A peek into what change the Forte Foundation is implementing [Show Summary]
In honor of Admissions Straight Talk’s 10th anniversary episode, our first ever guest is back. Elissa Sangster is the CEO of the Forte Foundation which is at the forefront of increasing female representation in the business world – from the classroom to the workforce.
Interview with Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forte Foundation [Show Notes]
Thanks for joining me for the 463rd episode of Admissions Straight Talk. I love hosting Admissions Straight Talk because of the fascinating guests I’m privileged to talk to. But today’s show is extra special. It marks Admissions Straight Talk’s 10th anniversary. The first show aired on March 29th, 2012, almost exactly 10 years ago.
So, first I have to thank you, our listeners for tuning in and sharing your valuable time and attention with me and our guests. I also have to thank the guests who share their time, experience, and expertise with you and me during the interview.
And one of the people I have to give extra thanks to today is our guest Elissa Sangster. Elissa was willing to be Admissions Straight Talk’s first guest when there was no track record, no stats to report, no download numbers. Today, I can talk to prospective guests about our 650,000 total downloads, but I couldn’t 10 years ago when Elissa first said yes. So thank you again, Elissa. That’s why this show is special to me.
This show should be special to you because of Elissa’s critical role as head of the Forte Foundation, which has made enormous strides in increasing women’s representation in business school and business through her profound insider’s knowledge of the business school and professional world. Elissa earned her MBA at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School in 1994, and immediately became the Assistant Director of its MBA program. She moved to UT Austin in 1997, where she served in different roles, including the Assistant Dean and Director of McCombs’ MBA program. In 2004, she became the first Director of Forte Foundation, a consortium of business schools and companies working to increase the number of women in business leadership roles. She’s been successfully running and growing Forte Foundation ever since.
Can you give a background on the Forte Foundation and its growth? [2:47]
Sure, absolutely. We started back in 2001 when there was a research study being done by Catalyst. A lot of business schools and companies were looking at women’s advancement into business school and into business leadership positions and corporations and there was grave concern about what was holding women back. So the research came out with a study that we then built into a business plan for an organization. That’s really where the launch of Forte began. That was in about 2001, and then in 2002, we held our first event which was a series of MBA forums. We had five of them in 2002 and really continued to grow. I came on board full-time in 2004 as the first full-time employee of the organization. As you said, that’s kind of been the history, and here we are today in 2022. We’re really excited to see where we go from here.
Can you give an overview of the programs for women in college considering a business career at this point in time? [3:51]
College has been a relatively newer part of our programming and by newer, I would say the last eight or so years. We’ve been developing relationships with college women and college campuses, knowing that it’s important to be really thinking about how to prepare for a business career and business school early on. You really need to have those critical conversations in college because college women are thinking about their futures yet many of them are not business majors. We offer programming around that. We have a conference coming up next week, College to Business Leadership. We also have a program right before that called Candid Conversations that really digs into opportunities for underrepresented women and really thinks about diversity aspects of business leadership. That program moves into the College to Business Leadership, which really showcases all the different career paths you could have in business as a post-college graduate.
Our companies are there to represent their different industries. The women get a lot of great leadership, education, and role models to learn from. We also have several career fairs that we do for undergraduate women. Just last week, we hosted an MBA forum for college women for women thinking about moving into that MBA sometime after they’ve graduated from undergraduate. We also have Women in Business clubs on campuses. We have about 60 partnerships with undergraduate institutions and women can be a part of that Women in Business club, that’s affiliated with the Forte organization.
Are conferences in-person or virtual at this point? [5:41]
We’re still virtual. We launched College to Business Leadership and Candid Conversations last year, hoping that they would be live, but they were not. This year had them virtually again, but we think next year we will be in-person. For now, they’re all online and virtual, but they’ve been very successful even though they’ve been delivered in that virtual environment.
Do you think you’re going to keep conferences hybrid in the future? [6:07]
I think we probably will. The access that virtual provides in both our college and our MBA programming is hard to walk away from once you’ve had that ability. It also really gives women outside of the US a better chance of engaging and in the MBA space. That’s really important to us. We’re still figuring out exactly how it’s going to look in the new year, but for now, we’re somewhat committed to doing them both.
How does Forte help MBA applicants? [7:31]
Well, we originally started with those forums that I mentioned, where we just knew that women needed a bit of a gender lens as they approached this decision. We were focused on bringing women in business schools together to talk about what it was like to be a woman at their school, what other women who had been in those schools before did, where they were going, etc. We were also able to answer questions that came up when it was 100% women in the room versus 50/50, or more men than women. Often the questions that were important to women were never being asked because the women either didn’t raise their hand or the men dominated the discussion or whatever would happen in a mixed-gender environment. It became really important to be able to have that kind of space to ask questions that were important to women.
The forums were really that very first foray we had into programming. Those are an opportunity to learn more about a business school, what their admissions process is, what they’re looking for in candidates. We have an alum panel where they learn from the alums and what they’re doing now. It’s really aspirational. We also have an admissions workshop that really gives them insight into the whole process. The schools do an agnostic presentation of what it’s like to apply to business school and give all of the students advice. That really is just an introduction into the whole process. We follow that with a program we call MBA Launch. And we have a paced program where you’re cohorted into a geographic group, and then we also have an on-demand version where you can do it self-paced and it’s all through a learning management system.
The idea of both of these programs is to help you walk through what you need to do to prepare the best application possible and to also make sure that you are prepared and that we have more women that are interested in going into these. It’s also supposed to attract women into this field. The MBA Launch program is a paid program, and then we actually give you a coach, you have a peer group, we have a curriculum that you go through and it’s to help you prepare for your standardized testing to help you with the interviews, the application, the essay writing, all of the things you need to be thinking about, including school fit. There are also fee waivers for application fees so that’s a real incentive for the women that are participating. More than two-thirds of our partner schools offer a waiver completely for the application fee. That’s something that’s really nice for them to have access to.
If you don’t want to be a part of a paid program, there’s a lot of gated content on our website that women can have access to. There are a lot of different ways they can grab what they need, but mostly that engagement and interaction with our school partners and then these programs where they can really dig in and make sure that they’re doing the best job of applying to business school.
Can you expand on Forte’s successes in increasing the number of women in business school? [11:05]
We have been watching this since the very beginning of Forte and really talking to our partner schools about what their enrollment numbers were. We have seen significant growth over the 20 years that we’ve been doing this and really trying to understand what those hurdles were that kept women from being 50% of their business school class. What we saw this past fall in all of our partner schools was an average of about 41% women enrolled in their classes. There are still a few below, but a few that have actually reached parity. There’s a number of schools that are at the 43%, 47%, 45%. That pooling above 40%, or even above 35% has shown tremendous growth over just the last five years. We’re really pleased with that. Once you get to 45%, nobody’s looking around and saying, “I don’t think there are enough women in this class.” It’s hard to tell if it’s 50/50 or 45/55.
It sets the bar high. I think the other institutions are looking around and trying to figure out what levers they need to pull to be able to also have those kinds of enrollments. We’ve been really pleased although there’s still progress to make there. As you said on the back end, once they go out into the corporate world, there’s still a lot of work there that needs to be done in order to see parity in the upper ranks of business. I think companies are working on it, but that’s still very much a concern, even if we get the MBA number right. When we started Forte, there was only one Fortune 500 CEO that was a woman.
When we started calculating the numbers for women in business school back in 2002, it was about 28%. Again, that depends on what group of schools you’re looking at, but it was still below one-third. If we had cut a different slice of schools, it could have been better or worse. We didn’t capture every business school out there, but we just picked the number and kind of stuck with that. But 28% to now 41% is a big jump.
What support does Forte provide to women once they get into business school and even after business school? [14:32]
The first important support is the Forte fellowships which are awarded every year since our first class in 2005. We had about 35 women in that first MBA fellow class. The agreement with our business schools is that these women would get around a $20,000 scholarship to support them going to school. If you fast forward to this past fall, the group that enrolled was about 2,000 women who received a very similar amount of support. They vary a little bit by schools, but that is a huge number compared to where we were back in 2005. That’s one of the most important support systems.
They also get access to our MBA conference, which has been a flagship event for us for many years. This is a two-day program where they get to meet our core partners, the school partners are with us, they get professional development, they have a career fair, they learn more about different industries that MBAs go into, all of the different things that they need to be thinking about as they go into their MBA program. We’ve had that since 2004.
We also have a Financial Service Fast Track that’s specifically focused on MBA women. That’s for anybody interested in investment management or investment banking. That’s a two-day program, and it’s open to any woman who wants to attend that’s going into one of our partner schools.
Then we have a new program that we’re about to launch called MBA Takeoff. It’s going to be a program prior to our conference that really focuses on MBA success and how you prepare yourself to make the most of your team experience and your classroom experience. It’s not a career-focused program, it really is about the mentality of what you’re about to go through. How are you going to engage with your team in the classroom? How are you going to make sure your voice is heard with faculty? What kind of impact do you want to make on your campus? How do you lead in a classroom environment? We cover a lot of those things that they need to be thinking about before they get to campus and then have to start doing them almost immediately. That program is built on a FranklinCovey model who we’ve been partnering with. We’ve created an entire curriculum that is self-paced so they can jump in and it’s all done through videos, readings, and assessments. Then they have drop-in places where they can connect with the other women going through the program. That’s brand new this year.
We work with the women in business clubs. We have career fairs for MBA women to connect with employers. We do webinars around career advancement and career topics that are really important for them to be considering. There are just so many things that you can take advantage of by being in the Forte community when you’re an MBA student.
Does the Forte community continue once women leave business school? [17:32]
It does. It’s a place we’re developing in our strategy. We’re really starting to build out our post-MBA offerings. A couple of them are new. We’ve always had Women Lead webinar series, which is very much focused on professional development for women at any stage in their career but we are adding to that something called Rise. We’re doing the first pilot with just 15 women and it starts in about a week. That program is for women 10 years post-MBA who are thinking about what that next step is, or they’re stuck and they want to switch, or they’ve stepped out and they’re ready to step back in. We look at what exactly it is they’re going through. This is a very intensive kind of executive education type course where there’s coaching, programming, and content, but it’s really meant to move them to the next step, whatever that is.
That program is something we’re piloting. We also have something called Career Strategist, that is going to pilot in the fall that’s for early-career women who are maybe 2-4 years post-college thinking about a similar transition and really making sure that they found their place and that they didn’t undersell themselves as they left college. We help them make sure they have found their niche and establish that we are going to be able to be there to support them. We also encourage them to consider an MBA at some point and are able to give them that programming access, but primarily it’s a career-focused program.
Do you have anything for women who have left the workforce to start a family and are looking to reenter? [20:01]
We don’t have a program specifically about reentry, but Rise would be also helpful for that phase of the reentry process. I know there are programs like iRelaunch and they partner specifically with companies around that. Being a part of the Forte community and staying engaged even if you’re not working full-time is one of the things I would encourage women to do, even if they’re not quite sure what they want that step to be when they’re ready to return. Whatever time they can spend staying plugged in, I think that helps your reentry go a lot more smoothly.
What are the other benefits of being a Forte fellow? [21:13]
We have resume books for Forte fellows only and we give those to our employers, so these women get visibility with the employer group. We do programs on their campuses, we encourage their administration to meet with them and get to know them. Sometimes I come, and we have a tea or something just to connect with the fellows, but we do try to give them as much visibility and then we also keep up with them after they graduate. We monitor and track them, we want to know where they’re employed, what kind of promotions they’ve had. We try to connect with them geographically.
We just had a Forte fellows coffee for the 2005-2010 class. We’re really trying to continue to have those virtually. Now that everybody’s on Zoom it’s the best thing to be able to connect with people in geographic areas like that. We have coffee with the fellows, we send them all a Starbucks gift card and then tell them to go grab their coffee and join us on a Zoom at 10 o’clock in the morning. We get to catch up, see what they’re doing, learn what they’re challenged by in their career, and see if there is anything Forte can do to help them. That was amazing a couple of weeks ago, just having about 10 of them on a call with us. We keep doing those every two or three months, just to make sure we know what’s going on. We also meet with our Edie Hunt Inspiration Award winners, who are all of the women that received these awards at our MBA conference over the last 10 to 15 years. That’s amazing to hear what they’re accomplishing and all the different career paths they’ve headed down. Those are some of the benefits of Zoom and the pandemic and virtual programming.
What does Forte offer women with entrepreneurial ambitions? [24:14]
In our programming, conferences, and webinars, we’re always pulling in women who are entrepreneurs and having them talk about what that experience is. In terms of role models and advice, we have a lot of places you can read stories, profiles, come to a webinar, download something we’ve recorded in the past. One of the challenges the pandemic brought, was doing something we did at our MBA conference when it was live and that was our pitch competition. We used to bring in four teams that had been vetted over. I think we might have had 50 people apply and then we would narrow it down to four teams that would come and present at our MBA conference, a business idea. They would pitch it to a panel of judges and then they would get an award to some seed money for their business idea.
We had done that for three or four years at the conference, but pulling that off virtually just didn’t work. It wasn’t the right kind of vibe. We’re not going back to that this year. I don’t know if we’re going to pick it up a little bit later or not, but in terms of actual competition and prize money and things like that, that was a really nice thing to point to. We might go back to it at some point, but mostly I would say our content is what we have to offer entrepreneur women or the network if they’re interested in connecting with other women out there that are in that space.
Is Forte active outside of the United States? [25:42]
We don’t have chapters or anything like that but we do have partner schools in Europe and in Canada that are very interested in recruiting North American women to their campuses and recruiting women from other parts of the globe onto their campus for their MBA program. We don’t have college programming at any location outside of the US. Everything is here. But at the MBA level, we have those partners, we have companies, we actually have added a couple of companies that are headquartered globally versus in the US. That’s the first pivot. We have a European school advisory group that we’re meeting with regularly to make sure that we’re doing what they need us to be doing in terms of gender on their campuses.
We’re always running through new programs. Again, the pandemic has put a little bit of a dent in the progress on that, but I would say we’ll start picking back up here pretty soon on that outreach. I also mentioned the conference. We previously had 700 women that would come to our live and in-person conference. Last year and the year before, we had 1400 women who logged in and participated virtually, and we know that a huge portion of that was non-US women who were able to log in the middle of the night, some of them had slept during the day. They had all kinds of funny stories about how they were making time for this conference. They were also excited to be able to come not because they couldn’t get here for it, they couldn’t get here and get back and then get here again to start school. It was truly a travel problem and a visa problem for them to be able to come to the live event. So that’s why I said it’s really hard for us to go back to not having both virtual and in-person. MBA Takeoff is one way that we can really extend that virtual offering to a large group of women who are not going to be able to travel stateside to go to that program before going to their program full-time.
Where do you see Forte going from here? [28:21]
I mentioned a couple of those programs that we have coming up, and those are all pilots for this year. We built Career Strategist which is for college women, and then MBA Takeoff built on the FranklinCovey platform. We took all of our content and our gender lens and really built it around that FranklinCovey content. But those two things are part of our strategic plan, which is to build out this program portfolio that we have. We looked at everything we do, and we asked ourselves, “What are the gaps that women would see? If I’m a woman starting my freshman year in college and I’m a part of Forte, what are those stepping stones throughout my career that get me to a seasoned professional business person?” And then we started filling those in.
Over the course of our strategic plan, we came up with that early career place. If you graduate college, we didn’t have a real program for you other than MBA Launch. There’s a lot of other things going on in your life when you’re an early-career person so, we built that Career Strategist. I’m not going to tell you about all the programs, but basically, that pipeline of programs is what we’re focused on the pillars of our strategic plan.
The second one is really around workplace change and thinking about what it is that people need to be equipped with, both men and women as they go into the workforce and where Forte has the opportunity to impact them when it comes to gender equity in the workplace. What kind of programming and education can we give them so that Forte isn’t going to go and change the work environment, but these individuals who have had a mindset shift who can then go make that change? A lot of the work we’re doing around gender equity and allies for gender equity is where we’re going to spend time in terms of the workplace change.
The third pillar is around enduring relationships. One of the things that we want to be as an organization is a place that you can come and this be your place, your hub. This is where you feel like you either made an impact or have been impacted by the work Forte’s doing. We’re making sure that we can track and tell the story of how women have gone from those college programs into the pre-MBA, graduated from business school, moved on, and still came back and connected with us in our professional programs. That’s really important to us. It’s important to us from our corporate and our school partners that we have those connections and that we maintain them. It’s also important to us for the individual women to have that experience with Forte. So building our systems, tracking that, and creating this affinity back to the organization is another area where we’re spending our time. There are still many more programs in that program portfolio to build out over the next couple of years but I think that’s primarily where we’re headed.
Do you have programs for men who want to support Forte’s mission? [32:22]
We do. We started what we had at the time called Men as Allies on our MBA campuses. We built a toolkit for MBA men to start a chapter on their campus and really gave them a guide about everything they need to think about to start a student organization, but specifically what would be the purpose and the meaning behind having a male ally club. Usually, they were embedded in the Women in Business clubs so that they could all work together on those gender equity challenges on their campus, or in their future career, so they can have those kinds of conversations. Then we morphed that as we quickly realized those students were graduating and going out into the workplac. They were used to having very advanced conversations around equity and their employer, honestly, wasn’t even close to having those conversations.
They said, “We need Forte to come in and help with this conversation.” That was when we started the Male Ally chapters back in 2015. Then the Me Too movement happened and that really escalated the conversation much faster and you saw more programming around this. Now we have chapters on the MBA school campuses, we also have a curriculum that is around allies for gender equity that can be taught, not just to men, but for all individuals who are interested in talking more about the equity conversation and being allies, not only for women but for underrepresented or for disabilities. There are a lot of different ways that that can show up in the workplace. So, we have that curriculum that companies can actually purchase, or we can deliver for them.
We’ve done it all virtually, we’ve done it live and in-person, but we’ve also made it easy to do virtually. We also have an Inclusive Leadership program that you can do as an individual. It doesn’t have to be a whole company that says, “We want you to come in and implement this,” but a company could send two people to this program. All of that’s available and it all started with a panel at one of our partner meetings about this man ambassador group at Harvard at HBS. We took that and interviewed all of these men and women who were involved in it on three campuses, wrote that toolkit, and now it’s morphed into all of these different tentacles of gender equity and allyship.
What advice would you give a young woman in college considering different careers and maybe business or an MBA? [35:38]
It all depends on who I’m talking to, but I would say that not to discount business. If you are someone who does, make sure you give it a full exploration and that you understand that there are a lot of amazing paths. There’s so much opportunity in so many different ways that you can pursue a business career. We’ve seen the misperceptions – it’s not aligned with you philosophically, you want to do something good and you want to help people, etc. I think that just a little exploration, just digging a little under the surface and you can figure out exactly how to match that passion and interest up with a business career. It really is a place that makes things happen. It’s an opportunity to grab power. Power is not a dirty word. It’s influence. It’s not greed. It’s not selfishness. It is the power to take control of systems and use them to make the good happen in the world that you want to happen and we need more women in those seats of power.
If you’re thinking about an MBA, know what your “why” is and understand what you want to get out of it. Make sure you’ve talked to people who you admire and who are in careers that you think seem interesting and do the research and think about what doors that MBA opens up to you that are going to be very difficult for you to open yourself because of the pathways that have been established by companies that recruit on those campuses and are looking for top talent. Make sure that you position yourself on that road to success. There are organizations like Forte, people like me, and the men and women on my team who are here to help you be successful. The schools are your cheerleaders too. They want to see you succeed. There’s a lot of support in that MBA network. We just want more of that for women in the business world.
Where can listeners learn more about the Forte Foundation? [44:52]
They can go to our website at www.fortefoundation.org.
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