What an MBA did for me for the first years was to open doors. I probably could have done those early jobs without the MBA, but people were willing to talk and give me a chance. I couldn’t have opened those doors for myself, as a young woman, however bright I might have been.
My first job [after Harvard] was at United Brands, a major food company headquartered in Boston. When my boss took me to meetings, he would introduce me by saying, ‘ThisIs RuthOwadesSheHasAHarvardMBA,’ all run together, as if it were my name. He felt he had to explain why I was there, otherwise they’d want to know first if I was sleeping with him, and second if I would be able to get coffee for the group. At that point, in a company that size, I was the only woman in a marketing position at any level.
In retrospect, I know that being a poet has been one of my greatest strengths. It has given me the context to deal with ambiguity, to ask questions and take risks, all while stimulating creativity. This was a powerful foundation for becoming an entrepreneur, which is a daily exercise in scaling obstacles, while retaining a creative vision.
What was fun about the catalog business [both of Owades’ companies started selling primarily via catalog] was that it’s an incredible combination of poetry and quantitative skills. My businesses did well in part because the catalogs were beautiful, and people respond to that. That helped our numbers.
I became an entrepreneur so I could do what I wanted to do. I’d never planned to. At Harvard, I had a study group for two years with six guys. The guys used to say, ‘I can’t wait ‘till I have my own business,’ and I’d say, ‘I just want a nice, big corporate job, with resources, something steady.’ By our fifth reunion, I was the group’s first entrepreneur. It wasn’t an obvious path, but once I took it, I thrived.
A lot of women who become entrepreneurs do so to get some control and gain flexibility. As an entrepreneur, it’s your choice, not someone else’s, to decide to work late on a Friday evening.
Encouraging more women to consider business school is a big issue. These are slow-moving arenas. It still is hard to get to a really even playing field. The atmosphere in class is better, but there’s no question that as a woman or minority, you have to have a thick skin to get through a curriculum that is basically designed for white men. These days, the off-color stories and innuendos are fewer, but still exist. And some people don’t want to have to deal with it.
Other reasons it’s hard to bring the percentages of female students up, is that they see how tough it is to have a balanced life. Women before them have gotten through b-school, into a high-paced consulting or finance job, realized they didn’t have time for a family, and chose to opt out. But I’m not discouraged. At Harvard Business School today, 40% of the incoming class have a liberal arts education, and 36% are women [in 1975, that figure was 11%].
It’s frustrating to see women talk themselves out of an MBA. Business school gave me the foundation and the self-confidence to go out and do something. I hope [women] will understand what is possible in the business world, personally and professionally. If you don’t like things, no one’s going to make it different if we don’t. Business is not yet a perfect world for women, but it’s much more equal as an entrepreneur and you can have fun.
And for a poet, a foundation like an MBA allows you to choose a direction and to make it as exciting or challenging as you want. It’s a really powerful tool.
Owades is a Director of Deckers Outdoor Corporation and the Northern Trust Corporation Western Region. She was a Director of the J. Jill Group from 1997-2006, Armstrong World Industries from 2002-2006, and Providian Financial Corporation from 1998-2005. Owades is also a member of the Committee of 200.
In 2009, Owades was presented with the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal in Washington, D.C. “The gratifying thing to me is that they awarded it to a poet who succeeded in business!” she says.