Expanding Women’s Careers Beyond the MBA

This article is sponsored by the Kellogg School of Management.

As an MBA student in the 1980s, I initially thought I would feel like “the only one” — a rare woman among male peers. That was certainly my experience at the time in the supply chain management industry. At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, however, I met other women like me who were navigating other male-dominated industries.

We connected and encouraged each other and continue to do so to this day. Indeed, my female networks have contributed more at every stage of my professional development than anything else. From finding role models early on to recruiting board members as a CEO, I have found the connections, advice, and support I needed from a robust network — and especially from the women I know and trust.

International Women’s Day may be an important time to recognize the women in our networks. When a woman’s network is multi-generational, she can tap the wisdom of those who previously have gone through similar experiences her whole career. As a woman’s career advances, she can extend a hand to help women who are just starting out or in their mid-career marathon.

The value of such long-lasting, trusted connections among women has been demonstrated in research. In his studies, Brian Uzzi, professor at Kellogg School of Management, has found that the most successful women have close ties with female peers who help each other get jobs and advance their careers. They readily share information, such as insights into a company’s culture and how to influence others, especially in male-dominated industries.

An Unexpected Benefit

When I enrolled in the MBA program, I never considered how much I would benefit from working with and learning from my peers. Like many women, I had not been socialized or trained to network the way most men have.

Our primary objective 30 years ago became not to break into men’s networks, but to have the same opportunities and access to decision makers as our male peers. We also needed our own women’s networks, where we found support and empathy, as well as mentorship and career advice.

For years after graduation from Kellogg, I called on the female members of my class for additional perspective in their areas of expertise. This guided me to both seek other networks and to begin to form my own. Today women, at all levels and stages of their career, have the same need for a network. Ideally, it should be multi-generational — a cohort of women with the power to empower each person in the group — no matter what their career stage or level.

That’s why I established the Drake Scholar Network at Kellogg School, envisioned as a powerful multi-generational network of female students, faculty, and alumnae. The goal is to help support and train high-potential women to become impactful and inclusive leaders —  throughout their careers. The Drake Scholar Network will focus on enhanced educational programming and multi-generational network building, recruitment of faculty thought leaders, and continued scholarship support for the Drake Scholars program. Through multi-dimensional learning and mentoring, women at all stages in their careers also have the opportunity to learn from successful role models.

Appreciating Strengths, Differences

One of the benefits of having a diverse network is gaining greater appreciation for different talents, experiences, perspectives, and skill sets. I experienced this first-hand at Kellogg. At that time, we had permanent study groups, so we got to know each other well. An engineer in my study group excelled at quantitative work and I remember being amazed at his strength in this area. But as our group discussed the organizational and leadership structures of a company for our business case, this classmate was stumped.

I found thinking in these terms to be natural and I discovered my strengths in this area. Suddenly, rather than seeing myself as “less than” as so many women of my generation did at the time, I came to value my own business acumen and leadership abilities. At the same time, I had deep appreciation for my classmates’ skills.

Through the MBA program, I gained confidence in myself, which I carried into a leadership position in my industry. After joining our family enterprise in 1990, I helped grow DSC Logistics (formerly Dry Storage Corporation) into one of the leading supply chain management companies in the United States. In 1994, I became CEO, which was rare for a woman at that time, and even more so in a male-dominated industry. By the time I sold the company in 2018 to CJ Logistics of South Korea, DSC Logistics had become a pioneer in the industry, and I was honored to receive multiple awards, including from the Committee of 200 and the International Women Forum, for transforming the company many times.

Looking back, I acknowledge how my networks have supported my growth as a leader and as a person. I continue to give back to other women, sharing from my experiences and the lessons learned over a long career, and I continue to learn. But networking, like learning, is a two-way street. As women leaders, we are just as eager to learn from others’ experiences. All of us together can help transform our world into a place where women leaders excel everywhere.

Ann Drake, former Chairman and CEO of DSC Logistics, has more than three decades in the supply chain field. She is Founder and Chair of AWESOME (Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management and Education), and Founder and President of Lincoln Road Enterprises. Ann, a Kellogg MBA ’84, gave a transformative gift in February 2021 to Kellogg School of Management to accelerate the advancement of women in business. Learn more about Kellogg’s commitment to women. 

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