Record Attendance For Virtual Women’s MBA Leadership Conference

In 2019, more than 800 attended the Forté Foundation’s annual MBA Women’s Leadership Conference (above). This year’s event was virtual and attendance more than doubled. Imperial College London photo

Noemie Tilghman has a message for women between their first and second MBA year, or those who have just graduated, or even those who are about to begin their graduate business education journey: Keep your momentum.

Tilghman, partner and principal at Deloitte who is in charge of the consulting firm’s campus recruiting, spoke recently at the 2020 Forté Foundation MBA Women’s Leadership Conference, held virtually for the first time. She told the conference’s record number of participants that despite the disruptions and chaos in the world around us — a world riven by pandemic, social unrest, looming recession, and more — it’s vital that those who had the courage to start the journey to an MBA persevere.

“You had the courage to go to your family and your friends to say, ‘I want to make a change. I want to go back and get a different degree. Maybe I want to halt my current career and think about what else I can do or how differently I want my career to now look,'” Tilghman said. “You then gathered the courage to do the applications, get the references, have that conversation potentially with work or somebody about how you wanted to leave to go back to school.

“Whatever it was — whether it was putting away income in order to make this a reality — this moment and the momentum you built was long before all of these other things that have happened over the last couple of months.”


Neomie Tilghman. Deloitte photo

Tilghman, who has appeared at Forté’s annual conference several times over the years, acknowledged the unusual circumstances of 2020. Owing to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it was the first year in Forté’s history that the conference took place virtually, and attendance hit an all-time record with more than 1,600 attendees — including more than 200 partner schools and companies. That figure more than doubled the attendance at last year’s sold-out event.

Tilghman spoke before a panel on “Kickstarting Your Internship Quest” that was focused on MBA internships. She acknowledged that the world has changed and continues to change, and no one really knows what it will look like in a year, let alone two of five years from now. That, she said, makes perseverance all the more important.

“Looking for a summer internship will not be the same as it has been in years past,” she said. “You may be thinking to yourself, ‘I did all of this with the promise of these incredible post-MBA jobs and now as I look around, those who are graduating at this moment may be a little bit afraid because offers are being changed, start dates are being changed, potentially rescinded.’ We’re having to reinvent the way we think about the world.

“Put that aside, because everything you’re doing is still a great thing for yourself. In a time of change, we focus on the things that we can control, and what you’re controlling is the next couple of months and years where you will better yourself, where you will ask tough questions, where you will be in discussions and cases about what people did in this moment. The other thing that I ask you to think about is that corporate America will change because of these moments, and you can learn to be the leaders we need that are going to ask ourselves, ‘What is the right thing to do? How do I fight some of the injustice that we’re seeing? How do I make sure that I wake up each day, and whomever I work with or wherever I work, we believe in doing the right thing?'”


Chevron’s Lourdes Long. LinkedIn

Forté’s conference was held over two days in mid-June. Day one was dedicated to a discussion of women’s leadership roles, led by Kim Cato, senior director of global information systems for Whirlpool Corporation, and featuring Janet Foutty, chair of the board at Deloitte. The internship panel introduced by Tilghman was held on day two. Moderated by Kellogg Leliveld, director of career education and advising at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, the panel featured Allison Myers, senior manager at Accenture Strategy and the lead for the company’s MBA internship program; Lourdes Long, head of corporate business development at Chevron; and Hong Zhou, director of the Surety Global Operation at Liberty Mutual.

The hour-long panel was dedicated to addressing three questions: How do you find fit? How do you navigate recruiting? And how do you ensure that you’re successful once you get an internship? The panelists agreed, foremost, that it’s important to see business school as a place for exploration — for finding, in the B-school parlance of the moment, “purpose.”

“I think business school is an amazing time to really look at what you want to start building,” Myers said. “Then really getting into, ‘This is just the first step in many steps in my career. It doesn’t necessarily have to be forever, but this is the first stage building, in addition to the foundation that I already had coming into business school.'” Myers, who earned her MBA from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business in 2013, added that for her, B-school was about getting as much interaction as she could with recruiters and having conversations “with folks that were at the company, either as former interns or as current employees.”

Zhou concurred, adding that MBA conferences — whether in-person or virtual — are invaluable opportunities to “learn a million things at once,” particularly for those in the first year of an MBA program who often don’t know what they want to do. “I remember I went to a job conference in September before my MBA started,” said Zhou, who earned her MBA from the University of Washington Foster School of Business in 2016. “I had my resume, all the papers ready, and I traveled across the country for that event. It was like a one-place shop for millions of pieces of information. It was overwhelming, but it was helpful. I actually received a first internship offer from that job conference. So it was quite a rewarding trip, and it did warm me up and give me some confidence when I actually got started.”

Long, who earned her MBA from Harvard Business School in 2014, knew she wanted to return to the energy sector after graduation. But in what function? What type of company, large or small? Regionally, where was she willing to live? “And so when I approached the internship, I was looking for a company or an experience that would help me test that,” she said. “Chevron provided that opportunity because they have a commercial function business MBA development program. So that allowed me to get a sample of what being in the commercial function and the sector might mean. So that was very important to me.

“I did explore lots of other opportunities in the energy sector. But I chose an internship that allowed me to test a couple of those questions I still had, honestly including even regionally. I moved to Houston for the first time for that internship, and that was an important testing ground for me and helped me answer some of my questions coming into the second year — hopefully a little bit more informed about what decision I wanted to make for a full-time position.”


Liberty Mutual’s Hong Zhou. LinkedIn

The panel included a robust discussion of the recruitment process. Each panelist had plenty of advice.

“As you go to school, depending on how that looks, you’ll watch a lot of your second-year classmates go through their round of recruiting,” Myers said. “I would encourage you all to pay attention a little bit to what the second-years are doing, just because it can help inform your own process. How they’re networking, how they’re approached. And you’ll notice they’ll have relationships from the prior year that they’re working on continuing and building. And then typically a lot of the schools allow companies to come and speak to first-year students a little bit later in the process.

“Then it’s typically after the start of the new year, after the holidays, that you’ll then really be going in to interview. So you’ll have a decent amount of time, but you want to think about it, as it’s not just all of a sudden the interviews happen and you jump on a list. This is why I talk a lot about having these conversations and building relationships with people. You want to be building those relationships over time, and also talking to the second-year folks that previously interned places to really try and understand where you want to go, as well as where you fit.”

Long said it’s incumbent upon MBAs to do their homework, too. Chevron has a two-year MBA development program, and “we think that’s just the starting point of what will hopefully be a very long career. So when we’re interviewing for internships and full-time positions, cultural fit, interest in the sector, interest in our company specifically are very important to us. It’s fine if you don’t have a background in the energy sector, and certainly the internship can be a bit more of an exploration, but for full-time we want to know, Is this the right fit for you for several decades? Which is a little bit different than some other MBA hiring models.

“The other thing that always sticks out to me is, have you done your legwork? Do you know the basic things you should know about our company and about our program, and have you answered for yourself the question of whether this is a good fit for you? Because if you’ve answered that, it’s a lot easier for us to assess that. Similarly, have you reached out to the folks in your network at the company? It’s always a big warning sign for me if I see a Harvard candidate on an interview site and they haven’t reached out to me — there are only two of us in the MBA program. I’ll always call the other guy and say, ‘Hey did they reach out to you?’ If they haven’t, that’s a concern for me, because they haven’t done the basic research and used the network. So checking off the simple boxes can be an indicator that you’re serious and you’ve put in your time and research.”

Adds Liberty Mutual’s Zhou: “We don’t expect to hire a person who is already an expert in the insurance industry. We’re looking for candidates who make sense — who have the capability to learn new things very, very quickly. So I think showing passion, showing curiosity, and showing an interest in learning will make a candidate stand out. In addition, if you can demonstrate you know how to process a huge amount of data and know how to use the data to drive a business decision — and if you can demonstrate you have very effective way to communicate your ideas and persuade a manager — those are the skills we use day to day, and I think those are skills we are looking for.”


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