Ashleigh Rogers and Ashley Ward share more than a first name. These Forté Fellows, first-year MBA students at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, come from large, close-knit African American families and are passionate advocates for diversity in the workplace. They have also bonded as the only first-year MBA representatives of the Black Business Student Association, a role in which they can shine a light on their culture. Large Families Grounded by Strong Women and Church Both Ashley and Ashleigh were influenced by the presence of strong women at the core of their upbringings. Ashleigh grew up in Houston, raised by a tenacious single mother who “was always there – at piano recitals and gymnastics events,” Ashleigh says. She worked hard to provide for Ashleigh and her two brothers and set an example as an independent, strong woman “who was not afraid to speak up and was key to me not hiding my voice and sharing my opinions,” Ashleigh explains. She did not have an education herself, but she supported me in everything I did, always pushed me to go further, and she believed in me. Growing up in Pontiac, Michigan, as part of a “huge family,” Ashley spent a lot of time with her great-grandmother, who was very influential in her life. “My great-grandmother had seven kids and adopted five more,” Ashley says. “She did not have an education herself, but she supported me in everything I did, always pushed me to go further, and she believed in me.” Both Ashleigh and Ashley come from deeply religious families, which guides their actions. “The African American culture is very influenced by Christianity, and it is at the center of how I make decisions,” Ashleigh explains. “Are the companies I work with ethical? Do they care about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?” Ashley said that, in addition to having cookouts, playing cards, and dancing (“every holiday or when someone is visiting, we’re going to dance – you can count on that,” she says), being raised in the church was at the heart of her family’s gatherings. Her family has worked in the auto industry for generations, after migrating, like thousands of other of African Americans, from the southern U.S. to Detroit to pursue economic opportunities. Not driven to a career in the automotive industry and wanting to “explore my own passions,” Ashley says, are what eventually led her to Texas. Finding their Paths to the MBA While they both come from family-centered cultures, the paths that led them to Rice were quite different. Ashleigh went to Notre Dame to study Mechanical Engineering while Ashley was a Broadcast Journalism major at the University of Michigan at Flint. After graduation, Ashleigh worked at Lilly & Co. for a few years, specializing in new product development and manufacturing for a diabetes pen. She felt something was amiss, leading her to ask herself, “Do I feel energized by this?” At the time, she observed two women of color in leadership positions at Lilly, and she “was impressed with how they were able to command the room and influence the direction of the business,” she explains. Knowing that she enjoyed serving in a leadership role as part of Lilly & Co.’s African American Network and mentoring new engineers, Ashleigh realized that a role where she “could help people become their best selves” and have “a broader view of the business” was a better fit. “I did a StrengthsFinder course at Lilly, and the results were all people-based,” she says. She managed to apply her people skills between leaving Lilly and starting at Rice, when she lived in Madrid for a year and taught English to young children. Ashley initially stayed closer to home, first working as a news producer in Michigan then pivoting to roles in higher education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and at the University of Texas at Austin. At the University of Michigan, serving as a liaison between 1,700 student organizations and the finance department, she learned how to advocate on students’ behalf to fund their interests. Wanting to tie her background in marketing, technology, and customer success together, Ashley followed the suggestion of her best friend – who was getting an MBA at Rice – to consider the program. Leading the Way for Diversity at Rice Ashley and Ashleigh began their MBA program in the fall of 2022, but they are already imbuing their culture and demonstrating their commitment to DEI at Rice. They participated in the John Lewis Case Competition last fall, hosted by Emory University’s Goizeta School of Business, which gives students insights into the history of systemic racism in business and an opportunity to provide innovative solutions to these entrenched issues. Even though their team did not make the finals, they were among the top 20 semi-finalists out of 50+ teams. Regardless, Ashley and Ashleigh see themselves as winners for the opportunity to problem solve how companies can create more equitable workplaces. Let vulnerability be your biggest superpower. They have also committed to advance equity by serving as first-year representatives of the Black Business Student Association. For February’s Black History Month, they are hosting an event every week. For example, at Cognac & Communities, a cognac tasting will be paired with a discussion of the history of Hennessy through the lens of the Black community. They will jointly host events with other groups, such as the Women’s Business Association and the LGBTQ+ community, to address the intersectionality of Black history. Ashleigh says, “I love that we are hosting these joint events because we want other people to experience our culture and history and know what their experiences are, too.” Reflecting on what is ahead, they are grateful for the resources that are available to them. They first met through The Consortium, a non-profit that seeks to increase underrepresented minorities in business education and corporate leadership. More recently, as Forté Fellows, they have become aware of Forté’s mission to get more women leading, and they share these values. When asked their advice to young women in business, Ashleigh encourages, “Always ask questions and don’t be afraid to speak up.” Ashley suggests letting “vulnerability be your biggest superpower” and to embrace progress, not perfection. “I often forget how far I’ve come,” she explains. “Don’t compare yourself to others; appreciate what you have already done.” Paraphrasing Forté’s mission, Ashley and Ashleigh are two women leading – to the top.