Elissa Sangster says there are many ways B-schools can help the moms in their midst. They can provide child care options. They can provide space for breastfeeding. They can cultivate a culture of flexibility and acceptance. As schools inch toward parity, more and more of these things are considered de rigueur: Stanford Graduate School of Business, for example, now provides family housing options, childcare, and access to local public schools for students with families. High-profile groups at schools like the University of Chicago Booth School of Business offer visible and centralized guidance for applicants and new students; and private breastfeeding space is increasingly available.
But perhaps the way in which schools help most of all is in acknowledging that mothers (and fathers) bring to the table a set of skills and experiences that are hugely valuable to the learning environment.
“It’s true, and the women that you see biting off that challenge in terms of full time school, raising a family, career switching, all of that, it’s probably a special person who’s making that choice,” Sangster says. “And what we saw when I was (in business school) is that the women who had all of that going on are the women who wanted to be the leaders, they wanted to step forward in the organization, and they wanted to lead the student organizations. They wanted to lead their classmates, they were mature as leaders, and they wanted to leave an impact and a legacy. They weren’t interested in just going to class and going home.”
Those women made an impact on the Mays School and the McCombs School, Sangster says, and now they are making a difference in the business world.
“They were driven that direction. They did not want to just show up. They wanted to have an impact,” she says. “One of the things I’ve been talking a lot about lately is, ‘How do we change the workplace so that it is a place that women feel their voices are heard, that they are making that difference, and that they’re actually able to change the nature of how we work?’ You know, business was created with all men at the table, and that’s just the way business happened, right? But now we have the chance to really accommodate and bring into perspective everything that women can offer business. And I think that the companies who are able to accommodate that more quickly and are able to see and give women those leadership opportunities and the chance to really transform organizations, those are the places that are gonna benefit from that progressive attitude.
“Women are ready to be in those leadership roles. And I think these MBA programs are doing all they can, really, to make that possible for companies, and possible for the women.”
FROM MOTHER TO SINGLE MOTHER TO B-SCHOOL APPLICANT
When it came time to decide whether to pursue an MBA, Divinity Matovu’s status as a mother didn’t give her pause.
Then her status changed to single mother. And still she didn’t slow down for a moment.
“My daughter was three when I separated from her dad, and that is when I decided to really start focusing on business school,” says Matovu, who ran a Uganda-based nonprofit, Amagezi Gemaanyi Youth Association, with her husband after graduating from USC with a political science degree in 2008. “What I learned in my nonprofit is that I had the passion and some of the functional expertise in program management and people management, and I was able to raise money very easily just because of being a people person, but I didn’t really have the requisite financial management skills, and I didn’t really have the network that I needed to raise the type of dollars that were necessary to sustain our type of business.”
ACCEPTED AT WHARTON, AND THE REAL WORK BEGINS
Matovu, a Wisconsin native, ran her nonprofit in Uganda for four years but came back to the United States when she got pregnant. After giving birth to Nyah, she became an independent consultant and began studying for the GMAT and preparing to apply to business school.
Her divorce became final in 2015, just as she began applying to B-schools.
“That was an 11-month process,” Matovu tells Poets&Quants. “And it was expensive. I went from a two-income household to one. I was going through a very contentious separation from my husband, I had a small child, and on top of that was everything else that comes from ‘the GMAT struggle’ as we call it. But ultimately I felt very very good about reaching the score that I was targeting, and I was like, ‘Look, if they don’t take me with this score, then I will just go try to flip burgers or something, I don’t know what I’ll do.’”
It wasn’t just any school that was impressed with Matovu’s target score. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania not only opened its doors, it offered her a full-tuition scholarship. And now the real work would begin.
MOMS MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Matovu took out loans to cover her expected child care costs while studying at Wharton — “outsourcing,” she calls it. “I have been preaching to anyone who will listen that the MBA budget is designed for a single individual, with no dependents, and does not even take into consideration someone who has a partner, much less children,” she says. “So I had to get a special budget approved, which was extra time and energy. I had a nanny, I had someone who came in and did a deep clean of the house once a month, and we got used to prepared meals.”
After that, it was a matter of finding help where she could, including from among the 10 other mothers in the Wharton MBA program’s class of 2017.
One area of success of which she is particularly proud: The group, calling itself Mothers at Wharton, successfully lobbied the school to add lactation rooms in hall, which surprisingly they did not exist in the eight-story building. Actually, Dean (Geoffrey) Garrett was very amenable to that. We just wanted a room with a lock and a chair and an outlet so that women could plug in their breast pumps, and the school really went above and beyond. They designed this beautiful looking suite, with four different private rooms, for women to pump. That was great.”
Mothers at Wharton didn’t stop there. “We came together socially, we would do play dates with our kids, we would have study groups together, but then we also had a project that we worked on to advance the cause of Mothers at Wharton,” Matovu says. “My second year, we tried to get a $5,000 child care subsidy like the one they have at Cornell, and the school basically shut us down. They said there was no budget.”
Matovu is now back in Los Angeles pursuing multiple projects, including MBA Mama, an online platform that “provides ambitious women with tools and resources to leverage an MBA and strategically navigate family/career planning.” The site got a special relaunch on Mother’s Day 2019.