences so that they can share their ideas, beliefs, and values in order to depart transformed, better equipped to live their best lives and make a unique impact on the world.

 

My own Harvard experience was profoundly shaped by my classmates and professors, whose diverse backgrounds, ways of thinking, and life perspectives helped me grow as a person. At HBS we had assigned seats during our first year, so for nine months I shared a desk with another first-generation American, a New Yorker whose parents had immigrated from Nigeria — she’s one of the most remarkable individuals I’ve ever met. My daily study group included an active-duty Army Ranger and a recently retired Naval Aviator, both of whom were the first military people I ever “worked” with; they opened my eyes to the power of coping with adversity via a ready sense of humor. And my professors hailed from places such as Spain, Scotland, South Africa, India, Tasmania, and Costa Rica. All of which I mention as a way to show that one’s education is as much about the people you study with as the papers you study.

 

As the oldest institution of higher learning in the most pluralistic society in the world, Harvard benefits from diversity in two ways. First, a more diverse Harvard creates a rich environment where the core activities of the University — research, teaching, and learning — can truly thrive. Second, as a microcosm of what our larger society might aspire to, a diverse, inclusive, and pluralistic Harvard can serve as a beacon to all individuals, no matter where they are or what their life conditions might be.

 

But a diverse set of individuals alone does not a community make. With the immense scale and scope of Harvard, we must also be a radically inclusive institution. As Vernā Myers says, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”. To which I would add: inclusion is feeling, once you’ve arrived at your dormitory or classroom or office or online learning space, that you don’t have to prove that you should be there, or ask permission from anyone to act upon your own creative confidence. Everyone must feel that they belong. This means creating a day-to-day culture of pluralism across the University where the open discussion and debate of ideas is celebrated, where all voices can speak and be heard. It means that all students can find courses and professors and networks that resonate with their interests. It means investing in activities and facilities that help grow the capacity of the whole to be inclusive of each individual. In an inclusive, pluralistic environment, students have the opportunity to learn how to leverage the multiplicity of experiences and perspectives around them to bridge differences and create integrative solutions.

 

To my mind, examples of specific programs and policies to support diversity and inclusivity should include:

 

  • To boost diversity, increase targeted outreach to prospective students in the United States whose race or ethnic background are underrepresented in elite colleges and positions of power.

  • Broad and global outreach to potential students, staff, and faculty around the world. The idea of a pluralistic Harvard is a powerful one; as a beacon it can shape lives and even societies. To boost diversity, we should be seeking out high-potential individuals for whom Harvard may not even be a dream.

  • Continuing to admit and support students regardless of their ability to pay. Given growing levels of inequality and poverty in the United States and around the world, this is of critical importance.

  • So that we have as much diversity at the finish as we had at the start, we must support individuals throughout their Harvard journey. For example, the College has a wide range of thoughtful programs in place to help ensure the inclusion and success of Freshmen students. Tailored support mechanisms should also be available to other members of the Harvard community. Under the leadership of Professor Frances Frei, Harvard Business School made subtle changes to the way female professors received feedback and guidance on their classroom performance, and in doing so created a marked increase in the career retention rates of these women.

  • Supporting an ever-expanding set of multicultural community resources for students in the College and across the schools

  • Harvard has a global footprint which extends beyond the Boston metropolitan area to places like California, China, and Europe, and now to the entire world via online offerings such as HBX. Never before has Harvard had the potential to shape the lives of so many students in so many parts of the world who may never have an opportunity to actually set foot in Harvard Yard. We must find ways to help them contribute to the greater community as students and alumni, and to bring the energy of their engagement and the best of their contributions back to the heart of Cambridge.

 

I believe that the strongest, fittest Harvard is one where diversity and inclusivity are the norm, where all stakeholders know they will not just be able to fit in, but will be able to contribute to helping Harvard continue to be the leading institution of learning in the world.

 

2. How can Harvard encourage more diversity among its alumni leaders and activities?

 

The way to encourage diversity among alumni leaders is to find more ways for them to weave Harvard into the fabric of their lives. You can have a diverse student population but not see that diversity at the alumni level. Life after graduation can be complicated and busy, so Harvard needs to be as thoughtful about how it creates meaningful experiences for alumni as it does for students.

 

In my experience, contributing to Harvard as an alum can transform one’s relationship to the University. For me, the years I spent supporting the Harvard iLab, the HBS Rock Center, and the California Research Center changed my relationship status with Harvard from “like” to “love”. Why? Because of the range of deep and meaningful relationships those engagements allowed me to build. This is not about transactional relationships of convenience that somehow helped my career; I’m speaking of meaningful friendships with professors, getting to know alumni from other schools and graduating classes, and working with students whose enthusiasm and energy inspire me in my own life pursuits. Those relationships changed Harvard from being an institution I was proud to have graduated from to an alma mater where I know that investing my attention really makes a difference. I believe that this can be the case for all alumni, but we have to get started in order to understand the power of being involved.

 

So let’s get alumni started. One way to do so would be to encourage Harvard student groups to intentionally build bridges to the alumni community. A great example of this is the African-American Student Union (AASU) at HBS, which in 2018 is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding. The AASU recognizes the power of inviting alumni to help current students in a variety of ways, including as participants in the annual H. Naylor Fitzhugh conference. Another way to encourage alumni to get involved could be as easy as including a menu of “ways to contribute your time to Harvard” whenever it reaches out for financial support. Not all alumni and their families have the means to support Harvard financially, but they may still want to engage with their alma mater… so why not offer them other ways to make a difference? This could take the form of mentoring a current Harvard student or volunteering expertise to a University initiative.

 

Making it easier for alumni to be involved will help ensure that all Harvard grads, no matter what part of the university they were touched by or when they attended, can benefit from an ongoing relationship with Harvard. 

 

3. Please state your views on affirmative action and race-conscious admissions.

 

I believe that diversity is a necessary precondition for an environment where the highest levels of intellectual inquiry and education can flourish. It is an unfair reality that in our society not everyone has equal access to institutions such as Harvard. As a result, approaches such as affirmative action and race-conscious admissions should be used to help reach more just outcomes for society as a whole.

 

Doing so lies within the essential character of Harvard. As President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow states:

 

We should never shy away from nor be apologetic about affirming our commitment to making the world

a better place through our teaching and scholarship and our commitment to truth, excellence, and opportunity

for all.

 

Race and ethnicity should be elements of a holistic consideration of factors in the admissions process. There’s an opportunity here for continued leadership on the part of the University. Recognizing that no single approach is ever perfect, Harvard should also continue to find new ways to encourage diversity that are as balanced and just as possible. This is not an endeavor for the faint of heart, but by doing so, Harvard can lead the way for the society it lives within.

4. What do you think Harvard's role should be in creating a more equitable, inclusive and just society?

 

We are in the midst of a tectonic societal upheaval fueled by everything from the internet to artificial intelligence to genomics. It’s very possible that these factors could widen existing gaps in our communities. How well we navigate this change as a society will shape the viability of many powerful 20th century institutions whose existence we’ve come to take for granted, including Harvard itself.

 

For the remainder of the 21st century, Harvard’s central challenge is to lead the way to a brighter, more diverse, more just society. Now more than ever, our world needs the kinds of people, ideas, and perspectives one discovers at Harvard — they’re what drives the year-over-year compounding of progress that advances our civilization.

 

To do so, we must ensure that the best and brightest continue to seek out Harvard as the place to meet and collaborate on the issues that move society forward. This requires embracing diversity and acting inclusively. We need individuals who can lead in new ways with innovative practices and approaches. To capitalize on its unique power to attract and convene exactly these types of individuals, Harvard must strive to develop ever better methods for educating leaders who can address the interconnected, global challenges facing us.

5. What steps have you taken to bring diversity and inclusion to your workplace or to an organization that you have been involved with?

 

The focus of my professional career has been bringing new things to life, and helping others to do the same. I’ve always felt that my family background — I’m a first generation American born to immigrants from Spain and Cuba — has given me the capacity to view almost any situation in life from multiple perspectives. This ability to work at the intersection of multiple disciplines and cultures is a signature aspect of design thinking. In other words, the diversity I bring to the table as an individual also happens to be the driving force behind the innovation process. Diversity, plus curiosity and plain hard work, is what makes progress possible.

 

As a leader in large organizations and as a teacher in academic settings, I’ve worked diligently to make explicit the link between diversity, inclusion, and innovative outcomes. No matter the locale — be it IDEO, the Stanford d.school, or the Harvard Innovation Lab — I’ve seen over and over that if a group wants to be more innovative, it needs the following three ingredients:

 

  1. A diverse team of individuals who bring a breadth and depth of life experiences

  2. A shared mindset and process around collaboration and creativity

  3. A commitment to psychological safety and the permission to learn from mistakes

 

As you can see, diversity comes first and is foundational on this list. Inclusivity comes next in the form of giving people a way to share their unique talents freely. Finally, being able to do so without fear is a necessary condition for transforming episodes of failure into moments of learning.

 

The most popular essay I’ve ever published, It’s About Cultural Contribution, Not Cultural Fit, goes deeper into the fundamental relationship I see between diversity and cultural contribution. Wharton Professor Adam Grant references it in his book Originals. My approach is to focus on the idea of “cultural contribution” over the notion of “cultural fit”. The former creates opportunities for growth, the latter restricts them. For example, when I’m recruiting for a role, I look for candidates who could make a positive contribution to the future of a culture, even if they don’t feel like today’s obvious choice. When you optimize for fit with an existing culture, it leads to uniformity over time. I try to picture a future where a person’s unique point of view has materially contributed to making things better. We employed this approach at IDEO and witnessed powerful results. As I wrote in this essay, “At the end of the day, an organization with a diverse, creative community living in a self-aware culture can move mountains.”

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