Life Lessons From The Exceptional Women Of The Bay

by John A. Byrne on

Mary Ann Byrnes, 1984 MBA

Mary Ann Byrnes, 1984 MBA

Long before anyone knew who Sheryl Sandberg was and even longer before anyone knew what it means to “lean in,” Mary Ann Byrnes jokingly quips that when she started her career she leaned in so far she broke her nose.

Byrnes, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1984, managed hundreds of people at a major wireless carrier, served as CEO of several tech companies, worked in venture capital, and more recently ran a social enterprise in San Francisco.

“As I look back,” she says, “I wish that I had a few people who reminded me that I did not need to have all of the answers. There is no such thing as work/life balance—there is only life. You don’t have to be the last one at the office every night, and you don’t have to change every diaper. Make the choices you believe in your heart are right, and make no apologies.”

INSPIRING STORIES OF SUCCESS & FAILURE, LOVE & BETRAYAL 

Byrnes is among 114 exceptional HBS alumnae in the Bay Area who will be honored Monday night (Jan. 27) at a gala in San Francisco for the impact they have made in their professions, their communities, and their family lives. The honorees were chosen from more than 1,200 female graduates of Harvard Business School who reside and work in Northern California. The recognition is part of a celebration that began last year of the school’s 50th anniversary of women being admitted into its MBA program.

To commemorate the event and to honor the women, the school’s Northern California alumni club has put together a compelling book of profiles on the alumnae. They were asked to provide insights into their careers, to look back on their lives introspectively, to reflect on the happy times and tough times, their proudest moments, and their often long and winding “road to HBS.”

Their accomplishments span six decades—from the late 1950s to the near present. Their stories reflect the exuberance and the disappointments of life. There are stories of success and failure, love and betrayal, the importance of overcoming one’s fears and unexpected disasters. As one might expect, many of the women are generous with the lessons they have learned in life and the advice they offer to a new generation of women.

‘PEOPLE LIKE US DON’T GO TO SCHOOLS TO HARVARD’

After all, they have played important roles as senior leaders in big brand name companies and startups. They are entrepreneurs, consultants, venture capitalists, and moms. And many of them can lay claim to having been the first woman to obtain a meaningful role in organizations that had long been dominated by men. There is the first woman to manage client work at McKinsey & Co., and a consultant who literally was laughed at when she told people she planned to apply to Harvard Business School in the late 1970s.

The honorees range from Victoria Ransom, a 2008 Harvard MBA, who works at Google after the search giant bought the social marketing software company she founded with her husband, to Mary Cunningham Agee, who graduated with her MBA in 1979, and whose promotion to a leadership role at a Fortune 100 company in the early 1980s sparked a media frenzy. Curiously, some of the Bay Area’s most famous Harvard MBAs—most notably Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, and Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard—are not among the honorees.

Cathy Benko, 1989 MBA

Cathy Benko, 1989 MBA

In their own way, each “leaned in” long before the idea became a phrase adorning a bestseller. Cathy Benko, a 1989 alumnae who grew up the middle of five daughters in a single-parent household. Now vice chairman and managing principal of Deloitte LLP, she began leaning before she even got into Harvard. “The most poignant moment was when I walked into my mother’s house late for Christmas dinner,” recalls Benko. “As she stood at the stove stirring the gravy, she looked up at me and said sternly, ‘you’re late.’ When I explained that I was finishing up my HBS application, she put down the spoon and just stared at me. ‘People like us don’t go to schools like that,’ she said. ‘That’s not for our kind.’ That had never occurred to me. If my application wasn’t just about complete, I would have just given up on the goal.”

VALUABLE LESSONS FROM THE KEY OF LIFE

Many of the women being honored will tell you how life turned out in ways they never could have imagined. Alison Berkley Wagonfeld, a 1996 MBA who is an operating partner for Emergence Capital Partners, said that during her second year at HBS she had mentally mapped out her entire career. “First I would go to a bigger company, next I would go work at a start up, then I would start my own company, and perhaps ultimately I would become a venture capitalist,” wrote Wagonfeld.

“I have since realized that life is not so linear and predictable. There are many factors that can alter one’s career trajectory at any point –some of which are exciting (marriage! kids!), and some of which are difficult (health issues).”

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