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Oreo Cookies, the Olympics, and Education

University Business, October 2012

This year, the iconic black and white Oreo cookie celebrates its centennial. One hundred years since the chocolate wafer sandwich first went on sale in the U.S., this favorite treat is now beloved around the world with $2 billion in global sales. Second only to the U.S. in Oreo cookie consumption is the world’s most populous country of China. But if you’ve traveled to the Far East, you’ll find the cookie you dunk in Shanghai is nothing like one you savor in St. Louis. In fact, the first Oreos sold in China crumbled. Consumers in a country not hooked on desserts thought the treat was too big and too sweet. Kraft went back to the kitchen and came up with a culturally conscious cookie that sells and satisfies. Kraft got it. As a global business, they understood that diversity can drive and dictate the market

It’s no different in higher education. Here at Webster University, diversity is the tie that binds our institution. As with all centers of higher learning, it is our job to bring people together to achieve things they could never accomplish on their own. Our students and faculty represent and mirror the world in which we live. I call it “inclusive excellence” and it means drawing from all our generational, cultural and ethnical strengths.

I witnessed this phenomenon play out on the world stage while watching the Olympic finals match in women’s beach volleyball, which pitted two U.S. teams against each other. One team was made up of two-time Olympic gold medal winners Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings competing in their last Summer Games together. The twice-defending champions faced Team USA colleagues Jennifer Kessy and April Ross in hopes of making more Olympic history. Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor had already won every match they ever played through three Olympics in Athens, Beijing and now London.Before them, no one had ever won two beach volleyball gold medals. Before them no woman had three medals in their sport. The venue was packed. The stage was set for something big.

Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor didn’t disappoint. They defeated Kessy and Ross 21-16, 21-16 in the all-American final in the iconic Horse Guards Parade venue. The players amazed those in the audience as well as those watching around the world with seemingly impossible saves and dramatic kills. It was a great match, but even more significant for me was the all-American-turned-all-world award ceremony that celebrated Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor’s championship. That’s because, as the U.S. flag rose above the sand and our national anthem filled the stadium, television cameras panned the audience to find revelers from all nations in the stadium celebrating with the American team. They hummed along to an anthem that was not their own and kept time to the beat boasting another country’s citizens; and it didn’t matter. At that moment, they were part of one great team made stronger by their individualism, cheering the remarkable feat of two women who could be any one of their sisters, cousins, aunts, or daughters. At that moment, there was no “us.” There was just “we” sharing in the joy and accomplishment of two dedicated athletes.

Isn’t this what we want to see for every educational institution as we start another academic year? In the end, the ultimate competitive advantage for students and teachers or faculty only emerges when we listen and learn from others. This learning comes from those in the class as well as those in front of it, the alumni as well as the business constituents, and administrators as well as thought leaders from other schools, colleges and universities.

Higher education continues to face the world’s ongoing sluggish economy, rising tuition rates and reduced resources. There’s no better time than now to embrace our respective inclusive excellence and use it to create something truly distinctive and transformational. Our competitive advantage will come when we do that which no one else can do even if they tried. As educators, we create that environment and provide that knowledge base so others may flourish in our ever-changing world of uncertainty. This academic year, we must do it for ourselves and higher education through faculty who provide real-world expertise, programs that allow students access to the global economy and marketplace with short-term study aboard or internships, and business partnerships which supply mentorship as well as financial help.

Kraft got it. Olympic Gold medalists got it. So can we.