In the 1930s, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the toast of cinema. Their intricate dance routines were a thrilling parade of intuitive grace matched only by steely discipline. While audiences marveled at Astaire’s suave sensibility and poised precision, they sometimes overlooked Rogers – the virtuoso who matched Astaire step-for-step…only backward and in heels.
In business, many women serve as the Ginger Rogers of their organizations. They handle the dirty work, often toiling behind-the-scenes and saddled with the weight of a world in transition. They are expected to toe the line between being feminine yet confident and liked yet respected. And never without a smile, of course. The old presumptions are still there in some form. Just suck it up, they’ll say to women, when you aren’t taken seriously or feel stuck in place. Whatever you do, don’t come off as too competitive or aggressive, they’ll warn.
“You know what people will say.”
10 WOMEN WHO MADE AN IMPACT
Alas, the future is never created by the timid or the traditional. No, that is the legacy of the fireball, risk-taking doers, the courageous few who ask ‘why’ and then figure out ‘how.’ You’ll find plenty of these catalysts among the women who enrolled in business school last fall. They are a class who doesn’t need to ask for permission, yet is unafraid to ask for help. They are often the ones who did it first – always seeking to make an impact and expand the possibilities.
They are women like Daphne Pham, who dumped the customary playbook to turn Uber into a force in her native Vietnam. Like Halle Morse – a Broadway actress looking to start her own theater company – they don’t shy away from the spotlight. Even more, they don’t let anything stand in their way. Look no further than Mary Fernandez, a blind woman transitioning into consulting, or Brittany Hunter, once the country’s top high school basketball player before an injury, who successfully transitioned into education leadership.
Each year, Poets&Quants profiles 10 women who represent the best of business – and education. Their inspirational stories are filled with audacious goals and uncompromising grit. Even more, these ten serve as role models for women who are seeking a place and purpose. What makes these women so special – and what do they hope to someday achieve? Here is our look at the women for the Class of 2020 who are destined to become champions, innovators, and leaders.
(Editor’s Note: These MBA candidates are not ranked in any order.)
Vanessa Buie, University of Chicago (Booth): Sometimes, you just need to take a break. For this surgical resident, down time didn’t mean prancing around Paris or downing a margarita before siesta. Instead, this Iowa native decided to pursue an MBA at Booth, with the intention of applying her business skills to her practice.
“As a general surgery resident, we traditionally take two years to do full-time research, often basic science or clinical research,” she explains. “I have always had a desire to obtain my MBA, but did not feel I had enough experience previously to make it worthwhile, for example, as a medical student or prior to medical school. I now have three years of real work experience practicing medicine at both a large academic center and university-affiliated hospital. I have a clear picture of what I want my future to look like and what skills I need to learn to get there.”
Business is hardly anything new for Buie, who minored in management at the University of Minnesota while studying Biochemical Engineering. A former cheerleader for the Minnesota Vikings, Buie completed her MD at Vanderbilt University before starting her residency at the University of Chicago in 2015. Since then, she has embraced one of the most demanding jobs imaginable, focusing on daily improvement and preparing the residents who follow. In the process, she has witnessed the extremes of people suffering at their most vulnerable…and bringing strength and courage to others at their most heroic.
Still, technical prowess can only take a surgeon so far. And Buie is looking for Booth to help take her the rest of the way. “As a physician, I do not believe our training gives enough emphasis to developing hard leadership skills,” she admits. “I am looking forward to learning more about myself, how my personality and behaviors impact the way I lead, and ultimately how to become an effective and inspiring leader.”
Mary Fernandez, Duke University (Fuqua): “As a blind child in Colombia, I did not attend school, and there was no expectation that I would ever do anything with my life. Blind people simply do not have careers, don’t get married, and don’t raise families.”
That’s how Mary Fernandez describes her fate – at least that’s how it likely would’ve been for her had she remained in Columbia. Instead, her mother brought her to the United States when she was seven – and her life quickly took flight.
“I went from living in a place where all doors were closed to me, to come to a place where – even though my mother worked doing housekeeping, and even though the only way I could afford the college education I received was through scholarships – I am now able to pursue an MBA at a top university,” she explains. “Being an immigrant child with a disability has meant that I don’t take the opportunities I’ve been given for granted. It has meant that I am constantly working to redefine how society views people with disabilities, particularly women.”
In Fernandez’s experience, people often “reduce” her to her blindness. She finds that she often must “put others at ease” because they are not comfortable in dealing with people who are different. At Fuqua, she has experienced the exact opposite.
“I’m used to feeling like my every move is being closely watched, and as if I make anything that resembles a mistake someone will jump in and try to help, without asking if I need help, just because I’m blind,” Fernandez says. “During my time at Fuqua, I have never encountered that. I think that somehow the community at Fuqua understands that inclusion is not just asking under-represented minorities to show up, but to truly include them in a meaningful way into the fabric of the community.”
Looking ahead, Fernandez is hoping to land in consulting after graduation. In the meantime, she is taking on the same hurdles as her peers – confident in the knowledge that what got her to Fuqua will get her through the rough patches too.
“I don’t know much about accounting; my knowledge of economics has been mostly acquired by reading newspapers and magazines,” she admits. “So, even though I am slightly terrified of all things quantitative, I feel that the best way to get over a fear is to face it head-on.”
Alexandra (Allie) Medack, University of Virginia, Darden School of Business: Allie Medack didn’t plan to work in the tech field. At the University of Texas, she was selected to be a Plan II Scholar, an alternative, interdisciplinary program that emphasized critical thinking and communication skills. During a study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Medack found herself caught in the Arab Spring. It was here where she realized the value of business.
“At that time, I wanted to pursue a career in national security working for the government,” she recalls. “However, as I learned more about the region’s economy and the underlying issues that led to the unrest (like high youth unemployment), I realized the business community’s power to create a strong and vibrant society.”
Medack’s public policy chops eventually led her to a staff associate role with the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-Proliferation and Trade. For there, Medack moved into the private sector. She started as the chief of staff for General Motors’ Global Public Policy before becoming the senior manager for Emerging Technologies. She became a passionate advocate for self-driving vehicles, which she believes will make roads safer and more environmentally-friendly. At the same time, she has partnered with advocates and policymakers alike to pass state laws that enabled these vehicles to be deployed in states.
Despite her successes, Medack understood that certain gaps were holding her back. That’s why she decided to return to campus to pursue her MBA.
“At General Motors, I worked all over the world and with teams from Finance to Strategy to Manufacturing to tackle various problems,” she explains. “While I could speak to the policy implications of the questions at hand, I wasn’t able to fully grasp the broader business implications of the decisions we were making, and that was frustrating! I wanted to understand the full picture and be able to have a larger impact on the organization. I’m at Darden to increase the number of “business tools” in my toolbox so that I can be an effective and holistic leader.”