Among business schools, you could describe 2015 as the year of the woman. At Harvard, Wharton, Booth, Kellogg, Haas Tuck and Yale, the percentage of incoming women all snuck above 40%. And programs like Fuqua, Darden, and London Business School reported a surge in female students as well.
This year’s female first-years were distinguished by quality as much as quantity. And they could more than hold their own with the gents. Booth’s Mary Mei worked as a special envoy with the United Nations to fight malaria. IE Business School’s Liz White managed a global women’s think tank in Washington, DC. Vanderbilt’s Caroline Collins spent three years as a scheduler and liaison for both a U.S. Senator and Congresswoman. Before heading to Dartmouth, Courtney Miller was a U.S. Army officer who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Indeed, the woman of the Class of 2017 can be described as disruptors and difference makers, sages and strivers, leaders and doers one-and-all. And here are ten of the women that Poets&Quants sees making a difference, both now and in years to come.
(Editor’s Note: These MBA students are not ranked in any order.)
Lauren Bowden / University of Virginia (Darden): Most people assume top MBA students graduated from elite east programs, majored in finance or economics, and worked for blue shoe banks before trekking back to campus. From Harvard to Haas, MBAs often come from the corners you might least expect. Take Darden’s Lauren Bowden. Before docking in Charlottesville, she studied psychology and theater at Portland’s Lewis and Clark University before embarking on a career as a 100 Ton Master Merchant Mariner Captain in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Bowden was attracted to Darden’s case method, where “each student’s perspective to add to the overall learning experience for everyone.” Already armed with sales and startup experience, Bowden’s experience in leading crews through rough waters should make for an easy transition to the cruel and capricious world of business.
Richa Gangopadhyay, Washington University (Olin): Shaquille O’Neal isn’t the only celebrity with an MBA. Down in St. Louis, you’ll find Richa Gangopadhyay, a “Tollywood” actress who has starred in several blockbusters in India. So what brings Gangopadhyay to business school? For starters, she is an American who was raised in Michigan. Not to mention, she is a former Miss Michigan and Miss India USA, who studied communications and theater before heading overseas to launch her modeling and acting career.
Despite her fame, Gangopadhyay chose Olin because it was a place where she could fit in. “The small and diverse learning community that the Olin environment offers is an effective enabler for me to develop a wide variety of skills that would furnish me with the tools to be an innovative problem-solver and leader in my field,” she tells Poets&Quants. “Having attended a smaller university after coming back from my five-year pursuit in films to finish my undergraduate degree, I know the value of one-on-one connection with faculty. You are not ‘just a number’ here, and faculty members really invest in your personal and professional growth. A smaller community really allows you to forge life-long bonds with your fellow students and professors, and that is invaluable.”
And what is Gangopadhyay’s advice for students looking to get into business school? Start early. “The application process can seem never-ending, but if you manage your time well in advance you will be able to put your best foot forward without compromising any component of the application. The GMAT/GRE is only half the battle! Getting a good recommendation letter from your supervisors cannot be done at the last minute, as you need to be respectful of their time and want their recommendation letters to truly reflect professional capabilities and personal qualities.”
Libby Leffler, Harvard Business School: Imagine being a Harvard admissions rep and seeing Sheryl Sandberg as a recommender. Bet that application would rise to the top of the pile! That’s the story of Libby Leffler, a Modesto native who matriculated at the Haas School of Business. After spending two years in sales with Google and Facebook, Leffler was promoted to being Sandberg’s right hand for nearly three years – handling details ranging from managing speaking engagements to pulling together presentations. However, she soon emerged from Sandberg’s shadow, driving Facebook’s global partnerships with organizations ranging from the Vatican to the White House.
As arguably HBS’ biggest student celebrity, Leffler is remarkably humble about her mission. “I am at HBS to learn as much as I can from everyone around me,” she tells Poets&Quants. “There are few moments in life where you have the chance to break away and surround yourself with some of the world’s most brilliant individuals – which includes both my professors and my classmates. My focus on my first day here will be the same as on my last: The people.”
And the people were among the biggest reasons why Leffler chose Harvard Business School. “At both Facebook and Google, I was fortunate enough to have worked closely for and with many HBS graduates, many of whom helped me develop in the very early stages of my own career. In hearing about their individual experiences at HBS, I got the sense very quickly that the experience at HBS was a transformative one…Based on what I knew about the school’s alumni, I was certain I would encounter a special group of people at HBS.”
While Leffler hasn’t tipped her hand on what she plans to do after earning her MBA, she does have advice for those students looking to get into business school. “It is worth spending the most time understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. The MBA application is one big story and it is all yours to tell. You can craft the package however you want (more on this below), but in order to do this well, you have to understand the areas where you truly shine and also be honest about your opportunities for growth. Great businesses have a clear mission statement — you should too.”