Women’s History Month: 8 MBAs From Elite B-Schools On Why Representation Matters

Suhani Jalota, MBA ’22
Stanford Graduate School of Business

Area of MBA study: General (Social Entrepreneurship)

What were you doing before going for an MBA, and what made you want to pursue one? I was running my social enterprise in India, Myna Mahila, and then came to Stanford for my PhD in Health Policy and Economics in 2018. I am a part of the Knight Hennessy Scholars program at Stanford where I met some MBA students and loved to hear their stories. It seemed like a really diverse group of people with audacious ambitions in life – something I related to. And I loved that passion and real-world application focus! Coming from the nonprofit world, I wanted to learn more about the business mindset from today’s technology leaders – how leaders think about making money, and feel comfortable with it. For me, having an ambition different from creating social impact for others was not instinctive, but it seemed important to be in powerful positions to influence large-scale social impact.

Why did you choose Stanford? For a social entrepreneur with limited traditional industry experience and a hunger to learn more about how technology could be leveraged for social impact, Stanford GSB was a natural choice. Stanford is the perfect combination of social entrepreneurship and large-scale technology influence.

Why do you believe gender parity in business schools is important? Gender parity in all institutions is important – it’s important in its own right to ensure equal representation, equal voice, and an equalizing platform to create a level playing field (and also for the economic growth reasons presented every time we have to prove gender parity matters). It’s unfair to have a room full of men with a few women and expect that those women perform the same as the others. They probably would, and maybe even better, but the playing field was not equal to begin with. So the fact that women are now over performing men even when they are underrepresented is a HUGE deal.

When others don’t look like you, it can get intimidating and uncomfortable. If the people making decisions at the top for who gets admitted, the professors and lecturers and most of the role models and icons in business, then it makes it even more unlikely for the situation to change. The women who stand out are the trailblazers, those who decide to go against the norm, be rebellious, but have to face the societal consequences for deviating from their expectations. Most women can’t afford to deviate – and we must not expect them to. We need to create a level playing field where women can continue to thrive in their natural state and compete with men at par. This level playing field is important not just for students, but also for the role models the students look up to – professors and business leaders. Having gender parity in the business school classroom is now essential to create an equal platform that springboards everyone – men and women – equally.

Why is female representation in boardrooms and C-suites important? Because that’s where all the decisions are made. Until the time such questions become obsolete to ask, we need to get more women at the table. We need to make space at the table, and we need to continue to create systems that allow women on boards. Until the time that a man fears a woman can take his job, we won’t have a time of equality. And until we have equality, decisions will continue to be biased and self-perpetuate a reality that is keeping half of the world at bay.

What can be done to attract more women to sectors and industries traditionally dominated by men? Put women’s toilets front and center in the buildings, have favorable maternity and paternity policies (enforced mandatorily for both), disfavor “greedy work” where people are expected to work longer hours, create breastfeeding rooms on every floor, have an in-house daycare center, and provide executive coaching.

For companies worth billions of dollars, spending less on happy hours happening late at night that most women can never make it to since they are managing their second life then (that of a wife and mother) and instead on obvious items that allow a woman to be the best version of herself (and let parents be the best versions of themselves) will not just attract more women to these sectors, but will retain them and create much more productivity. Companies would gain money and improve their bottom lines while keeping their most valuable team members and assets happy. Women shouldn’t have to find a place for themselves in buildings designed for men, by men, and then be expected to perform, to not have kids, or not get any “special treatment” from the company. Companies need to wake up, assess how to manage their talent, and create an environment that allows them to meet their full potential.

Have you been involved in any organizations or projects working to increase women participation in business or to uplift women in general? I run a women’s health and employment social enterprise, Myna Mahila, run mostly by women (we have 60+ women in a team of 70). We’ve reached more than 1 million women at the doorstep in urban slums in India dispelling stigma around their menstrual health that held them back from speaking up.

In order to meet their full potential, women need to realize how much agency they have. They need to gain exposure – the world has sheltered them for too long. They need to learn to be fearless, to be out in the open, and break every social norm, so they can truly understand what it feels like to live freely. To have individual freedom of choice. Most women in India have no idea what to answer when you ask them a simple question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Since they have never been brought up to think about a career. They don’t realize they can actually choose what they want, and actually do something about it! As shocking as it sounds, millions of women are oppressed but don’t know they are. Myna Mahila tries to break the stigma and taboos surrounding them to help them realize a new norm for themselves. A norm that makes them more like a chatty and free Myna bird.

Currently, I am working on a new initiative, Rani Jobs, that is reimagining work for women and girls in India. We aim to provide scalable and sustainable employment to hundreds of thousands of women. Afterall, financial independence or economic agency is the most important form of empowerment that gives women a position at the table, in the household, and in her community, to stand up proudly and be valued.

For the last six years, I have been listening to women’s stories of suffering, disrespect, and shame. I know a girl my age, Kajal, who was forced to marry and give up her dreams. She is voiceless. But she needs to be heard. Why should she not be allowed to work, when it is only her decision to make? Why should she have to hide her periods when it is only natural that she have them? When I saw how invisible the women were, I knew this was it. I was going to work with these women all my life.

During “that” time of the month, Kajal needs the right product, a pad. But, what she really needs is a voice. A shared and powerful voice. A voice that makes her confident to talk about her body, menstruation and sanitation, and anything else that a woman is afraid to discuss aloud.

Myna Mahila Foundation started in 2015 with the mission to provide voice to women all over the world in marginalized communities by creating a network of young female entrepreneurs. We needed to make sanitary pads because we wanted every woman, every woman, to have access to them. And because Myna was started by the same community members who it was intended for, the producers are our consumers.

We go door-to-door to educate and distribute pad packets. We hold meetings, workshops, courses with these women, and counsel them to work and respect themselves. But this is only the beginning, and Myna Mahila Foundation is one attempt at reforming women’s health. Women need their rights, and no one and nothing can stand between a woman and her freedom.

What are your future career goals? Continue on my entrepreneurial journey with Rani and Myna Mahila, along with a strong research focus. In the long term, I’d like to join the government in some way to help with labor policies for women in India at the national level.

What don’t your classmates know about you? I have done rigorous research to understand the effect of Indian TV soap operas on women empowerment; have read 9 books about it already and want to write my own book about its effect on adolescent girls in India today.

Next page: Mariam Dembele, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.