When Sarah Soule arrived at Stanford Graduate School of Business as a professor of organizational behavior in 2008, one of the first courses she taught was an elective called Women in Management. This title was inherited from a colleague, she recalls, and didn’t do justice to the material, because the course actually explored broader issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But perhaps because of the name, only a handful of students enrolled.
“The class was competing with other classes on topics that students perceived to be more important to their careers,” Soule says.
As a scholar of social movements, Soule understood that “cultural change is slow.” Yet she had arrived at Stanford GSB on the cusp of a historic shift in Americans’ understanding of institutional biases that perpetuate gender and racial inequities. Recent high-profile events have only hastened the reckoning: the killing of George Floyd, the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and Stop AAPI Hate. “All of these events were accelerants,” Soule says. “They brought more attention and urgency to these concerns.”
Inside Stanford GSB, Soule saw how a new generation of students was changing the culture. Discussions about what’s come to be known as DEI — diversity, equity, and inclusion — were no longer seen as a side issue but a core part of what it meant to be a business leader. More students wanted to take classes on issues related to identity, bias, and fairness, and courses like Equity by Design and Power of You: Women in Leadership emerged to meet the demand. “There is now an expectation among our students that to be a leader in any capacity you have to be conversant in and aware of and passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she says. “You have to understand these issues.”
A Sociologist in a B-School
Raised in a politically active family, Soule has had a lifelong passion for social movements. As a young girl in her home state of Vermont, she handed out leaflets in support of U.S. Senator Pat Leahy. (She keeps a hand-signed thank-you note from Leahy in her office.) She remembers attending Bread and Puppet peace rallies to protest the Vietnam War. Early on, she was imprinted with the notion that democratic governance requires participation and pressure from people both within and outside of government institutions.
She took this background to the University of Vermont, where she majored in sociology. Drawn to a career in academia, she continued to Cornell University, where she wrote her master’s thesis on populism and lynching in late 19th-century Georgia and her PhD dissertation on the anti-apartheid movement on U.S. college campuses. Since then, her continued interest in the impacts of social movements and political activism has animated most of her research.
“So why did I end up at a business school?” she asks. About a decade into her career, after gaining tenure and being promoted to full professor of sociology at the University of Arizona and then returning as a full professor to Cornell, Soule began to look at the ways in which activism intersects with the private sector.
“Whether protests, boycotts, or through shareholder resolution processes, I began studying the ways in which social movements influence firms,” she says. She investigated how environmental activism influences corporations, the effects of targeted activism on stock prices, and the spread of corporate divestment movements. Her curiosity bloomed into a full-blown research agenda that she continued to pursue after she came to Stanford GSB.
Turning the Lens Inward
In 2016, after eight years at the business school, Soule was asked if she would step into an administrative role as senior associate dean for academic affairs. She agreed, and with the title came three core responsibilities: overseeing the executive education program; managing two of the school’s seven academic areas (accounting and finance); and establishing the school’s DEI initiatives, which had not previously been handled by a specific individual. “The efforts had, until then, been diffused across the school,” she says. “I was the first to really own this space.” It was a good match. Soule had spent much of her career studying the friction between progressive social demands and institutional and policy responses. Heading up DEI initiatives at Stanford GSB presented an opportunity to put her scholarly expertise into practice.
“DEI is a movement, not a mandate, and Sarah’s deep understanding of how movements succeed — or fail — and the elements needed to foster success have contributed to her success,” says Lori Mackenzie, lead strategist for DEI at Stanford GSB and cofounder of the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. “She has the ability to lead in a way that makes everyone feel that they are also leaders, with the confidence and support to do our best work in the areas where we are active.”
Soule and her faculty colleagues, alongside a dedicated group of alumni, started conversations about creating a more inclusive classroom experience for Black students and members of underrepresented minority groups. This led to the creation of a wide range of resources designed to expose and disrupt patterns of unconscious bias by building a culture of inclusion. Aided by GSB alumni, faculty and lecturers contributed to a growing catalog of case studies that center on main characters who are not white men and sought to invite a more diverse range of guest speakers to classes. New courses, too, have been created that focus on DEI issues in both the workplace and the classroom. Soule currently teaches Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Academe: Confronting Bias, a doctoral-level course that explores how academic culture may make particular groups feel more or less included.
Soule notes that one of the most stubborn challenges at the school has been, not unexpectedly, the diversification of tenure-line faculty. One of the primary benefits of being a full professor — lifetime stability — creates a roadblock to DEI efforts since there is not nearly as much job turnover in academia as there is in other sectors. She has been exploring alternative ways to bring a wider range of voices into the classroom through, for example, the appointment of visiting lecturers and workshops designed for postdocs and PhD students from underrepresented minority groups.
Soule has also spent a lot of time thinking about how employees at Stanford GSB who are not directly involved in student education might engage with their work using a “DEI lens.” One encouraging example, she says, was watching the increased attention to making the school’s website fully accessible. The technical challenge of coding — something that’s often considered removed from issues of equity — suddenly became integrally linked to the school’s broader DEI goals.
“Sarah is the secret sauce of the GSB’s success and leadership in the DEI space,” says Mackenzie. “She is ensuring that DEI is embedded everywhere, so that this ‘movement of movements’ is built to last far beyond her time as a leader of DEI.”
Beyond the Campus
Given the reputation and profile of Stanford GSB, Soule is aware that her team’s work and actions resonate far beyond the campus and those directly affiliated with it. “There was and continues to be a lot of discussion around how we, Stanford, can be better at serving the community and the world out there,” Soule says. “What role, as a leading educational institution, does Stanford have in positive transformational change? The walls of the university are more and more porous, and we need to make sure we’re serving local and global communities.”
One approach Soule has taken is publicizing the school’s research and efforts to a general audience, with a focus on business leaders. She and her colleagues have written articles for such publications as Harvard Business Review and Fast Company that highlight their successes and failures, broadening the audience of people learning from Stanford GSB’s work. Soule also helped create the Anti-Racism and Allyship 7 Day Journey, a free, self-paced online course designed for people “curious, courageous, and open to learning” how they can put their intentions into action. More recently, Soule and the team have created another free online learning resource, the crowd-sourced Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month of Learning.
Though seemingly easy, Soule noted these steps are novel — and necessary — moves for a 96-year-old institution that has evolved to meet the urgency of one of those transformational moments that are at the heart of her research and teaching. “I’ve been focusing on and talking about these issues of social change for a very, very long time,” she says. “I’m heartened now to see that some of that early work has caught on, that people are genuinely and deeply interested in these topics.”
Photos by Elena Zhukova