NOT ABOUT THE MRS. DEGREE
Eventually Harvard changed its policy so that Radcliffe graduates could apply to attend a second year across the river at HBS and earn the two-year MBA. “It was very discriminatory,” she says. “It would be like the men finishing the first year and having to apply to the second year.” Baum did just that and was accepted. Harvard did away with the Radcliffe program in 1963—the same year it started admitting women into the full MBA program.
For Baum, B-school was never about the Mrs. degree—a facetious reference to husband-seeking students. “When I left for business school, I remember my mother saying to me, ‘Well Sharon, if you can’t make it with those odds, you’ll never make it.’ And she didn’t mean it academically,” Baum laughingly recalls.
But she wasn’t interested in finding a man—she was there for the education and to boost her prospects in the business world. Although she met her husband, Stephen H. Baum, at HBS, they didn’t get married until several years later. Baum wanted to get her feet wet in the business world first. “I was one of the few [women] who went into what we considered in that era to be a typical MBA path, meaning I went to work for larger corporations, ” she recalls.
DATING MICHAEL BLOOMBERG
One of her female classmates went on to become an Episcopalian priest, one went into home remodeling and another tragically died by suicide. “It was very, very different then. It’s changed enormously over the years,” she says referring to the opportunities for women in business.
The concept of pursuing a career in entrepreneurship and starting your own business was largely a foreign one, even for the men in the MBA program, Baum says. The ’65 MBAs eyed jobs with manufacturing companies, banks and investment firms. Those with engineering backgrounds tended to attract the most lucrative offers.
Baum says her MBA experience equipped her with more than case studies and solid credentials. “You learn a lot of things about problem solving and getting along with people, and you make wonderful friends and contacts you’ll know your whole life,” she says. She should know. Baum met New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg there, and they even dated for a brief spell.
IN A TIERED CLASSROOM WITH ‘A SEA OF MEN’
She still relies on some of the skills she picked up in business school today: You have to keep a sense of perspective, keep your cool and not give away all of your emotions—I think business school gives you a lot of opportunities to do that, she says. She still recalls the pressure of being cold called to start a class.
If you didn’t do your homework, everyone knew pretty quick, she says. The situation was even more intimidating for women. She describes the tiered classrooms as “a sea of men” with perhaps one other woman around. “It did take the professor a little while to get used to that,” she says. Students also dressed up for class—there were no cut-offs or khakis, only suits and skirts.
And the male reaction to ladies on campus? It was what you might expect. “The men certainly accepted us, because, look, there we were, live women on campus,” she says. The gender dynamic ushered in new opportunities for mischief, too. Baum recalls a young man passing a note down the row to a woman in class. The woman read the note, and five minutes later the two of them left the room. They returned after half an hour and were welcomed back with a round of applause. “I think we all knew what they were up to,” she says with a chuckle.
ADVICE FOR TODAY’S CROP OF WOMEN MBAS: DON’T TAKE YOURSELF TOO SERIOUSLY
For a girl raised by a single mother in Jefferson City, Missouri, HBS offered a whole new world. Her high school advisor had never heard of the SAT. From Missouri she moved to Virginia, where she enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, a conservative school that banned boys and booze. A study abroad session in Europe broadened her horizons. “Going from there to Sweden, the land of free love, was a big thing,” she recalls. She celebrated her 20th birthday in Moscow and visited Leningrad. “I was very adventurous,” she says.
One constant in Baum’s life is hard work. The HBS alumna says she’s been working from the age of 13 and put herself through college with lab jobs and dry cleaning concessions. She even raised a pet cow named Roxanne. She still puts in marathon hours as Concoran’s senior vice president. Only a few years ago she accepted the 2011 Henry Forster Award for Lifetime Achievement, one of the profession’s highest honors. She also jets around the county visiting her two sons, both Harvard alums, of course.
Her best advice to HBS alumnae? Keep your sense of humor and don’t take yourself too seriously. Grey Poupon, anyone?