November 2005

MicrosoftSmall business center

Can an MBA Help Women in Business?
by Joanna L. Krotz

At last! B schools really, really like us.

For the past several years, business schools have been trying to walk their talk of diversity. Yet women still account for less than 30% of the country’s enrolled MBA candidates, according to the latest “U.S. News and World Report” roundup on graduate schools.

As B schools attempt to improve those numbers, qualified women applicants may have an edge. “Women become the solution to a school’s problem,” points out Stacy Blackman, whose Los Angeles consultancy works with clients to gain admission to top business schools. (Cost: $5,500 for a four-school package). “In interviews and applications, women should emphasize the benefits they can bring to a school,” she says.

Well, turnabout’s fair play. Do women in business actually benefit from getting that MBA degree? Does an MBA boost the chances of success for women entrepreneurs?

The answer is sometimes and maybe. Definitive, huh? Like so much else in life and business, this horse won’t ride as a one-trick pony.


When an MBA helps women

The payoff for investing in a rigorous, expensive, time-consuming two-year MBA degree depends on your life and business goals, your skills and background, and the kind of work you want to do.

What follows is advice from a range of women-friendly experts, including directors of women’s executive leadership centers, MBA graduates and business owners. Their experience adds up to guidelines about when an MBA can make a serious difference and when it’s smarter to choose other kinds of executive education.

Pros, cons and issues to consider before signing on to get an MBA

Ӣ Choose part- or full-time study

Most schools prefer MBA candidates who have some real-world work experience. Applicants average 27 or 28 years of age. That’s prime time on the biological clock.

“Women in the millennial generation are concerned about balancing personal lives with fairly rigorous employment,” says Elissa Ellis, who directs the Austin-based Forté Foundation, a recently-formed consortium of business schools and corporations that works to increase women’s leadership positions. “The decision to enter a full-time MBA program is difficult,” she says. It usually means quitting a job and moving to the school’s location. That might be with or without kids, a significant other or a husband. So there goes the family and the family’s income. “There’s a lot of fear about relocation,” says Ellis.

As a result, women often choose part-time MBA programs, offered on weekends or evenings. But part-time programs are more suitable to enhance careers or to sharpen or expand skills you already have. “Full-time programs are for career switchers,” says Ellis. Full-time course work also offers rich opportunities for internships and corporate projects (translation: job prospects) as well as time to step back and realign skills and priorities.

Ӣ Think long term

Often, women MBA candidates gain the experience and the work-life balance they want by combining entrepreneurship with corporate stints, says Nan Langowitz, director of Babson’s Center for Women’s Leadership in Wellesley, Mass. “We see a lot of women who start a business early in their careers and, halfway through, decide to get an MBA.” After the degree, they work in formal corporate settings. Then they found a new business.

Ӣ Become an insider

Fellow students and associates can become life-long, powerful contacts. For instance, Donna Childs owns an international economic development firm, Childs Capital in New York. As part of her part-time MBA program at Columbia Business School, she took an elective microfinance course. The adjunct instructor was a senior officer of the United Nations Development Program. “Not only did the MBA degree help me build needed skills, it opened the door to important contacts,” says Childs.

Ӣ Bridge your gaps

Generally, women are still shying from math at MBA programs. Don’t. “It’s wrong to allow your fear of financials to guide curriculum choices so you walk out weak,” says the Forté Foundation’s Ellis. Gaining an understanding of business financial models is a key part of MBA study. “Rise to the challenge,” urges Ellis.

Ӣ Perception. Perception. Perception.

An MBA gives you value in the eyes of others. Aimee Bennett, whose Castle Rock, Colo., business communications consultancy was founded 20-odd years ago, says her MBA continues to confer credibility. “Very few communications professionals have business educations,” says Bennett. And, of course, the field is primarily female. “The MBA helps me stand out and often helps me get to top management versus dealing with marketing or other communications functions.”

That respect helps with financing, too. Loan officers, venture capitalists and angel investors are usually more receptive to business owners with MBAs.

Ӣ Learn strategic planning

“MBA programs get you thinking like a CEO,” says Jennifer Daniels, who started a marketing and design agency, Visient Partners, in 2004. She got an MBA from the University of Chicago. “You may be an acknowledged expert in your field,” says Daniels. “However when you step out on your own, you need to understand how to run a business. An MBA provides an introduction, so you can at least ask the correct questions.”

Ӣ Executive options

If you want business training but not the weight of an MBA, you have lots of other options. Among them:

1. Professional peer groups
For example, the international TEC, or The Executive Committee (teconline.com), founded in 1957, brings together chief executives and business leaders in small local groups to brainstorm, run scenarios and exchange advice. Recently, TEC has begun adding women-only groups.

2. Women’s Business Centers
Created in the mid-1990s to help socially and economically disadvantaged women start and build businesses, WBCs are funded by a partnership of corporate and federal money. There are now more than 100 such centers around the country, usually on college campuses and near Small Business Administration Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs).

3. Courses at local facilities
If you’re weak in one particular area, say, marketing or accounting, there’s no need for the full-dress MBA experience. Instead, focus on a single skill with a semester or two at a nearby business school.

4. Boot camps
Intense weekend or one-day seminars can give you a helpful overview. One such program, “MBA in a Day,” is offered by Steven Stralser, author of a book by the same name. Many women’s executive centers also offer on-the-road programs. Before signing on, check references and credentials though.

5. License the MBA
If you’re comfortable managing high-level skills and you truly delegate, there’s no reason to be the company’s MBA holder. Outsource it.

Finally, on the scale of pros and cons, don’t underestimate the confidence that comes with getting an MBA, and how that helps reel in business.

When Alex Ramsey decided to earn an MBA, she was a single mom with a 12-year-old son and president at a training company with about 40 employees. “I honestly thought I knew more than I did when I started,” says Ramsey, who today runs Lodestar Universal, a Dallas executive coach firm.

“But the program filled in all kinds of gaps and misunderstandings I had. It provided me with the confidence to know that, in spite of my non-technical background, I could compete with the best of the best.”