College Success

How Undergrad Women Can Get a Head Start on Leadership

Sarah Izzo is an MBA student, MBA Association co-president, and Forté Fellow at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Duke University is an undergraduate partner of Forté’s Career Ready Certificate program for undergraduate women, so we asked Sarah to share some advice for future women leaders.

As an undergrad at Hamilton College, Sarah majored in neuroscience and planned on going to medical school. She had never considered a career in business, but in retrospect, it all makes sense. She says, “I always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit. When I was young, I would make these bracelets and try to sell them at the Fourth of July parade in the summer.” She also ran a greeting card business, and says, “I had an Etsy shop where I would sell the cards.”

She spent a summer studying for the MCAT — the med school entrance exam — only to decide two days before the exam, “This isn’t what I want.” Instead, she brought her neuroscience knowledge to business school, where it helps her understand why certain products resonate with people and why some marketing tactics are more effective than others.

Sarah’s career journey is only just beginning, but from those early days selling jewelry to her student leadership role at Fuqua, she has plenty of advice for undergrads interested in business.

Build a supportive community
Sarah connects with other MBA women through Duke’s Association for Women in Business, and she attends admissions events to answer questions and help prospective students determine if Fuqua is right for them.  She recommends that undergrads get involved with on-campus organizations. At Duke, the Association for Business Oriented Women holds student-led forums, workshops, and guest speaker events.

Undergrad women at Forté partner schools have free access to Forté Connect, our online community, and to Forté’s college conferences. In Forté Connect, students can explore business career options, learn new skills, network with talented women from 50+ top schools, and earn their Forté Career Ready Certificate — a signal to top employers and business schools they have what it takes to succeed. Forté’s college conferences, including the Fast Track to Finance and the Women of Color College Leadership Conference are held each semester, and travel stipends are available.

Put yourself out there
Sarah says, “I think the biggest thing that has supported my development over time is losing the innate fear of worrying about what others think.” If there’s something you want, don’t worry about whether other people will judge you; just go for it.

In college, when Sarah’s friend ran for student body president, she joined the slate as VP. They didn’t win the election, but she says, “It takes a lot of courage to just set up and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to organize this thing,’ even with your friends.” If you’re hesitant to run for office or take on a leadership role, she suggests starting small, so that you develop resilience as people say no to you or push back on your ideas.   She says, “There’s an interesting TED talk from, coincidentally, a Duke Fuqua alum on just this topic.”

Be willing to experiment
At Fuqua, Sarah had the idea to start a company that provides convenient, on-the-go meals for people who are sensitive to gluten. Through Forté Fellows, she heard about the Power Pitch competition, and other women in the program urged her to enter. She recalls, “Even before I had met these women, they were looking out for me and thinking about me and my future goals, which was just amazing.”

Her company, Packed by Sarah, was a Power Pitch finalist at Forté’s 2019 MBA Women’s Leadership Conference, but has since wound down. Sarah is still glad she gave it a shot. She says, “I love speaking out about starting a business and realizing that owning my own business was not what I wanted to do. I have zero regrets about doing it. It was one of the most important lessons I ever learned in my life.”

Seek advice from role models
If you want to start a business or make a change in your career, you don’t have to do it alone. Sarah says, “Reach out to women in leadership roles or who have started companies, or who you look up to, and get their input.” Mentors and role models have more to offer more than encouragement and positivity. Sarah says, “You also need tactical guidance. Whether it’s starting a business, being in a leadership role, or even applying to business school, you need people saying, ‘OK, here’s what you do.  Here are the forms that you file. Here’s how you should go about that conversation.”

Be authentic
A neuroscience major may not be the typical business school applicant, but Sarah has no regrets. At Fuqua, she volunteers with Admissions, and she says, “I think when you are applying to a business school, more and more, they are looking for nontraditional candidates.” At Fuqua, her first team included an ex-Navy fighter pilot, an operations person from a brewery in Peru, a former marketer, and a coder. She says, “I think that a diverse background is certainly very valuable to admissions, but it’s also valuable to yourself.” Your peers will appreciate that you bring a different perspective to the table — and your future employers will, too.

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