A PEEK At Harvard B-School Opens The Door To An MBA For Young Women

HBS Professor Francis Frei in a case study discussion class with young women from women's only colleges

HBS Professor Francis Frei in a case discussion with young women from women’s only colleges


The goal of the program was to reach out to women undergraduates at a time when they are making decisions about next career steps—especially those who may not have given much thought to graduate business school. “We know it’s not true that everyone with leadership potential applies to business school,” says Oberholzer-Gee, faculty leader of PEEK and the current chair of Harvard’s  MBA program. “If you would have told me in my mid-20s to apply to HBS, I would have laughed you out of the room. I didn’t consider myself a business person and if I did I never would have imagined that I could get into a school like HBS. So the notion was there are many people out there who think the same thing.”

That certainly turned out to be true, and not only in London’s case. Emma Konzen, 21, a rising senior majoring in biology and economics at Smith College, had been thinking of pursuing a career as a veterinarian. “For me, it was kind of an exploration,” says Konzen, who says that she had always been fascinated with businesses. Her favorite TV show is Shark Tank and her favorite magazine is Forbes. “Now that I’ve gone it has changed my life. The weekend was just absolutely incredible. I was dead set on a veterinarian path, and now I am looking to see how to put my two passions—caring for animals and business—together. They totally drew me in. I felt like I really belong there.”

Ditto for Cindy Coffee, 22, a rising senior at Wellesley College who is majoring in architecture. She applied to the program after a friend shared an article about it on her Facebook page. “I had never thought about business as a major or business school for a graduate degree,” says Coffee, who is originally from Ghana. “I thought MBAs were just for bankers and those in finance. I didn’t really know much about the way HBS taught its MBA candidates. I was only considering a master’s of architecture, but I now know working and then going for an MBA is a viable option. I would never have considered an MBA before the experience.”


The event started on a Friday afternoon when students checked into three of the on-campus dormitories, Gallatin, Hamilton and Chase, were led on a campus tour and then thrown into a 5 p.m. case study class. “It reminded me a little bit of the first day of classes when incoming MBAs meet in Burden Hall,” says Oberholzer-Gee. “There is this tension in the air. People are intrigued and nervous about what is going to happen. We asked at the beginning what were their first impressions of Harvard Business School. The answers were ‘clean and beautiful,’ ‘intimidating,’ and ‘nervous about the experience.’”

Oberholzer-Gee, who taught the Alibaba and Buzzfeed cases, started with an ice breaker, asking each student how much she knew about business on a scale from one (nothing) to ten (a great deal). “I would guess the average was a three or four,” he says. “They came in and literally didn’t know much about business. But they were super smart and extremely engaged so mostly what they lack is the language of business. Many of their intuitions and the things they said in class were really fantastic.”

“The quality of the discussions were exceptional,” agrees Leopold. “I was in every class and hands were waving.”


A highlight was the discussion that emerged from the Tessei case taught by Frei. The case essentially asks management what to do because the workers aren’t as productive as they need to be in cleaning the trains in Japan. “Every single woman in the room said you make it honorable work,” recalls Lara Avsar, a current HBS student and a Barnard alum who helped organize the event. “You give them a uniform. You listen to what they have to say. You make sure they feel as if they are part of a team, and you move forward in making this a well function work environment.

“It was such a different conversation than you hear in a typical HBS classroom because the first thing that comes out in a traditional classroom is to fire the older workers and hang on to the younger ones. They actually came to the correct conclusion of the case right away: To empower the workers. Francis was trying to push them away from it, but she couldn’t get them away from their moral compass. They are 21 and 22 and there has been no soul crushing, no four years of the real world, even though they have the world at their fingertips. It was comically wonderful and pure.”

Youngme Moon, former faculty chair of the MBA program and a super star professor at HBS, taught the Ikea case which highlights all the shortcomings of the highly successful retailer, says Oberholzer-Gee. “You have to travel far. There’s no sales help. You have to put all the furniture together. But why do we love Ikea? Because they sell their shortcomings as their advantages. In those kinds of conversations, you just saw they were totally fascinated thinking about this issue and how to perceive what could be a negative as a positive.”

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