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Support For Female MBAs Pushes More Women Into Business

Conquering the stigma attached to women attending business school has opened a whole new platform for female MBAs

By  Thomas Nugent

Thu Oct 19 2017

More women are venturing into business school with heightened optimism, and the added security of a network of organizations actively chasing equal opportunity agendas.

One of the reasons for the surge in female MBAs, it seems, is the conquering of the mental stigma attached with women attending business school.

This was captured perfectly by Diane Morgan, associate dean of programs at Imperial College Business School, speaking at the Forté Foundation’s Forté Forum London event this week.

“These are brave steps,” she told attendees of the event, “to be here, taking your first steps towards business school.”

The ambition has always been there, but now the glass ceiling has been raised, more women feel confident to pursue a business school qualification.

In the past, the journey to get there for female MBAs was a single-file route across valleys and through treacherous rapids. Now, there are organizations like the Forté Foundation—a non-profit consortium of business schools and companies that directs women into leadership roles in business—taxiing you down the admissions highway.

One of those MBAs who hitched a ride was Oxford Saïd Business School MBA Katie-Coral Sicora. Now in an MBA class where 41% of students are female, she was one of Forté’s MBA Launchers—a 10-month program for women that connects applicants to a support network and aids them during the entire b-school application process.        

“So often women are over mentored and under-sponsored,” she said at the Forté Forum, “and that means it takes an incredible amount of support.

“But with the launchers program, you have five women and a mentor for support, and that is huge. People will listen when you tell them that you went through Forté.

“Women often have to be something separate from themselves at work—more smiley, happier. In the business school environment, you can play with who you want to be. You can be authentic.”

The Forté Foundation was founded in 2001 with a vision to propel women into business leadership roles. Since inception, the Fellowship program—offering financial aid to full-time, and part-time MBAs, as well as Executive MBAs attending any of Forté’s sponsored b-schools—has given almost $110 million to Forté Fellows.

“We saw the need for more women in business back in 2001,” said Kelly Ogiba, Forté’s program manager for college and early career women, speaking before the London event. “We wanted to create a platform for more selection among schools and programs to increase the number of women across the board.”

“The main thing we are trying to do is build confidence and increase the impact women have on the business world,” Kelly continued. “We want to plant the seed early, to make an MBA something women want to pursue.”

The Foundation boasts more than 130 sponsors, including business schools, universities, and global corporations.

Observing the business schools present at the Forté Forum, one thing is clear: there is an incredibly strong American presence among Forté’s network. While being backed by US heavyweights, like NYU Stern and Chicago Booth, does little harm to reputation, redressing the balance elsewhere is key to further success.

“We also want to help them expand their reach in Europe,” said Marguerite Gallant, UK director for HEC Paris. “At the moment they are very popular in America, but we want to help them get more of a profile in Europe. For a lot of the international students, the continental MBA is very attractive.”

A wave of enthusiasm resonated from the main conference room. At the Carnegie Mellon: Tepper School of Business stand, prospective MBA Yolanda Carvalho was deep in conversation.

“I’m on a fact-finding mission,” she beamed. “I’m pursuing an MBA because of the doors it opens up to you. You put those three letters in front of your name and suddenly people sit up and take note.”

Using Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business as patient zero, it is possible to see the potential of spreading equality across the business world ubiquitously.

“Forté has transformed Tepper’s plan,” said Jackie Otto, the school’s assistant director for master's admissions. “There are so many tiers on which to build—the pre-MBAs, current MBAs, alumni. It brings together members of the female business world across the board.”

A stalwart for encouraging women into traditionally male dominated industries—45% of their 2016 MBA cohort entered tech-related roles compared with 29% of men—Tepper is leading the way.

“When it happened,” Jackie said, “I wasn’t surprised. Tepper is a renowned tech school, and we put the MBAs in front of so many companies during the program.”

The ambition of women to launch into business has always been there, but now the glass ceiling has been raised, more women feel confident to pursue a business school qualification. When Karina Valencia, chief of staff to the CEO of Citi Bank in the UK, asked the London event attendees—“who loves adventure?”—every hand in the room went up.

"My number one skill is packing,” she quipped. "It has taken us years to get to where we are and there’s still a lot to be done.”

“Empowering minorities and women is what we need to do for a better world,” she continued. “But, it has nothing to do with making women the dominant gender. It is about ensuring everyone has access to equal opportunities, which is where Forté comes in to play.”

“If you give them opportunities, people can choose what’s right for them.”