President Obama recently called for more action to promote gender equality in the workplace. He amusingly referred to the need to abolish bad policies more reminiscent of Mad Men, the 1960s period drama with its depiction of rampant sexism. But the president is also certainly aware of the increasingly vibrant presence of women in established businesses and startups across the country.
On a similar note, the dean of the Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, apologized to women students and faculty. Nohria regretted if women felt “left out and unloved” at HBS and promised more female-friendly policies going forward.
Nevertheless, and despite the sexism and biases women sometimes face in the workforce, you don’t have to look far to find inspiring stories of women who have succeeded in business after graduating (or, in some cases, dropping out from) Harvard Business School.
The stories of HBS female alumni are incredibly diverse. We sometimes hardly notice how strong women use their business skills to make a real difference in the workplace. The fact that women at HBS have to struggle even harder because of institutional bias can easily get overlooked. To their advantage, unfair policies and biases have spurred female graduates to develop an extra grit above and beyond that of their male counterparts.
Angela Chao is one such HBS success story. She is notable because she is the youngest Asian women to sit on HBS’s Board of Dean's Advisors and is the current Deputy Chairman of the Foremost Group, an international shipping company started by her father. She is an industry insider, and someone that the business community of New York listens to, big and small. Chao worked her way up the corporate ladder, starting at Citigroup.
Other female HBS students capitalized on the e-commerce wave. Alexa von Tobel started LearnVest, a personal finance web-based platform. What began as a small operation evolved quickly into an Accel Partners-backed business model with $4.5 million funding. Von Tobel, like Angela Chao, got her first exposure to business in personal finance and trading, working for Morgan Stanley. Her business idea was inspired by the desire to make her personal finance expertise accessible to non-experts and small business owners.
Many other female HBS graduates have impacted women-centered industries, such as female fashion and the beauty industry. The same story replays itself because the start-up model lends itself to small beginnings, aggressive funding combined with low operating costs, and then rapid growth and expanding market share.
Another HBS case study in female success is AslaugMagnusdottir, the first Icelandic woman to graduate from Harvard Business School. She co-founded Moda Operandi, an online luxury fashion retailer that gives customers direct access to pre-order from designers right off the runway. She recently left the company after raising $36 million. Magnusdottir is like von Tobel in that her first business venture started off small. She managed a modeling agency in college, an experience that clearly resonated with her and returned her to the world fashion as an entrepreneur. Like Chao, she has influential family connections. Her first husband is a descendant of Icelandic political royalty. And like both Angela Chao and Alexa von Tobel, Magnusdottir clearly gained valuable experience on Wall Street.
So to provide a recap: Of the three HBS female graduates profiled in this post, von Tobel and Magnusdottir have become breakout stars of internet-based business. Both started out with more or less simple business concepts that were scaled up into profitable ventures. Both ideas took off fast once funding rounds commenced. Magnusdottir has roots in small business that coincided with her college years. But her initial experience in fashion gestated and then was fully realized with Moda Operandi.
As for Angela Chao, her industry is more traditional, the one around which her family business is built. But Chao is unique in her dedication to fostering small business growth in New York. Chao sits on the Board of Directors of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. The NYCEDC’s mission is to foster economic growth in the five borough area using a more grassroots and community oriented approach to building prosperity.
The future for HBS’s female students looks especially bright if we can generalize based on the successes of its graduates. We’ve seen how these amazing women have scaled corporate ladders, taken the reins of family-owned companies, and built up small businesses.