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2020 Forté Edie Hunt Award Winner: Liz O’Brien, MBA ’20

Liz O’Brien, class of 2020 from the Carlson School of Management, accepted the Edie Hunt Inspiration Award at the 2020 Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference.

Thank you, Amy [Orlov], Edie [Hunt], and Elissa [Sangster] for that very flattering introduction. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to the Carlson School, our amazing women’s community, my partner Ben and my family — and most importantly today to Forté, who made my business school journey possible, and who mailed me this great award — which I’m actually just seeing for the first time because my partner just handed it to me. Wow. It’s pretty amazing. Thank you so much. I’m going to put it down. It’s a little heavy.

I clearly remember sitting at the Forté Conference in Atlanta two years ago, surrounded by a thousand other women about to embark on their MBA journeys. I remember the joy of stepping into an elevator full of future female leaders in their power suits. I remember the terror of, “Oh my gosh. I have to give my speech to real companies tonight.”

I remember thinking, “I can’t believe it. I am actually going to get my MBA.” But your conference experience looks completely different. I know you’ve heard that a lot over the last couple of days, but I’ll say it again.

You are staring into a screen, perhaps alone, maybe in sweatpants or still in your pajamas this morning. You are living through a global pandemic and recession. You are grappling with the recent tragedy of George Floyd’s death, and the deep systemic issues of racism in our country. Instead of saying, “Wow, I’m actually going to get my MBA,” you might be wondering, “What kind of world am I stepping into as a leader?”

I started my job at General Mills two weeks ago, and have been grappling with all of this too. As I’ve gone through virtual onboarding, my emotions and attention have been in about ten different places. But I’ve been able to stay grounded because of something I learned in business school — and at the Forté Conference — and that I’d like to share with you as you start your MBA and define your leadership during this unprecedented time.

It’s pretty simple. Understand your why. You’ve probably heard this before, but today it bears repeating. Why are you here? What’s your purpose?

Today, I live in Minneapolis, the city at the heart of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police. I want to be clear that I acknowledge my own privilege. I grew up in a predominantly white, wealthy suburb of Boston and identify as a straight white woman. Today, like Edie, I stand here as ally but realize that I can only share my own experiences, which may or may not resonate with you. But give me a chance to share my why.

At an early age, I latched on to our society’s narrative that math is not for girls and convinced myself that business is only for bros. I ignored all pathways with numbers or even a hint of economics. In college, I distinctly remember the Booth MBAs on the University of Chicago campus in their crisp suits, and thinking, “Sorry, Edie. I am never going to be one of those corporate robots.”

Don’t worry. I’ve since revised my opinion. I went on to a career in education and spent the next five years working for Chicago Scholars, a nonprofit that trains Chicago’s first generation students to access college and enter the workforce as leaders. This work exposed me to the glaring education and career gaps for first-generation and students of color. Our students were — they are — so talented, but they did not have the generations of family connections and knowledge that so many of us, myself included, often take for granted. Once they entered careers, they also did not have adequate support from their employers to help close that gap. Over time, this has built an extreme imbalance of power in our leadership landscape.

Maybe you’re wondering what I mean by “leadership landscape.” We usually use landscape to describe spaces like rolling hills, skyscrapers, mountains. But I want you to close your eyes with me and imagine this landscape as a room with all 500 of the Fortune 500 CEOs. When we look across that landscape together, we see an ocean of white men. We see four Black men, and a few lonely islands of women — 7% to be exact. There are no Black women, and just three openly LGBTQ+ leaders.

Five years into my work at Chicago Scholars, I kept returning to the question: is there a way that I, that all of us, can do more? Can do better to change this landscape?

Now, Chicago Scholars was and still is at the cutting edge of this work. Given my bias against business and my love for that organization, I didn’t immediately go, “Aha, yes. Business school is my next step.” But as I started vocalizing my desire to transform organizations on a broader scale, the female leaders at Chicago Scholars encouraged me to think about an MBA.

Seeing their ability to combine mission with business savvy, and the power of their ability to scale investments, and the talent of our students, I finally overcame my fear of numbers and business bros, applied to Forté’s MBALaunch program, and started my business school journey.

That is when I found my why. I would do my part to transform the leadership landscape and invest in others potential during business school and after as a human capital leader. I would pay for the investment that Forté had made in me and so many other female leaders, too. Part of that is standing up here today, because you are the next generation of leaders and you will play a role in changing that landscape too.

As you embark on this MBA journey, I encourage you to reflect, understand, and perhaps even re-examine your why.

Your why will be different than mine. That is good. As Elissa shared yesterday, we have a lot of big challenges to tackle — and luckily, a lot of really smart women in this virtual room.

I know that the size and complexity of today’s challenges can be paralyzing sometimes. While this example may seem small, I couldn’t sit down to write this speech last weekend. The things I wanted to talk about felt too big, too intangible. But you just need the courage to write that first word, and then write the next one. You have to start small and build from there. It’s only action that can move us in the direction we need to go.

Although we are all apart right now, just like Edie said, we have to act together because this is about all marginalized communities. It’s about women. It’s about Black, indigenous, and people of color. It’s about queer, first generation, immigrants, veteran, and disabled communities. As we said yesterday, we all rise together.

As you get ready to start your MBA and your leadership journeys, I’m asking you to see the present challenges not as obstacles, but as opportunities to re-examine your why and create positive change together. You are the next generation of leadership and you will be stronger, because you will lead through this moment in history.

Although we are not together in person in a crowded room of 1,400 women in power suits — which I wish we were — imagine that we are together. A sea of strength and encouragement grounded in our collective lives, and our belief in each other.

This is where the work begins. Thank you.

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