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

Stephanie Puzak, MBA ’22
Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth

Area of MBA study: General Management

What were you doing before going for an MBA, and what made you want to pursue one? Prior to Tuck I spent time as a skydiving instructor, military officer, and management consultant specializing in technology strategy in the commercial sector and innovation strategy in the public sector. Working on innovation in the public sector was my first direct exposure to the startup and venture capital world. From that experience, I immediately knew I wanted to be a part of it. I went back to school to get an MBA with the goals of broadening my experience in the startup world, learning about venture capital, and deepening my understanding of business concepts to better build and support startups.

Why did you choose Tuck? When considering programs, I was consistently blown away by the Tuck alumni network and their willingness to go out of their way to help before I even decided to attend Tuck. In addition to amazing alumni, the culture and community of Tuck fit my personality and desired MBA experience. Tuck provides the support you need to explore careers, develop your own brand of leadership, and helps you integrate into that long-lasting alumni community. The smaller class size and location was an additional delineating factor for me because it ensured everyone in my class would be fully immersed in the experience which has helped me develop deeper relationships than I felt would be possible in a larger school or city.

Stephanie Puzak poses with her Tuck tripod hockey team.

Why do you believe gender parity in business schools is important? Gender parity is a window to gender equality. Gender parity in business schools is just one small step in the direction of a world where men and women enjoy the same opportunities and rights. This is especially pressing as the pandemic has taken a toll on women in an unequal fashion when compared to their male counterparts (read more about that here). Reaching gender parity in business schools will help create a more robust pipeline of women to compete for those C-suite or board level roles and a parallel pipeline of men who respect those women as peers and, with any luck, men who will also help advocate for their friends in their future careers.

Why is female representation in board rooms and C-suites important? Representation matters and, in that spirit, I’m choosing to write this to address broader diversity in board rooms and the C-suite versus just female representation. When a company makes decisions with only a portion of the population in the conversation, it is choosing to omit the perspective of a large percentage of its constituents—including customers, investors, and employees—all of whom are becoming increasingly diverse. Diversity in leadership can lead to better discussions, performance, and bigger goals.

Diversity in leadership is also essential because it provides unique perspectives that can help break down homogeneity within the C-suite and board room—homogeneity that can lead to groupthink and faulty or ineffective decision making. Homogeneity that can also mitigate the effects of diversity if a culture of inclusion is not fostered to capture the benefits of a diverse team.

Representation and diversity at the highest levels increases the likelihood that lower levels of an organization can see paths forward. Even if a company is vocal about supporting women or DEI initiatives, I always look at the composition of their leadership team to see if they are practicing what they preach. At this moment, 25 percent of C-suite roles in North America are held by women and four percent of those are held by a woman of color. We can do better.

What can be done to attract more women to sectors and industries traditionally dominated by men? Two immediate avenues for action are policy or programs and allyship. Organizations can be intentional about hiring women into roles traditionally dominated by men, developing inclusion initiatives, and creating mentor or sponsor programs within their walls. Hiring women into leadership roles is an easy first step that will attract more diversity to the organization. It is also possible to speak through actions, setting policies to only work with companies that share similar values around supporting and developing women in the workplace. But organizational action is just part of the equation and does not mean much without individual reciprocation embedded in the culture of a company.

Culture must echo organizational initiatives. In my opinion the most compelling actions individuals can take are consistent sponsorship and allyship which must be reinforced by company culture. Persistent gaps in promotions (especially for women of color) often referred to as the “broken rung on the ladder” are perennial issues women face as they try to gain ground in male dominated fields. Women need more than mentors, they need sponsors advocating for them in senior level discussions. Those with sponsors are much more likely to get promoted and since sponsors generally choose to sponsor people that look like them, women are less likely to be sponsored in male-dominated fields. These same sponsors should be helping strong performers develop their networks and removing organizational barriers to growth.

Stephanie Puzak, MBA ’22, poses with her fiancé, Matt, and dog, Frank.

Likewise, everyone can do more for allyship. If you are a manager or peer, have critical conversations about time commitments and flexibility in schedule before making assumptions. If a woman is cut off or interrupted, simply speak up that she may have more to say. If an achievement is misattributed, make sure the right person gets credit. Solicit ideas and feedback from women that may be less likely to speak up in meetings and ensure their voice is heard. This list could go on, but the bottom line is that a lot of small actions that take very little effort can make a big difference.

Have you been involved in any organizations or projects working to increase women participation in business or business education? I’ve led three efforts to increase participation in business and business education for women throughout my time at Tuck: two Women in Business Conferences, a Female Veteran MBA Series, and the PEVC Internship program.

As a Women in Business (WIB) board member and WIB Conference co-chair, I led programming and logistics for two Tuck WIB conferences—with virtual, in-person, and hybrid components—for more than 150 prospective students and 100 current Tuck students, alumni, and faculty. The goal of these conferences was to expose high-performing women to what an MBA experience is like and ensure they knew it was attainable.

Seeing and experiencing the need for more female veterans at Tuck, I developed a partnership with the nonprofit Service to School and nine other top MBA programs to create the first-ever Female Veteran MBA Series. The goal of the events was to increase awareness of what business school is and why it can be a fit for female veterans. Across the series, we had 138 female veterans attend and engage with schools afterward and since holding the first series, two other schools—HBS and UT McCombs—have taken the torch to create similar initiatives.

Lastly, partnering with a private equity-minded Tuck classmate Matt Soundy, I developed a PEVC internship program for in-term student internships with private equity and venture capital firms. These part-time internships seek to provide students with experience that will make their transition into either private equity or venture capital more effective. Students with non-traditional backgrounds (often women and BIPOC) are frequently not even granted interviews if they don’t have industry experience. To create this program, I engaged with 60 Tuck alumni venture capitalists and coordinated nine successful internships. Most importantly, I worked to solidify the process for future internships with eight firms already signed on for the next iteration.

It is hard to quantify progress on any social issues across a short period of time, but I can say confidently that awareness and access for women in business education and hard to access roles, especially in the private equity and venture capital space, was expanded during my time at Tuck. I’m proud to have been a part of these initiatives and hope they will continue for many years to come, creating a clear and amplified impact over time.

What are your future career goals? My short-to-midterm goal is to join a startup as a builder or founder. I am especially drawn to mission-driven startups and companies. In the long-term, I hope to be an investor using capital to empower others to create (especially female and BIPOC founders).

What don’t your classmates know about you? I was a skydiving instructor and airshow demonstrator. I have over 550 skydives to my name, jumped into football and baseball games, and taught over 300 people how to skydive solo on their first jump in just three days of training.

Next page: Ziana Kotadia, Harvard Business School

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