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Forté Celebrates 15 Years Of Helping Women In Business

Since its early days in 2002, the Forté Foundation has grown from a small, dedicated crew of volunteers to 20 full-time employees today and a community of 87,000 members. In celebration of Women’s History Month in March, learn about Forté’s beginnings and the difference it has made in launching women into significant, fulfilling business careers. Edie Hunt, Rose Martinelli and Joyce Mullen – early Committee and Board members – also recall firsthand Forté’s beginnings and share their hopes for Forté’s future.

Recognizing the need: We had to do something

The need to increase enrollment of women in MBA programs became apparent after a landmark research study, “Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity,” was published in 2000. The study explored myths and misperceptions about business careers and why female enrollment in business schools was only 28%, lower than in schools of medicine and law. Joyce Mullen was “astounded by the data.” Even though women had been active in the business world for 30 years by then, she recalls her surprise that business school enrollment did not reflect the diversity of the workplace. “Nothing had changed in 30 years…how can that be?” she remembers asking.

Rose Martinelli recalls that it was “a very critical point in time” because the research showed that women were not making the expected gains despite media attention and efforts to change the status quo. “We had to do something,” she said, and “increasing women’s awareness of MBA programs was top of mind.”

A call to action: Working Group for Women

The study attracted attention. Business school administrators from Berkley, Chicago, Columbia, Dartmouth, Michigan, Northwestern, University of Texas, UCLA, Virginia, University of Pennsylvania, Yale and others assembled to discuss the report’s findings, held additional meetings that year, and developed a mission: to attract more women to graduate business programs.

It was not up to business schools alone to affect change, however; the involvement of companies was also critical to the effort. The early meetings included women representatives from Dell Computer, Deloitte Consulting, Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Kraft Foods, Morgan Stanley and Proctor & Gamble.

Elissa Sangster and Mariska Morse, Forté’s current executive director and vice president of marketing, respectively, attended these early meetings as part of their roles at the McCombs and Ross Schools of Business. The group worked on a business plan that would get more women interested in business school, but “we didn’t even have a name yet,” Elissa said. According to Edie Hunt – Forté’s first official Board chair – “we originally called ourselves the ‘Working Group for Women.’”

The Forté Foundation is born

After incorporating as a 501(c)(3) organization and creating a Board of Directors in 2002, the all-volunteer group started hosting events under its new name: the Forté Foundation. The first event Forté hosted was the Forté Forum: The MBA Value Proposition, held in New York City in September 2002. Shortly thereafter, the Forté Board hired Mariska (founding board member and marketing chair) to serve as Forté’s operations manager. Forté continued to build its business plan, but it was still operating as a volunteer operation funded by a handful of sponsoring companies and business schools.

Although Mariska was serving in a part-time capacity, the Board realized that it in order to achieve Forté’s mission, they would need a full-time executive director. The Board asked Elissa to serve as interim executive director until they could select someone to serve in a permanent position. After “throwing her hat into the ring,” Elissa was appointed as executive director, beginning her role in June 2004.

Forté makes it marks in the education and business communities

After Elissa came on board full-time, she and Mariska produced Forté’s first major event – the Scholars and Interns Symposium – a pre-cursor to the annual MBA Women’s Leadership Conference. Although they had volunteers, “Mariska and I realized immediately after the conference that we needed to hire an events planner,” Elissa said. A third employee soon joined the growing team.

In the following years, Forté grew across several metrics: staff size; revenue; programs and initiatives; corporate and business school sponsorships; and awareness within the educational and business communities. “The Wall Street Journal published an article about Forté in 2005, and we knew we had it made,” Elissa said.

Edie describes one of Forté’s great successes as its “incredibly strong membership of school and corporate partners,” and she is also impressed that Forté has led the way in staffing a successful, virtual organization “way before the Harvard Business Review was writing about such structures.”

Forté has celebrated many milestones over the years. In 2006, it reached $1 million in revenue and had six full-time employees. By 2009, the Forté community included 50,000 women. By 2015, Forté had secured 100+ corporate, b-school and undergraduate sponsors. Last year the Forté community reached 87,000 women.

Where Forté is today

Today, Forté has $4 million in revenue, 20 employees, and 125 corporate b-school and undergraduate sponsors.

Perhaps most significant is what Forté’s efforts have helped achieve: in the 15 years since Forté’s launch, female MBA enrollment has gone from 28% to 36%. While this is impressive, there is still work to do: women currently hold only 5.8% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies (source: Catalyst), and of the active companies on the 2010 Fortune 1000 list, women hold 19.7% of board seats (source: 2020 Women on Boards).

Edie is proud of Forté’s impact on “so many women at important career moments, including those from under-represented groups.” Rose, who recently joined Forté’s Board, concurs: “The level of awareness that women have regarding professional education, and the level of financial support that schools and companies have set aside to support these efforts is nothing short of amazing. Attendance at events is at an all-time high; and there are scores of scholarships and support programs to help women get prepared for pursuing a business career.”

What’s ahead: We are not done

Edie, Rose and Joyce agree that women need to be more equally represented in business. “Until we have our fair share of women in senior positions and at b-schools, we are not done,” Joyce said. Rose would like Forté to play a role in helping employers understand how to attract more women to senior leadership roles. Edie believes that more can be done to bring men in the conversation, acknowledge and accommodate family obligations, and offer more entrepreneurship education.

Looking back on what Forté has accomplished in 15 years, it is impossible not to be excited about all that could happen in the next 15.

Forté’s Founding Women Then And Now

Edie Hunt

Then: Managing Director, Goldman Sachs and first Forté Foundation Board Chair

Now: Retired, Goldman Sachs

Rose Martinelli

Then: Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid, The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and Working Group Co-Chair, Programming Committee

Now: Senior Director, Higher Education Group, Huron Consulting Group, and current Forté Foundation Board member

Joyce Mullen

Then: Director of Americas Service Delivery, Dell, and Working Group Co-Chair

Now: Senior Vice President, GM Global OEM and IOT Solutions, Dell

Elissa Sangster

Then: Assistant Dean, McCombs School of Business, University of Texas

Now: CEO, Forté Foundation

Mariska Morse

Then: Director of Women’s Initiative, University of Michigan Ross School of Business

Now: Vice President of Marketing, Forté Foundation

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