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Building a sense of belonging

Anna Millar at McColl Building

Anna Millar, assistant dean of the Undergraduate Business Program, talks with Adrianne Gibilisco of the UNC Office for Diversity & Inclusion, who wrote this article.

Anna Millar was born in England to British parents who immigrated to the U.S. when she was a child. Once they landed stateside, they moved often – to Connecticut, Illinois, Montreal, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts and back again to England.

The constant mobility was difficult for young Anna, but it taught her the importance of feeling included and having a sense of belonging. “As a natural introvert, I learned how to come out of my shell to embrace others,” she says.

Anna Millar standing in front of McColl at UNC Kenan-FlaglerThat skill of adaptability and flexibility, coupled with natural empathy, served Millar well as she navigated the male-dominated business world prior to coming to UNC, and has become her trademark as the assistant dean of the Undergraduate Business Program (UBP) at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Since joining UNC Kenan-Flagler in 2003, she’s demonstrated commitment to providing students with a sense of inclusion with programs like Spark, practicing advocacy through leadership one-on-one and in groups (such as the Community, Equity and Inclusion Board) and ensuring that course content has a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) focus.

She also broadened the diversity of staff who interact with UNC Kenan-Flagler students. “It is important for students to see people who ‘look like them’ in a place where they will be spending several years,” she says. “We have worked hard to diversify the student body. I mean this in every sense of the word: neurodiversity, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, nationality, first gen, socio economic, career areas of interest. This is not something you do overnight. You must first build an inclusive culture that attracts and supports a diverse student body.”

It is no surprise that, due to her tireless efforts, UNC Kenan-Flagler’s most recent incoming cohort of majors is actually more diverse than the standard UNC student body – an amazing feat for any program, let alone a business school. “I am always impressed by a teenager who is willing to own who they are and this is what drives my vision for the UBP – being a place where everyone can bring their whole selves and not feel pressure to blend in,” Millar says

What was the message that you received from your family regarding higher education?

My parents had three daughters and from the moment we could speak, they emphasized the importance of education. In their minds, prioritizing school and learning would ensure lifelong independence, which women of their generation, at least in England, were not afforded.

This was especially important for my mother, who had to leave school at the age of 16 to support her family. She returned to school in her 30s to earn an English degree from the University of Concordia in Montreal. She occasionally took me as a young girl to one of her classes. She was a non-traditional student and by far the oldest in the room and the only one with a child. Watching her juggle the demands of motherhood and schoolwork was inspiring. Her actions made her words that much more credible and deeply instilled, in all of us, the importance of working hard in school and prioritizing our education.

How did your lens of diversity form? Can you recall any specific moments when you realized there was a disparity?

I have always scored high on the empathy scale and feel deeply the pains of discrimination and injustice even if I am not the one suffering. I remember vividly doing a project in middle school on apartheid in South Africa and the sleepless nights that followed learning about this unjust system and harsh reality.

On a personal level, I went to a high school in rural upstate New York. I witnessed socioeconomic diversity that manifested itself in the school and town via material possessions and I learned lessons on how unfair economic diversity is for children and how many are blind to their privilege.

You earned a BA in economics from Hamilton College and your MBA from Harvard. What challenges did you face as a woman in this field?

At Harvard, only about 20% of our class was comprised of women. As a result, our study teams were comprised of four men and a single woman. I thoroughly enjoyed the men I worked with and found them incredibly respectful. There were certainly times, however, where I recognized a difference in how I thought about an issue vs. my male counterparts and wished that I had another female voice in the room to support my views and opinions.

I knew that being a woman certainly helped me earn a seat at Harvard in 1994 – there simply weren’t as many female applicants and the school wanted to grow the number of women in the program. For this reason, I was even more determined to excel in the classroom. When I graduated in the top 10% of my class, it was extremely important to me, and ridded me of the many moments of imposter syndrome that had struck me throughout my two years in the program.

The 1990s was a time when face-time mattered at work and flexibility was just not available. After the birth of our first child, I asked to work part-time since there were no full-time flexible work opportunities. Unfortunately, this moved me off the brand management track, which is where my true interests were. I still made the move, but the struggle was real. I had a manager who was not happy with the part-time arrangement. Team meetings were scheduled on my days off, requiring me to come in on these days. When some of my work won an award, the recognition ceremony was scheduled for a day when I was not meant to be in the office. Ultimately, I ended up working close to full time for part-time pay.

Did you have a mentor? If so, how he/she/they guide you?

I have had several mentors. My fourth-grade teacher, Madame Adams, helped me adjust to full French immersion when I moved to Montreal from Chicago. She taught me not to be afraid, but to lean into fear and believe in myself.

My second mentor was my honors thesis advisor at Hamilton College, Erol Balkan. He was a brilliant and kind man from Istanbul who encouraged me to study abroad for my entire junior year at the London School of Economics and to write an honors thesis in economics. There were only two other women at Hamilton at the time who did so.

When I was at Procter & Gamble, Tom Britanik and Cathy Willis taught me how to be a great leader and manager.

At UNC Kenan-Flagler, I’ve had several mentors. Among them is David Bond, who is from South Africa. He has been invaluable to me as I navigate trying to make the Undergraduate Business Program a diverse and inclusive work team where people respect difference and feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.

Why did you leave corporate work with P&G in brand management to work in higher education?

In the late ‘90s, firms had not figured out how to provide the flexibility needed to both have a challenging career and raise children. Second, I value education and how much joy I get out of working directly with students. The growth I get to witness as I watch students mature, stumble and blossom throughout these magical four years is absolutely joyful to me and is my true calling. In the top drawer of my desk at work, I keep letters from my students about the growth they experienced throughout their University years. They reflect on the hardships they faced and how these hardships helped shape them into the thriving human beings they are today. As I’ve progressed through many roles throughout my 17 years in higher education, I also find joy in supporting the growth and development of my team members, many of whom have earned graduate degrees, promotions and achieved much success.

How do you build a sense of inclusion and equity with your staff?

As our team has become deliberately more diverse, inclusion has been a priority for us. We have worked with faculty to host workshops on topics like implicit bias and courageous conversations. We host outside speakers on DEI topics at our strategic offsites and built a DEI website, which contains a mission statement and a list of DEI resources. We use the “Thinking Environment” tactics in our meetings to ensure that every voice is heard. We are currently working to establish new agreed-upon “habits” that we believe will further the inclusiveness of the team. This is a journey and requires commitment from all of us to build the kind of team we want our students to ultimately build and lead in their careers, post-UNC.

You’ve been lauded for using research and strategy expertise to support important initiatives. You did so when supporting a student leader in adding the Pride flag to the national flag display at UNC Kenan-Flagler. How did that strategy work?

I am a huge believer in grassroots efforts and calls for change. When Graeme Strickland (BSBA ’20) came to see me in his senior year as the head of our Community Equity and Inclusion Board, we discussed the idea of requesting that the Pride Flag be hung at UNC Kenan-Flagler and set to work.

My role was to coach/mentor Graeme on how to best accomplish this goal. We discussed the politics of a large public institution and all the hurdles we would face and how we could best position the “ask” to accomplish our goal. We believed it was important to show widespread support across all UNC Kenan-Flagler programs – graduate and undergraduate – and across faculty, staff and students. We also recognized it would be important to establish criteria and a structure that would give the School say over what flags were hung (how could we ensure we would not need to hang a hate flag, for example). The final comprehensive proposal that went to the senior leadership of the School was signed by the student leads of the MBA, MAC and UBP programs and by the assistant deans of each program. The proposal passed with unanimous support.

The student-run Community, Equity and Inclusion Board (CEI) helps support students’ diverse identities and encourages them to raise their voices. How do you support the board?

We support the board by meeting with them regularly and inviting them in to engage with important initiatives as often as possible. For example, the CEI leaders will present to our core curriculum overhaul committee. They are instrumental in sharing the student voice in terms of equity issues that we face as a school and helping us build an inclusive community where all students feel they belong.

Spark is really taking off. Can you describe how it creates a sense of belonging for new students?

Spark is the new way we onboard our students. To re-design our on-boarding, we started by interviewing over 100 graduating seniors about their experience in the UBP. One key message we heard is that many students come into the program not knowing anyone and feel isolated. So as a way to combat this, within the first hour of our on-boarding, we had our students stand up, leave the person or group of people they came with, to go and introduce themselves to someone they had never met before. They then stayed with this individual throughout the next exercise.

This is one small example of stretching students out of their comfort zone and breaking down barriers between students. This type of intentionality permeated all of Spark. We also introduced a new set of “guiding principles” (Be Curious, Be Humble, Be Agile, Be Purposeful, Be Kind and Be True) and had an entire interactive session on why they matter and how to grow these skills throughout their UBP experience.

Of which of your personal accomplishments are you most proud and why?

I really can’t take credit for any single accomplishment as I never work in isolation and am always involved with a team, which is fortunately how I work best and is aligned with UNC Kenan-Flagler’s core values of teamwork and community. I am most excited about securing Board of Governors and University agreement to grow the UBP by at least 50%. This is so important to me because it is too painful to turn away so many qualified Carolina students who want to study business but are not able because of our current size.

You have four children. How have you infused a sense of empathy, global worldview and compassion in them?

Thank you for asking this question, as this has been very important to both my husband and me. All four of our children were blessed by a strong public school education in grades K-12. This exposed them to a broad diversity of peers.

Chapel Hill has a rich community of immigrants from Myanmar and my children have learned to appreciate the hardships of their classmates who escaped refugee camps and made their way to the U.S. These students came to school not speaking a single word of English, which allowed my children to appreciate how resilient many of their peers were.

Our youngest child was part of the dual-language program at FPG Elementary and Culbreth Middle School. He is now fluent in Spanish and has learned about Spanish/Latin culture throughout his educational experience. My older children have always held minimum wage jobs throughout the summer months, which has taught them about hard work and personal finance. Each participated with the Appalachian Service Project in the summer months where they went into rural West Virginia to support families with construction projects at their homes. We wanted them to realize that there are significant economic disparities in their own backyards, not just in faraway countries.

What do you do during your off-time? Any special interests?

I love to read, travel and hike. My happy place is in the mountains of North Carolina, or any mountains to be honest. When my husband and I retire someday, our plan is to climb a mountain in all 50 states. Nature has a way of reminding you of your place in the universe and rightsizing everyday concerns that sometimes get bigger than they need to be.