Flashback, circa 1994: Ever since elementary school I knew that when I grew up I wanted to lead, create, bring people together, and change the world. I didn’t know what I would do or how I would do it. I heard of a job called a businesswoman. They wore suits and focused on money. Not something I would do!
Twenty years later, 2014: While a teacher and then staff member at TFA for six years, I learn about TFA alumni who went to this place called business school and who earned this thing called an MBA. I meet some great people, including women, who had earned their MBA. Their jobs didn’t seem boring. They were leading, creating, bringing people together, and changing the world. I would do that.
Applying to Business School
Truth be told, even if you are a woman who has never considered yourself a “business” person, everything that you have done up until this point has likely prepared you to start the application process—whether you were an accountant, a teacher, an opera singer, or an engineer. MBA degrees help you develop the skills that you might be missing while allowing you to better leverage the experiences, mindsets and values that you already possess.
In terms of applying to business school as a woman, here’s what I will say:
- I did not focus on the ratio of males to females. I figured an imbalanced ratio would be representative of the business environment at large, so any ratio would be helpful for me to adjust from a female-heavy industry (education/non-profit)
- It was helpful to have a female mentor to help me through the process (Darden admissions offers a 1:1 mentor program to help you through the process—reach out today!). I had already built relationships with MBA alumnae (as women tend to do), so I was able to leverage these relationships strategically in the MBA process (do not feel guilty about asking for time or help–women want to help build the pipeline and pay it forward)
- I remember having really positive interactions with female students and seeing many faculty when I visited Darden; this was definitely indicative of the community I desired.
A Community of Women
Once I arrived at school, my relationships at Darden – and in particular, those with my female friends/classmates—made a significant impact on my time here. Honestly, I would not have made it far if it were not for many of my fellow Darden women. No matter the venue, be it a camping trip, a recruiting event, in section, learning team, or on weekend nights, I have always been grateful for the essential support & fun that my female classmates/friends have shared. They also give me the feedback and support I need to be an even better leader. I hold these relationships dear and look forward to many years of lifelong friendships and connections in business.
The Darden Alumni network, especially amongst women, is very strong. Case in point: as I was moving through the recruiting process last year, I met an alumnae who had also worked for the same non-profit that I worked with prior to Darden. She (and other women at the same firm where I ended up interning) coached me and made me feel deeply supported, and I do not think I would have had the confidence to apply for such roles if not for her (she knows who she is, I hope!). I have also had many professors who have encouraged me say what I am thinking, even if it may be unpopular. One professor in particular encouraged me to dive into learning about finance and private equity. If it were not for her, I probably would have been too intimidated to apply for my post-graduation role at Citigroup.
Support for Women at Darden
An influence on many women at Darden is our women’s organization, Graduate Women in Business (GWIB). As president this year, I wanted the vision for GWIB to be explicit and potent:
Our vision is to provide, leverage, strengthen and celebrate the assets that make women distinctively great leaders (W.O.M.E.N.):
- Necks Out (service and advocacy for women and others)
I wanted the vision to remind our members (and future members, such as you!) that they already have what it takes to be an incredible business leader—the spreadsheets and numbers that come with an MBA are just a bonus.
Given this vision, our leadership board has worked to be deliberately welcoming and supportive, starting with mentorship during the admissions process and continuing with outreach during the summer and transition to Darden. Once women get to Darden, members are matched with a Second Year mentor who is there to support first years as a whole person. We also host a leadership development conference, leadership lunches, member socials, golf clinics, office hours and other fun surprises along the way. This year we also sponsored a “Cold Call” happy hour where the entire Darden community was invited to learn about the strengths and challenges women experience in business. Men eagerly learned and pledged to become “Mallies” (male allies) for women at Darden and in their career.
In addition to what we are doing in GWIB, there are other women’s initiatives ongoing across Darden. For example, there is a Women@Darden Initiative led by Faculty and Alumni, focused on retaining more scholarship funding for women and on building an even stronger network of alumnae. The faculty are quite engaged and will host small group events for women (often at their homes). As the percentage of women in the first year class jumped from 29% to 35%, almost every learning team now has two women—something that can make a big difference in the experience of many students. Women play an active leadership role across the school–50% of our Club Presidents and Darden Student Association Board Members are women–pretty impressive given the composition of the class. With this focused attention, even more women will flourish on our grounds in the coming years.
Encouraging More Women to Attend Business School
The efforts to encourage women to attend business school are admirable, and it’s important that we find ways to build the female MBA pipeline even more. After reflecting and discussing with my classmates, there are a few specific factors that may help more women choose to pursue an MBA:
- Explicitly name that women at any stage in their life– married, pregnant, looking to be pregnant, looking to never have kids, single, somewhere in between–can flourish in business school. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s talks about not “leaving before you leave”– business schools should be explicit in suggesting the following: don’t let the major life phases (nor the archetypes of an ‘ideal’ life) get in the way of you pursuing your MBA– there are a variety of program locations and formats from excellent schools.
- Be deliberate about who you send to recruiting events and meet and greets. One of my classmates recalled nearly declining her acceptance to Darden because of the lack of women at an Alumni/prospective student reception. Make great effort to bring women to the table so that prospective women can see themselves earning their MBA in your community, even if it means asking an alumnae to make a special trip.
- Dig deeper to understand what women want, and better explain the value prop. Seek out women who may think that they are already well-positioned to climb the ladder in their current company, and explain how an MBA will still be of use to them (even if they are not seeking to switch careers). Reach out to younger students—let high schoolers and undergraduate women with non-business majors know the value of an MBA. Get your students and alumnae to do the same
- Strengthen connections among Husbands/Boyfriends/Male Partners. From my understanding, the Darden Partners Association is pretty great. My married/engaged female classmates have shared that if any b-schools had more publicity about the network and resources for male partners (these women had male partners), or if there was an easy way for their husbands to find temporary jobs if relocating, then it would have made the decision to select a business school even easier.
Finally, some brief advice for women considering business school – Do it! You’ll crush it. Know that women have distinctive strengths which will often enable them (us) to be able to lead and manage teams, and that firms are often looking to hire candidates who have the skills to be managers. Choose a school with the environment that you think will best suit you (geographically, culturally, engagement level) to ensure a good fit.
This mysterious, magical thing called the “MBA” worked for me. When I graduate, I get to work in Miami and Latin America doing the things that I’ve always wanted to do–leading, creating, bringing people together, and changing the world. It will work for you too.
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