“If you don’t know yet exactly what you want to do, or if you do – it’s ok either way…you don’t have to have it all figured out,” Forté CEO Elissa Sangster said, kicking off the 2022 MBA Women’s Leadership Conference in Los Angeles last month. “There are a thousand different ways for this journey” to unfold, she acknowledged. Held each year in a different city – although the last in-person conference was held in Chicago in 2019, due to the pandemic – Forté’s annual two-day conference is an opportunity for women on the cusp of their MBA journeys to expand their networks, explore potential career paths, and learn from others leading the way in their fields of expertise. More than 500 incoming MBA women attended this year’s conference. Other conference highlights include: Dialogue with Leadership: Integrating the Professional and the Personal. Jenean Glover and Dr. Jennifer Turner, this year’s featured Dialogue with Leadership speakers, have carved out careers that have taken unexpected twists and turns and now combine their business and personal interests. Jennifer, EVP of TriStar Television and a Stanford MBA, started her career at Goldman Sachs, realizing “after two hours on the trading floor” that she wanted a more creative path. “Business school is not just about accounting and finance; it’s about expansion and growth,” she explained. After positions at Oxygen Media and Bravo Entertainment, Jennifer’s longtime interest in health and fitness led her to start Mad Cool Fitness and get a PhD in Public Health Education and Behavior Science. Jennifer runs her fitness business on the side while developing content full-time for TriStar Television. After struggling to choose between her two interests, Jennifer said, “I finally realized that my greatest strength was to integrate” them. Jenean, an MBA graduate of the University of Southern California (Marshall School of Business), has been a talent agent and manager, and currently serves as executive director of The Blackhouse Foundation, whose mission is to advocate and provide a platform for Black talent in the entertainment industry. Like Jennifer, Jenean embraces her non-linear path. “If you pivot, it’s ok. I don’t think there are mistakes, even if something seems sidewise. Think what you can get from the experience, what you can learn,” she recommended. Making Connections at the Career Expo. The Career Expo brings MBA students and top companies together for a few hours of networking. The Expo is a win-win because it exposes potential career paths and employers to conference attendees, and company representatives get the chance to meet a select group of bright, motivated women. “We’re looking to recruit some fabulous females,” Grace Hwang, Head of Campus Talent Acquisition and Early Careers at American Airlines, explained. The Expo also allows women who have not had much business exposure to get more comfortable. Emma Westerlund, who will attend University of Minnesota - Twin Cities (Carlson School of Management) in the fall, was months shy of completing her master’s in education before she decided to go for a joint MBA/MPP instead. Attending the Expo, Emma said, “I am getting out of my comfort zone. We don't do this (career expos) in public education, and I am struggling with Impostor Syndrome.” The Expo offered Emma the opportunity to boost her networking skills and confidence, which will help when she likely pivots to nonprofit management after graduation. Landing the Dream Internship. Landing an internship is one of the most important decisions an MBA can make. During the Kickstart your Internship Quest plenary, four panelists shared tips for getting a coveted internship: Julia Arrhenius: Senior Strategy Consultant, Accenture. Rebecca Taylor: Regional Head of Talent - Australia, Vanguard. Maggy Warden: Senior Director - Underwriting Operations, Liberty Mutual. Jingjia Zang: Enterprise Finance Advisor, Chevron. Some of the stand-out advice they offered: Standing out as a candidate: “First, tell me why you’re pursuing an MBA and what you’re looking for in a program. It helps me see where you might be placed in our organization.” – Rebecca. Gauging company culture: Talk to a lot of people. “If you’re buying a house, you wouldn’t look at just one.” – Jingjia. Making the most of your internship: “Take risks…trust yourself.”– Julia. Networking outside of your role: If you’re thinking about making a change to another area of the company, “bring mentors into the conversation. Someone came to me early, and I helped her think it through and make a transition.” Women of Color in the Workplace: Navigating the Unique Challenges. The facts are stark: only four percent of c-suite leaders are women of color, a number that has not moved significantly in years. Women of color also have higher rates of dissatisfaction, burnout, and stress. During the Women of Color in the Workplace plenary session, four panelists shared their experiences: Suezette Yasmin Robotham: Vice President - Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Talent & Programs, Gartner. Karen Tsowka: Senior Analyst - Transfer Pricing, Amazon. Gerianne Sarte: Vice President, Finance - Cardiovascular and Specialty Solutions, Johnson & Johnson. Cecelia Velazquez: Senior Vice President, Risk Advisory - Investigations, Compliance and Privacy, AlixPartners. Highlights of their conversation: Experiencing micro-aggressions: Women of color often receive negative attention and are labeled as aggressive when they simply speak directly, no different than how men speak. “It makes me question other people’s ability to hear us when we speak as they do.” – Suezette. Handling micro-aggressions: “I will address the comment in real-time and ask for clarification. I also approach them on the side, explain how I felt, and acknowledge that maybe it was unintentional.” – Gerianne. Navigating being an “only” or a “double only”: Sometimes it was intimidating to be the only woman/Black person/Black woman in a room, “but someone helped me see [being an only] as a strength…” and an opportunity to “…shine very quickly.” – Karen. Managing perceived cultural barriers: Differences – whether in culture, language, education – “give you something no one else in the room has…our stakeholders can all benefit from it.” – Cecelia. Edie Hunt Award Winner: Unlocking Doors for Others. Another conference highpoint is the announcement of the Edie Hunt Inspiration Award winner, given annually to an MBA who has contributed to her school or community by advancing women in business. This year’s winner was Natalia Alvarez Diaz, a recent University of Virginia (Darden School of Business) graduate who, while president of Darden’s Graduate Women in Business program, helped make changes within Darden’s administration to broaden women’s exposure to less traditional career opportunities in business; to secure more scholarships for women, particularly of under-represented minorities; and to increase sensitivity among Darden’s career center staff about the nuances of identity in pursuing a business career. Natalia, who also advocated for women and under-represented minorities as a volunteer for Sin Barreras and Darden’s Prison in Education program, said her activism was sparked early in life. The daughter of a diplomat, she was exposed throughout her life to different cultures and diverse economic realities. From these experiences, Natalia said, “I learned that the world is not built to serve everyone in the same way…and it’s our responsibility to open as many doors for others as possible.” Helping Each Other Every Step of the Way. The conference panels, industry sessions, Career Expo, and networking breaks all allowed women the opportunities to forge bonds for business school and beyond. But two attendees first connected behind a computer screen more than 1,500 miles apart, months before the conference. Jennifer Chacon Salas and Rosa Mecklemburg, from Costa Rica and Peru respectively, met as members of the same 2021 MBALaunch cohort. They decided to travel to Los Angeles together and spend a few days beforehand touring the area, but weeks before the conference, Rosa broke her toe and had to use crutches to get around. “My family told me not to go,” Rosa explains, but Jennifer encouraged her anyway, and once in Los Angeles, she helped Rosa navigate climbing to the Griffith Observatory, going to the beach, and riding the roller coaster at Santa Monica Pier. Throughout the conference, Jennifer could be seen walking with Rosa and helping her every step of the way. Jennifer gave Rosa the nickname “unstoppable” for her tenacity. Jennifer and Rosa are friends for life, and they plan to visit each other at their respective MBA schools —Rosa at Duke University (The Fuqua School of Business) and Jennifer at Dartmouth College (Tuck School of Business). And while their story is unique, it also exemplifies a conference which emphasized the value of women having each other’s backs as they embark on a life-changing MBA experience — and beyond.