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Katie Benintende: Making A Difference At UC-Berkeley’s Haas School

Haas MBA student Katie Benintende in front of school marketing posters   - Ethan Baron photo

Haas MBA student Katie Benintende in front of school marketing posters – Ethan Baron photo

Best of 2015Katie Benintende had done her research – she knew she wouldn’t be coming into a gender-equal MBA class at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. And she was entering school after several years as an engineer, senior analyst, and manager in a male-dominated field where she’d often been addressed as “sweetie” or “honey” on the plant floor. The class preceding her arrival at Haas had been 32% women. Benintende knew Berkeley was a progressive place, but what she found upon arriving at Haas did not look like progress: her MBA class had even fewer women, 29%.

“I was honestly shocked that we were so far behind our peer schools,” says Benintende, 30. But since she’d first had her eyes opened to gender inequality as a 7th-grader volunteering at a Thai orphanage where only boys would go on to school, Benintende had learned to seek out powerful, capable women. “We found each other pretty quickly when we came to Haas. There was a group of us that noticed the inequality and felt like this was a place that we could lead the revolution, to make the change that needed to be made in business, to drive more women to reach the highest levels.”

The group, joined by two male students, met with faculty to rally support for a full-on gender-parity effort, covering everything from admissions to male-centered course content. They reached out to influential female alumni. They met with dean Richard Lyons. They participated in admissions events, to persuade female all-stars to choose Haas.

A HUGE LEAP FOR WOMANKIND

The result? A turbocharged boost to the school’s gender-parity effort, and a Class of 2016 that’s 43% women – up 14 percentage points in a single year.

Benintende was seven when her father took a job for Ford in Dubai. Her mother, an artist, had earlier opposed the idea of living in the Middle East. “She is an enormous feminist,” Benintende says. “She likes her freedom and she likes to be able to do what she wants . . . and likes to be able to express herself.” But Dubai was a good career move for Benintende’s father, and her mother agreed to move.

While Dubai offered Benintende an opportunity to experience a variety of cultures, she believes it was the place where she began to internalize the external societal biases against women and girls. “I’ve always been aware of my gender because you had to be very careful in the Middle East. At night you had to be really, really careful.”

A PIVOTAL EARLY EXPOSURE TO GENDER INEQUALITY

Then she went to Thailand in seventh grade to volunteer in an orphanage – a pivotal event. She found that girls who didn’t get adopted would become caretakers, while boys would be sent to school. “That was my trigger,” Benintende says. “These kids were not only not getting the education they deserved but they were being forced into these gender roles when they were five or six years old. My whole life up to that point I had been told that I could do anything and be anything. It made me sick and sad and I remember coming home to my parents and being appalled by it.”

Her parents told her that there were many ways to help, all around the world, and Benintende took that to heart. “I worked with orphanages to educate and tutor kids. I just kept working with kids throughout college, volunteering at children’s hospitals.”

Exceptional in math and science, Benintende decided to get an engineering degree. Before arriving at Carnegie-Mellon University as an engineering undergrad, she hadn’t considered whether, as a woman, she’d be in the minority. She was – her class was 70% male, and the faculty gender ratio was even more skewed. “I had so many male professors, I actually can’t think of a single female professor that I had,” she says.

At that point she made a formative move: she sought out a talented female materials science researcher, Francine Papillon, a visiting scientist who would become associate director of the school’s Materials Research Sciences and Engineering Center and now works in senior roles for French tech research firm CEA Grenoble.

“I felt so strongly that I wanted a female role model in engineering. She was so smart. She taught me so much about being a minority in her field and relying so heavily on her competence. It was really, really inspiring and impressive.”