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Kellogg Bets On Poker Skills To Help Women In The C-Suite

Top business schools are enrolling more and more women in their MBA programs. Last fall, more than half of the top 25 schools in the U.S. reported 40% or more women in their incoming cohorts, led by 49% at Dartmouth Tuck School of Business, the closest any top 10 school has been to achieving parity. We know it can be done: Back in 2018, a top-20 school, USC Marshall School of Business, accomplished parity with an MBA class that was 52% women.

Progress has been slow but measurable for women in graduate business education, yet C-suite gains have been more elusive. Only 6% of CEOs of S&P 500 companies are women, according to Catalyst, a global nonprofit working to correct that fact. Where’s the disconnect? Part of the problem is institutional — working environments resistant to change — and cultural. But edifices of the past can be remade, and top schools and their partners have not been shy about confronting the problem and strategizing how to make it a thing of the past.

Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management today (April 13) announced the launch of a new program in that mold — but with a fun twist. Kellogg has created an extracurricular pilot program in partnership with Poker Powher, a women-led company that teaches poker and poker strategy to women, to help women build crucial leadership skills through learning the art of the game. The six-week program is now underway and runs through the beginning of May.   

“Why are we bringing poker to the women of Kellogg? Because this game is a game-changer,” says Erin Lydon, managing director and GM of Poker Powher. “At Poker Powher, we firmly believe there is a link between why so few women play this game of skill and risk and why so few women advance to the top in business and industry. Through this partnership, we are thrilled to shape tomorrow’s brightest minds in business — and change the future for generations of women.”


Kellogg’s Victoria Medvec

Here’s what progress has looked like for women at the elite business schools in the U.S. Five of the M7 — the elite of the elite — reported female enrollment above 40% in 2020, with MIT Sloan and Chicago Booth the exceptions at 38%. The top 25 schools are full of schools adding women at a steady pace: In the MBA Class of 2022, after Dartmouth Tuck’s 49%, Stanford GSB and Wharton are at 47% women, and Duke Fuqua is at 46%. By some measures, the progress looks to continue: In testing year 2019, GMAC reported a record high of 47.1% of GMAT exams taken by women; its 2020 survey reported that 84% of female graduates say their professional situation is better or much better as a result of their b-school degree.

However — partly exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which inordinately impacts women, and partly the result of other long-simmering factors — momentum is slowing. Eleven top-25 schools lost ground in women’s MBA enrollment between 2019 and 2020, including three that had reached 40% but slipped below that level (Booth, Sloan, and Yale SOM). Zooming out, seven of the top-ranked schools lost ground in women’s MBA enrollment over the last five years.

At Kellogg, where women comprise 40% of the full-time, two-year MBA Class of 2022 (and 43% of the Class of 2021), the school is engaged in multi-pronged efforts to advance women both in higher education and the workplace, and a strong track record of success. Now the school is moving into the world of poker with a first-of-its-kind extracurricular pilot program designed to help female-identifying MBA students build crucial leadership skills in negotiation, emotional intelligence, and decision-making by learning the art of the game.

The content of the program, which concludes next month, is “designed to empower women by diving deep into negotiations strategy, decision-making and emotional intelligence,” the school announced today. It will be taught by world-renowned Kellogg faculty, including negotiation and decision expert Victoria Medvec, and professional poker player Melanie Weisner, and will also feature guest lectures from psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Maria Konnikova.

Each week, pilot participants will engage in a lecture with a Kellogg professor, followed by small group discussions and a poker lesson that applies the leadership insights learned. Students have the chance to practice their new skills through gameplay at the end of each session.


The need for more women in the C-suite is a long-term issue, but the coronavirus pandemic certainly hasn’t helped. The last year-plus has been a time of unprecedented professional setbacks for women across the U.S., with one in four women considering downshifting their careers and 2.5 million women leaving the workforce entirely. 
Through this pilot program with Kellogg and other year-round programming, Poker Powher is “flipping the table on traditional professional development methods and using poker to equip women with the skills to advance in their lives and careers,” the school announced. “Through a global network of clubs, tournaments, and corporate events, Poker Powher utilizes gameplay—but never gambling—to help women of all ages build confidence, challenge the status quo, learn strategy, and assess risk in a fun, supportive, safe-to-fail environment.”

“We are thrilled to launch this pilot, which will help women explore and build crucial leadership abilities in a creative and engaging way,” says Victoria Medvec, professor of management and organizations and co-founder and executive director of the Center for Executive Women. “Not only will participants gain an edge in their careers by diving deep into negotiations strategies, they will have the opportunity to build relationships with Kellogg women across our full-time, part-time, and executive MBA degree programs.”