When Harvard Business School MBA Sharon Baum signed up to meet potential employers she didn’t use her full name. In fact, she only used her first initial, “S.” Baum feared she’d get rejected before she even had a chance to rattle off her qualifications.
And Baum wasn’t alone. All of her female classmates, she recalls, adopted the same strategy. “You’d go in, and the man was really taken aback. So you got all your points across before he started asking, ‘When do you plan on getting married? How many children do you plan on having?'”
Such questions sound odd today—and illegal. But in 1965, when Baum was one of just eight women in Harvard’s first co-ed class of MBAs, employers weren’t expecting a woman to show up at an HBS recruiting session. Nearly 50 years later, the school is celebrating the anniversary of those pioneering females with a summit, speeches and a wide-ranging survey.
ONE OF THE ORIGINAL EIGHT WOMEN TO ENROLL AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
Today, women make up 40% of the 2014 student body—a new record. When women started the program in 1963, they accounted for a mere 1%. But for Sharon Baum, 73, one of the original eight, the memories that stick with her aren’t about breaking down gender barriers, but the “silly” everyday details that colored her experience.
Take, for instance, the restrooms. When HBS welcomed the first ladies on campus there were no female toilets, she says. So Baum toted around a “Ladies’ Room” sign and stuck it outside the door when necessity called. Accommodations also proved challenging. HBS did not have female dorms so the women stayed at the Radcliffe Graduate Center across the Charles River and biked to campus everyday or found private apartments nearby, she says. The women also missed out on the meal plan, which was included with the male-only residence halls. One day Baum and a friend managed to finagle a few free sandwiches out of two male peers—it proved a strategic move in multiple ways. “One of those two guys was the man I’ve now been married to for 44 years. So it all started over food,” she says with a chuckle.
It’s hard to imagine one of Manhattan’s most successful luxury real estate agents scrounging around campus for free sandwiches. She’s better known in New York City as the Rolls-Royce realtor, ferrying outrageously wealthy clients around in a chauffeured Rolls with SOLD1 license plates (fittingly, SOLD was already taken) for more than a decade. She even kept a jar of Grey Poupon mustard on hand for the inevitable, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”
HER FIRST MBA JOB? A $10,000-A-YEAR GIG AT EASTERN AIRLINES
After Lehman Brothers collapsed she downsized to a black Mercedes, but it certainly hasn’t hurt her business. She’s brokered more than $2 billion in luxury home and apartment sales since she joined The Corcoran Group in 1991, including the sale of the Duke mansion on Fifth Avenue for $40 million. Her client list boasts Harrison Ford and an emir of Qatar.
She’s come a long way from her first job out of Harvard Business School with Eastern Airlines, which paid her all of $10,000 a year. She recalls a fellow male student, now her husband, juggling 10 to 12 offers in the spring of his second year. None of the women in the class had any offers at the time, and those that eventually came their way were on the “softer” side—retailing, marketing and department store jobs. “I didn’t even think about going to Wall Street, because it wouldn’t have been available to me. I didn’t apply,” she says. But she made it there eventually as the first female vice-president of Chemical Bank, now JPMorgan Chase. Even then Wall Street wasn’t quite ready for her. The bank didn’t have a maternity policy so she used her vacation days—four weeks.
Baum originally set her sights on law school, but HBS offered better financial aid, and the program was two years instead of three, she says. She started her MBA with the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, a one-year degree exclusively for women. Baum says employers snatched up the Radcliffe graduates, who took many of the same classes as the men and could be paid much less.