What Female Deans Want MBA Women In The Class of 2017 To Know

mba advice women

It’s that time of year when graduations are happening at colleges and universities everywhere. 2017 commencement speeches from the likes of Oprah and Sheryl Sandberg to the Dalai Lama and the Terminator himself, are adding that special touch to mark this significant milestone in the lives of thousands of students across the globe.

As business school students head off to jobs in global consulting firms, bulge bracket banks, large and early stage tech companies, consumer goods giants, or even to launch their own entrepreneurial startups, this is the ultimate defining moment. It’s filled to the max with excitement and joy, many uncertainties, yet endless possibilities.

Since the challenges face by women in business are well known–equal and fair pay, managing family and career, and work-life balance, among others–Poets&Quants sought the advice of women who know a thing or two about thriving as business leaders: The few women who have made it to the top of their business schools as deans.


mba advice women

Erika James, dean of Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business

From Kellogg School’s Sally Blount and Indiana Kelley’s Idie Kesner to Emory Goizueta’s Erika James and ESMT Berlin’s Catalina Stefanescu-Cuntze, the deans dispense wisdom from heart felt experience, informed by their own personal triumphs and failures. They have plenty to say about what works, what doesn’t, and what advice they would give to their younger selves today.

Erika James of Emory’s Goizueta School of Business shares the three little words that she says are her guiding light as a business leader: Bet on yourself. Although this can be applied to both men and women, the dean says she’s seen many women in business take themselves out of opportunities because they didn’t think they were ready or capable. “Trust that, even if you go into something without 100% of the knowledge, you will figure it out,” counsels James.

Desautels Faculty of Management Dean Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou says she’s seen similar observations. “As women, we often strive for perfection in many dimensions of our lives. But it’s important that we allow ourselves to not always fit a ‘job description.’ Sometimes we don’t even apply for positions because we don’t tick all the boxes. Do not be the one to hold yourself back.”


Dean Georgette Chapman Phillips of Lehigh University’s College of Business and Economics offers some advice on being true to oneself. “To the best of your ability, listen to your internal ‘true north,’ she says. “Many people will try to make you over in a way that will feel inauthentic. Listen to what is said, but with a critical ear and adopt only the part of the message that conforms with who you think you want to be.”

In our outreach to gather advice from the female heads of business schools, Villanova Business School Dean Joyce Russell was the only one to recommend something tangible for business women to go out and attain and add to their skill set. “Take a negotiations course,” she says. “It will be the best thing you can do to improve your confidence so that you can effectively communicate, influence, and lead others. Then, you will be able to make a mark.”

We asked the deans if there are any harsh realities that women in the Class of 2017 should brace themselves for and here’s what they told us. “The hard truth,” confides Dean James of Goizueta, “is that very rarely will your job present an opportunity for a hockey stick – perpetual, continued growth.”

Catalina Stefanescu-Cuntze, Dean of Faculty at ESMT Berlin, warns women in the Class of 2017 be wary of shortcuts. “If you think you’ve found a shortcut, following it is probably going to have unintended side effects. Think twice about taking it.”

Or, as Dean Idalene Kesner from IU’ Kelley School of Business, tells us, “There are still many people who feel that if you don’t handle things the same way male colleagues handle things, then you’re ineffective. But, when you do handle things the same way, you’re harsh or overbearing.


While they are trying to have their voices heard and circumvent gender assumptions, some business women may also reach the point of deciding to start a family. To this, Dean Phillips of Lehigh gives it to grads straight. “The hard truth is that, until men start having babies, women will continue to shoulder a disproportionate amount of responsibility of creating a family. This starts with biology, but certainly doesn’t end there.”

Dean Sally Blount of the Kellogg School of Management cautions women in the Class of 2017 that now’s not the time to focus on work-life balance. “At least not if you have big ambitions,” she says. “At the launch, it’s important to think bravely and recognize that your early career experiences set the trajectory for your career. The higher you aim now, the farther you can go in the long-run.”

Her advice? “Take the biggest, boldest jobs that you can right out of business school. Book as much brand name credibility and career growth on your resume now as you can, because you’ll have it in the bank to use when you navigate the mid-career marathon years. If your goal is a life that combines deep family connection and meaningful work, you’re going to want options in the years when long-term relationships and caregiving roles become focal, when family considerations begin to constrain how you make decisions.”


Finally, we asked the deans to share the one piece of advice about being a successful business woman that they wished they would’ve known sooner. “Not everyone is going to like you,” says Dean Phillips. Candidly, she admits that she spent far too much time and energy worrying about likability. “Really, no matter what you do, someone is not going to like yu. Doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It means that you are making hard decisions that not everyone agrees with.”

Dean Nancy Bagranoff of the Robins School of Business says she wishes someone would’ve told her that nothing is as bad as it seems or as good as it seems. “Something may seem terrible at the time, but that goes away,” she says.

At the end of the day, Dean James and Dean Stefanescu-Cuntze says that business is all about people–something they wish they would have realized sooner. “The most important part of business are always the people. They will be your main assets, and they will usually bring your greatest challenges,” says Stefanescu-Cuntze. “Being aware of this and prepared to deal with it helps tremendously.”