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

MBA student Katie Benintende at Haas    - Ethan Baron photo

MBA student Katie Benintende at Haas – Ethan Baron photo

The forming of alliances with effective, intelligent women was to become a dominant pattern for Benintende. In college, she says, “the females in my class were such rock stars. You band together, and you share stories and you push each other to continue to be as strong as you can be.”


She graduated from a college program where young men were prone to subtle gender stereotyping, and landed in a Johnson & Johnson manufacturing plant as an associate process engineer, one of fewer than 10 women in a 500-person R&D department. “I would be working on the manufacturing floor in a highly automated plant making contact lenses and I worked on night shift. That experience was another one of those trigger points for me. I was working on this plant floor with men who were so much more overt, it was so explicit how they would behave.”

After getting called “honey” or “sweetie” one time too many, she stopped ignoring the comments. “At first I wouldn’t stick up for myself right away and then I one day just got sick of it, and I’m like, ‘My name’s Katie. I’m Katie.’”

She kept a thick skin, and asserted her authority, but mostly she labored. “I worked super hard to overcome the deficit I had in these men’s eyes just because I was a woman. I worked ridiculous hours.” She researched furiously to push herself ahead, reading, consulting PhD researchers. “I saw my male counterparts as engineers not even close to putting in those kinds of hours or doing the things I was doing.”

Again, she found a female ally, senior executive Jill Lavitsky, who became a mentor and advocate, helping propel Benintende upward in the company.

“She wanted more women to succeed, and she saw it as a strategic importance for Johnson & Johnson to have more women in the ranks,” Benintende says.


At Haas, Benintende and her gender-parity group found an important partner in corporate sustainability professor Kellie McElhaney, and a crucial supporter in dean Richard Lyons.

Haas dean Richard Lyons

Haas dean Richard Lyons

“They brought the data, they spoke with data,” Lyons says. “They’d analyzed a bunch of data about yield rates with women, and conversations with women, and surveys of women, and what women tended to value more in the applications and admissions process than men.”

The group’s clear determination to develop a wide-ranging gender-parity project impressed Lyons, he says, and their goals dovetailed with his own.

“They were asking me to do stuff that I need to be able to do,” he says. “Every business school dean would be ripe for this.”

Benintende played a key role in earning Lyons’ prompt support, he says. “You see confidence in her. She’s sparkly, she’s fired up. She’s somebody who I think instills a sense of trust. She’s totally committed. She seems totally capable.”

The soon-to-graduate MBA candidate embodies one of the school’s defining principles, “confidence without attitude,” Lyons says. “She fits what this place is about. She has a lot of leadership qualities that are pretty evident pretty darn quickly. When you feel kind of naturally warm to somebody from the get go that’s proposing something pretty big, those are the qualities that start to influence you before you even realize you’re being influenced.”


In the final weeks of her MBA program before she goes to work for Google’s Nest as a global supply manager, Benintende had the opportunity to report on the gender issue to the Haas board, including Haas alumni Barbara Desoer, CEO of Citibank North America, and Larissa Roesch, VP and Portfolio Manager at investment management firm Dodge & Cox.

“It was the coolest experience I’ve had in business school,” Benintende says. One member’s question on female students’ confidence, however, reminded Benintende that work remains to be done not only in B-schools and the business world, but within herself.

“I’ve been working on gender issues for so long and in so many ways and I still succumb to my own internal biases and maybe not being confident,” she says. “I can just imagine for other people who don’t talk about it every day how difficult it may be.”

Benintende was speaking just before taking her last final exam of the MBA program. She and her group of classmates have passed the gender-parity baton to a new group of MBA candidates, eight of them. “It’s living on,” she says. “This is a student-led school, where students drive so many activities, that we can drive change if we want to.”


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