Highlighting invisible socioeconomic inequalities with FLII Club

FLII Club Founders Michelle Alvarado MBA2021 and Shajia Meraj MBA2021 on promoting socioeconomic diversity at LBS and beyond

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Shajia: I’m a first-generation graduate from a lower income family from Bangladesh. My father ran a small tailoring shop and worked day and night, till his last breath, to ensure I had an education. My mother, despite having only a middle school education, has always supported me to transcend the patriarchal norms of the society I grew up in.

I became financially independent at the age of 15, when my father’s medical bills and our household expenses started far exceeding his income. After he sadly passed away in 2014, I became my family’s sole breadwinner.

Fortunately, after graduating from university, I had the opportunity to work at HSBC. I quickly rose through the ranks, and finally reached a place where money was no longer my primary concern.

Yet I never thought I’d be at LBS today. I didn’t even know the name of my undergraduate university until a few days before the entrance exam, so LBS was almost unimaginable. But I do think my upbringing has fuelled my ambition and resilience.

Michelle: I’m a first-generation, low-income background student. My family emigrated from Mexico to the United States when I was eight; there, my dad worked as a machinist and my mom was a butcher. She didn’t have the luxury of choosing not to work. In fact, both of my parents have been working since their early teens, with nothing higher than a middle school degree between them.

I’m certain that, had we stayed in Mexico City in the working-class district of Iztapalapa, I would never have had the same opportunities. However, one lesser-understood impact of emigration is a downward shift in social mobility. Not speaking the language or having a recognised education can really limit you. My family went from an intermediate, working class income in Mexico to a low income in the US. But I also recognise the privilege of growing up in a developed country, especially as it allowed me to learn both English and French from a young age through US public schooling.

“Unlike other identities, socioeconomic background is often invisible. We want to change that”

Over time, I developed an interest in a global career, which led to me working in France, Spain, Finland and Africa as a Service Integrator and Project Manager. I wasn’t sure if I’d make the cut when I applied to LBS. But, on the last possible day, I took a leap of faith and submitted my application.


A classroom connection

Shajia: It took Michelle and I a year and a half to find each other. It was only during a storytelling exercise in an Interpersonal Dynamics class that we realised we’d lived through somewhat similar experiences. Because socioeconomic status is so often invisible, it’s hard for students like us to get talking and share our stories. This was a big motivation for us setting up the club; to connect these students and amplify their voices.

Michelle and Shajia: FLII stands for First-Generation, Low or Intermediate-Income. FLII graduates like us face many structural barriers when it comes to ‘making it’ in business and beyond. And that’s if we can get in; for so many people, business school is totally out of reach.

“FLII Club is for students from first-gen, low or intermediate-income backgrounds, allies and everyone in between”

Shajia: Even once we’re here, it’s an uphill battle. Everybody knows that your network is one of the best things you get out of business school, but nobody talks about the fact that this network comes at a huge cost. Some of the treks cost three times our families’ entire monthly budgets – which many of us are still supporting during our time at the School.

As a result, FLII students sometimes feel like they don’t ‘belong’. Often, we avoid revealing where we come from, hiding our journeys and values. In the struggle to fit in, we end up feeling like impostors.

Michelle: The disadvantages continue after graduation. Many FLII students face biases in the recruitment process. And yet at most business schools, there’s no platform where students from these marginalised socioeconomic backgrounds can come together, embrace our identities, and find mentors to help navigate these challenges.

Without this, FLII graduates lose out on opportunities, and businesses lose out on great candidates. After all, grit, resilience, a whatever-it-takes work ethic and a unique perspective can bring a lot to a business.  


An affirmative response from the LBS community

Michelle and Shajia: With the help of a passionate team of students, we launched FLII Club in March 2021. It was a long process, involving lots of research and data collection to garner support, focus group discussions and a series of pitches to stakeholders across the School.

By recognising the need for a club like this, LBS has reinforced its commitment to attracting and nurturing talent from the most diverse and marginalised backgrounds

“At most business schools, there’s no platform where students from marginalised socioeconomic backgrounds can come together”

Michelle: Addressing socioeconomic status at such an internationally diverse school has been interesting. Some cultures speak about it freely, while others don’t believe ‘class’ exists. A few people asked if these issues weren’t already being addressed by the Black in Business Club. Questions like these only highlight the importance of intersectionality. It’s clear from our data that LBS students from developing countries like South Asia, Africa and Latin America still come from predominantly affluent backgrounds. In fact, only a tiny minority of LBS MBA students come from a first-gen, low or intermediate-income background.


“Only a tiny minority of LBS MBA students come from a first-gen, low or intermediate-income background”

Shajia: There’s never been a better time to empower socioeconomic diversity, especially at one of the world's leading business schools. The Black Lives Matter protests opened our eyes not only to racial injustice, but also to the economic disparity that exists in our society today. The pandemic has only exacerbated these inequalities; now, more than ever, we need to come together as a community to educate ourselves and support those around us.


The vision for FLII’s future

Michelle and Shajia: Through FLII Club, we aim to:

  • Promote the representation of socioeconomic diversity at LBS
  • Create a safe space for FLII students to embrace their identities and find a sense of belonging
  • Enable a platform where FLII students and allies can network and find support to grow and advance.

By owning our stories and sharing them, we’re helping empower other students to start breaking barriers too.


To learn more or get involved, please contact FLII at: