When the first message announcing a Harvard Business School event popped into her email box, Emily London quickly trashed it. London, a 19-year-old sophomore at Barnard College majoring in middle eastern studies, receives dozens of invites to different events. Given her passions and interests, she had no interest in business school, even one especially put together for young women.
“I opened it and saw the words ‘business’ and ‘school’ and deleted it,” says London. “I thought it just didn’t apply to me.” A second email about the event—a unique opportunity to spend a weekend at Harvard Business School with other students from women-only colleges—was just as quickly trashed. London also concedes that she passed by and pretty much ignored a flyer on campus about the event.
But in a meeting with her career counselor, the June 19–June 21 event came up again when London’s adviser suggested she apply for the opportunity. “It sounded so ridiculous at the time,” she says. “I know that I really care about helping people and putting my time and effort into things that will make the world a better place. I didn’t feel like a typical business school applicant.”
‘MOMMY, WHAT AM I DOING HERE?’
Nonetheless, she applied for the weekend program of case studies and discussions dubbed PEEK and was accepted. When her mother drove her to campus on a Friday afternoon earlier this month, she still wasn’t so sure. “‘Mommy, what am I doing here?,’” she said before leaving the car. “I went in with the mindset that the worst thing that could happen is I would leave knowing that business school was not for me and that wasn’t so bad. My mom gave me a hug and said, ‘You are not making any commitments by being here right now. Just go and learn.’”
Like many of the young women who signed up for a taste of MBA life at Harvard, she would leave far more informed about the benefits of having an MBA and entirely intrigued by how the degree could be part of her career plans.
The HBS program is the latest and most unique attempt by a business school to make the MBA a more attractive proposition to young women who are less likely to pursue graduate work in business than either law or medicine. While the top schools have made significant progress in enrolling more women, MBA programs still are well below the more commonly 50-50 gender splits in law and medical schools.
INITIALLY THE GOAL WAS TO ATTRACT 40 STUDENTS BUT SOME 124 CAME TO HARVARD
Women make up only about 35% of the U.S. MBA student population. Among undergraduate business majors, about 43% are women, even though 60% of the students entering the top universities in the U.S. are female. Against these overall numbers, Harvard is already something of a leader. Some 41% of this fall’s incoming HBS class will be female, up from 36% of the Class of 2012 and 28% of the Class of 1995. The highest percentage of women in any highly selective business school is this year’s incoming class at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School where women will represent 43% of the MBA students. Enrolling that many women in an MBA program, however, has only occurred after pro-active recruitment events involving current students and alumni in major outreach efforts.
Initially, Harvard was planning on doing a small pilot of the program with one school, Barnard College, hoping to attract 40 rising juniors, seniors, and recent graduates, says Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid. HBS would require students to apply to attend and pay a token $500 fee for the experience. By the time HBS formally announced PEEK in early April, the school opened the weekend up to a larger number of women’s colleges and expected to host up to 80 students. But the reception to the program was so strong that 124 students showed up from 14 women’s colleges.
Three HBS professors—Felix Oberholzer-Gee, Youngme Moon, and Francis Frei—agreed to teach a series of case studies that they believed would be more compelling to students who would be anywhere from eight to five years younger than the typical MBA student at Harvard. The faculty choose cases on Ikea, Buzzfeed, China-based Alibaba, and Tessei, a Japanese service company that cleans the country’s bullet trains. Current students and alumni originally from women’s colleges came back to HBS for panel discussions on MBA careers. Barnard College President Debora Spar, a former Harvard Business School professor, also gave a talk.