Reflections On The 2012 Forté MBA Women’s Conference
By Neveen Acero,
As a 43 year old, first year MBA candidate I felt a little out of place among the twenty- and thirty-somethings at the Forté MBA Women’s Conference held Friday and Saturday, June 29th and 30th at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. More than 400 of the brightest first- and second-year women MBA candidates and women MBAs from across the country and around the world attended the conference put on by Forté Foundation – a consortium of major corporations and top business schools that educates and directs women toward leadership roles in business.
The majority of attendees had two to nine years of work experience; some were entrepreneurs; and all were attending the top business schools in the country.
The speakers and panelists are stars in their fields – all highly accomplished women who work for some of the largest and most influential companies in the world
Among the young, ambitious and purposeful attendees and the successful, powerful and experienced panelists I wondered to myself, “what am I doing here?” These are women whose careers had thus far followed a steadfast path – attending the best schools around the country, working for the biggest companies around the world, and looking to be the next Sheryl Sandberg. I, on the other hand, had attended a California State University; had forged a career in Marketing after 15 years of working across a variety of industries; and had decided to earn my MBA from a well established but small liberal arts college with an emphasis on socially responsible business. I did NOT fit the mold.
But the beauty of attending a conference put on for women MBAs, by a women’s organization and comprised exclusively of women leaders is being able to talk openly and candidly about the benefits of women in business, the opportunities women face in business, and what the future holds for women in business. So, while I do not fit the mold of the Ivy-league educated Type A businesswoman, what we all share is a desire to create opportunities for women by being the next generation of business leaders. And by providing attendees with universally applicable advice and histories, the speakers and the conference succeeded in offering many lessons to a career-changing, late-blooming, socially responsible business-focused woman like myself.
Benefits of Women in Business
A recent study found that the 25 Fortune 500 companies with the best records for promoting women to senior positions have 69 percent higher returns than the Fortune 500 median for their industry. And the research organization, Catalyst, along with Harvard Business School found that gender-inclusive leadership is associated with increased corporate social responsibility (up to 28 times higher annual company contributions to charitable organizations in 2007 than companies with fewer than 3 women board directors). So the benefits of female leadership are enormous – both financially and socially (reaching toward the triple-bottom line).
Be Confident, Be Bold, Take Risks!
In my opinion, the major theme of the conference was about confidence. Pat Yarrington of Chevron, recalled a boss early in her career that said, “If I ask you to do something, it is because I know you can do it”. That implicit confidence is something she carried with her throughout her career. And it’s a building block that other speakers echoed throughout the conference. The message I received was that you could manufacture confidence! Confidence is born of taking risks and challenging yourself beyond your comfort zone. Sometimes you may need a boost by a superior who believes in you; but in the end, taking risks, challenging yourself and finding success builds confidence. And doing so gets you noticed and helps to build your “brand” as a competent go-getter.
Toot Your Own Horn
Unfortunately, in the business world, being competent isn’t always enough. While women often believe they should be recognized and rewarded on the basis of their merits, it is the ability to communicate one’s accomplishments that can make a difference. During the Emotional Intelligence breakout discussion led by Intel’s Kate Nason, the topic of confidence surfaced again. Ms. Nason noted that men, in general, are more outwardly confident than women, even in the face of fewer qualifications. As an example, she jokingly suggested that a man with 50 percent of the qualifications for a job is more likely to apply for the job than a woman with 80 percent of the qualifications – and the man would feel confident about the half he had, while the woman would fear that she was not quite qualified because of the 20 percent she lacked. Of course, that’s a gross generalization but not altogether untrue. Women ARE different from men – bragging does not come naturally. Additionally, women face the uncomfortable challenge of needing to balance their ambition with their ability to get along with their team. There is still a common unspoken understanding that women who exhibit outward signs of confidence and competence are less well liked. But making your accomplishments known – especially to the right people – is a practice women must integrate into their work life.
Find a Board of Directors
Sandra Itkoff, a documentary film-maker, VP of Strategy at BYD America, and panelist in the “Building a Career that Combines Passion and Purpose” discussion recommended assembling a “board of directors”: a mentor, a sponsor and a set of advisors. Speaker after speaker discussed the value of having a mentor to help guide them through their career. Whether someone they knew or someone they watched from afar, mentorship played an important role in their professional development. A sponsor is equally valuable if not more so. A sponsor is someone with whom you have built a relationship (these are the “right people” mentioned above) – and whose trust and confidence you have earned. Having an influential person within your organization that can advocate on your behalf can be the difference between getting a promotion and staying in the same position. Advisors are friends and colleagues with whom you can gain perspective. They are your sounding board.
Learn the Basics
Getting a strong foundation of business skills that can be applied across industries is paramount. Whether in the entrepreneurship, consulting or philanthropy panel discussions I attended, across the board, finance and economics played heavily into the work and success of all the women represented.
Armed with the lessons shared by the speakers at the conference, women will be poised to seize more leadership opportunities. Women are surpassing men in advanced education. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that in 2012, women made up 56.6 percent of Bachelor’s degrees and 58.8 percent of Master’s degrees. But we are making much slower advances in business – only one-third of all MBA candidates are women. At the same time, 2012 saw the largest number of Fortune 500 women CEOs at 19. And while that represents a meager 3.8 percent, it was a 36 percent increase over 2011’s 14 female CEOs. The burning question that was on everyone’s mind at the conference was “can women have it all?” It remains to be seen. But if the recent (July 17, 2012) appointment of Marissa Mayer as Yahoo!’s CEO is any indication, we can: Ms. Mayer revealed that she is pregnant with her first child and Yahoo! was aware before appointing her!