IN 2006, when Katrina Fludd began pursuing a business degree, she was just one of about 80 African-Americans at Babson College.
Nine years later, Fludd has a bachelor’s degree and MBA from Babson, but the Wellesley business school still has only about 80 black undergraduates — about 5 percent of the 2,000 enrolled — and just 20 graduate students, less than 1 percent of nearly 750 students pursuing advanced degrees.
“This predominately white institution doesn’t know the answer to how to make black people feel included on campus,” said Fludd, 28. “The people who are living the experience have to come up with solutions that actually work.”
Helping find those solutions is now Fludd’s job at Babson, where, as manager for multicultural programs, she is tackling a problem vexing business schools across the country, but perhaps nowhere as much as Greater Boston.
Less than 5 percent of students graduating from Boston area schools last year with business degrees — undergraduate and graduate — were black, compared with about 11 percent nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 15 percent of all US college students are African-American.
At Northeastern University, just 2 percent of students earning bachelor degrees in business last year were African-American, according to the center. At Boston University, just 21 of nearly 900 undergraduates receiving business degrees were black, according to the center.
The region’s graduate schools aren’t doing much better. Only 5 percent of those earning MBAs at Harvard Business School last year were black, according to federal statistics. MIT’s Sloan School of Management said 4 percent of its class of 2014 — 15 out of 406 students — is black.
“Despite having some of the most excellent institutions in the country,” Fludd said, “these problems are real.”
So why are colleges and universities, particularly Boston’s, having such difficulty attracting African-Americans to business programs? University officials cite several reasons, including a shortage of scholarship funding and lack of exposure to business and business careers among young African-Americans.
In many African-American communities, they added, Boston still has a reputation — lingering from the busing conflicts of the 1970s — as a place unfriendly to blacks, which only adds to concerns among prospective students about isolation in predominantly white programs and indifference to the African-American experience.
Fludd, who grew up in Maryland with two working-class parents, recalled her own experiences at Babson, where, in her junior year, a white student wore blackface as a Halloween costume. As the president of the Black Student Union, she knocked on the doors of the college’s senior leadership, finding that administrators were more focused on the particular incident, rather than the environment that allowed it to happen.
In response, Fludd gathered African-American students to share their campus experiences with administrators, leading to the formation of a committee focused on inclusion and the creation of a chief diversity officer position at Babson.
Manuel Whitfield, a 21-year-old African-American, said he, like Fludd a few years ago, initially felt out of place at Babson. The first in his family to go to college, Whitfield — 6 feet 4 inches tall, with dreadlocks that fall to his shoulders — figured that few at Babson would understand his life on the south side of Chicago. There, he resisted the lure of fast money through drug dealing and worked four jobs, including collecting bed frames and copper poles from back alleys to sell to the scrapyard.
Whitfield said many students around him had never been around African-Americans before. He recalled interactions in which he could sense that people were afraid of him.
“Coming here, I’m thinking, ‘I can’t really talk about what goes on at home or what I like to do for fun because people can’t really relate to me,’ ” said Whitfield, a senior. “In business, the majority of people do not look like me, so I need to know how to operate in that space. That was a challenge, and I took the challenge.”
Persuading more African-American students to take the challenge is not only important to business schools, but also to American corporations and the US economy. To compete in diverse global markets, US companies increasingly need diversity in their leadership and workforces, several business professors said. African-Americans, who make up about 14 percent of the US population, hold only 8 percent of senior-level positions in the workforce, according to federal statistics.
Tina Opie, an assistant professor of management at Babson, said businesses and business careers are built on connections — family connections, school connections, political connections — and business schools emphasize the importance of these networks. But many African-Americans, some, like Whitfield, first-generation college students, don’t have access to these networks.
“You’re a visitor. You’re an other,” Opie said. “You have to sort of adhere to the norms, which were largely established by white men, and, when you’re different, your very presence is challenging the norm.”
At local business schools, African-American students say they often feel they don’t belong — and not only because of their low numbers. Valerie Russell, a second-year student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, recalled a class during her first semester when the discussion centered on a business case involving an African-American chief executive.
Unlike other cases, the text described the physical appearance of the chief executive — a “6-foot- 2-inch, 250-pound black man with a shaved head and an athletic build.” The professor asked the students if they would work for this man and many responded negatively, saying they didn’t trust the chief executive, without mentioning race.
Russell didn’t say anything.
“That’s part of being one of the only black people in the class,” she said. “When these things come up, we may not feel comfortable bringing [race] up in such a large space.”
Business school administrators said they recognize the problem and point to efforts such as establishing diversity committees and offices, and launching initiatives aimed at recruiting more African-Americans.
Steven Rogers, a senior lecturer involved in Harvard Business School’s minority recruitment efforts, said the school has created an African-American Student Union, an African-American alumni network, and a weekend program for prospective minority students. In June, about 90 rising college seniors from across the nation spent a week at Harvard Business School as part of a program to expose minority students to the business school experience.
“We want to make sure that business school is a place for everyone,” said Anita Elberse, the professor who leads the summer program.
MIT Sloan administrators pointed to initiatives such as a summit highlighting faculty research on racial justice issues and an annual workshop on diversity. Bentley University said it hosts mandatory diversity courses and diversity retreats for faculty.
Officials at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business said their school offers many associations for minorities, such as the Black Student Business Association, as well as recruiting partnerships with organizations such as Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that helps minority business school candidates.
A Northeastern spokesman said the university does not target its diversity efforts at any one school or program, but rather across campus because many of the university's programs are interdisciplinary.
But given the persistently low numbers of African-Americans earning business degrees, some students and faculty question whether colleges and universities are doing enough.
“We are business schools that are creating future leaders,” said Opie, the Babson professor. “You mean to tell me that we can’t come up with a way to crack this nut? Really?”
At Babson, Fludd has launched partnerships with academic and administrative departments, such as the career office, to help African-American and other minority students find internships and jobs. She is helping build the “Babson Intercultural Group” to form relationships among the different cultural groups on campus. She has helped organize an annual Black Affinity Conference that promotes dialogue among students, faculty, and staff about race.
Business schools can be the gateway to the immense influence needed to bring more diversity, equity, and opportunity to the American economy and society, Fludd said. When more African-Americans and other minorities make it to executive suites and boardrooms, these changes will become more likely.
“You can’t go around majority white populations,” she said. “You have to go through it. My intention wasn’t to avoid it but to fit in to understand it, so I could change it.”
Karishma Mehrotra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.