Today’s episode is an extra special show. This is AST’s 200th episode! It’s fitting that we welcome back Elissa Sangster, who was the very first guest on AST almost five years ago. Today she is the first guest to come back for a third time.
This show should be valuable to you because of Elissa’s critical role as head of the Forté Foundation in increasing women’s representation in business school and business, and because of her profound insider’s knowledge of the business school and professional worlds.
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 on 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 Forté Foundation, a consortium of business schools and companies working to increase the number of women in business leadership positions. Welcome back, Elissa!
Can you review Forté’s backstory for us? [3:00]
The origins go back to 2000-1, due to a Catalyst research study on women in MBA programs, called “The Gateway to Opportunity.” That research was looking at why there weren’t more women enrolled in b-schools, and that was the motivation for creating Forté.
It started with five events back in 2002. I came on board in 2004, and we’ve continued creating programs aimed at preparing women early in the process.
We’ve understood that we need to reach out earlier in the decision-making process, too, so we’ve created programs at the college/university level that help women see what careers in business can look like.
And we do professional development programs.
There’s a lot of lack of awareness, lack of role models – a lot of young women have no one in their influence set telling them that b-school would be a great fit. So we’re taking that role.
What is the Forté Fellows program? [6:40]
It started in 2005. We asked our partner schools to give significant scholarships (averaging half of tuition) to two students each year. In 2005, we had about 35 students. For 2018, 1100 students received fellowships. There are now about 5000 alums. It’s a great group.
The benefits are beyond financial – it’s about being part of a broader community. The fellows are involved in programming on their campus, programming for undergrads, etc. It’s a community we know we can depend on.
How do you become a Forté Fellow? [9:48]
Each school makes their own selection. We’ve given them general guidelines.
We start communicating and bring them into the Forté community as soon as they receive the award.
Another significant Forté program is MBALaunch (and Virtual Launch). Can you tell us about that? [10:35]
MBALaunch creates a very active community – they tend to bond and are very supportive and engaged.
It’s a ten-month program that starts with a live kickoff event (with sessions on different topics). Then they’re grouped, and they spend the next ten months working with their peers and a coach preparing for the MBA application. They address all parts of the application (essays, interviews).
There are 570 participants this year. We want them to be competitive.
We want them to apply to schools they might not have thought about if they did the process in isolation.
Virtual launch includes access to all webinars. You don’t attend the live launch, and there’s no live coach, but you do get a peer support group.
Are there any successes Forté can point to? [14:00]
When we started, the average female enrollment at business schools was around 28%. We follow our 50 schools and track their averages (along with their total number of women graduates). In fall 2016, the average was around 37%. So it’s a pretty significant increase.
A good number of schools are maintaining averages in the 35% range in the last couple of years. And a few are nearing or over 40%. It’s encouraging.
Another new Forté initiative is Men As Allies. What is this program? [16:20]
The idea came from HBS, where they had a group called Manbassadors that said they wanted to support women and have conversations about gender equity.
We had a great conversation with them and thought there was a role for Forté to play.
We built a toolkit and website (podcasts, interviews, etc), focused on MBA campuses and how men and women can build this kind of chapter.
We’re also looking at ways we can grow this in the professional environment.
I’m really excited about the response, and helping men and women have these conversations.
Do you see Forté expanding to other professions, like STEM fields or top law schools (where women’s enrollment still lags)? [21:20]
No – though the law school statistics are interesting.
We’ve talked about other industries, but we feel business is our niche and the area where we can have the most impact. There are some ways to replicate what we’re doing in other fields, though.
What does Forté offer women who have entrepreneurial ambitions? [23:30]
What we’ve done in the past is focus on integrating entrepreneurship into our events as a topic – featuring women at different stages of the entrepreneurial journey and sharing their stories.
What we haven’t done much yet is have specific programming around becoming an entrepreneur. This year we had a pitch competition at our conference – that’s our first step. We plan to build out a program that supports MBA women – maybe similar to how we do the MBALaunch program, leveraging our networks to start thinking about the key points in the entrepreneurial journey.
Is Forté active outside the US? [27:50]
Primarily in Canada, Europe, and the US – our main centers are London, Toronto, and cities around the US.
Where is Forté going in the future? [28:30]
We’re really looking to build up the entrepreneurship space.
And we’re continuing to develop the college space – reaching out to women in college, no matter their major – to help them see how business skills relate to their future career goals.
We have a program called Rising Stars for college women (working with our university partners) – we identify women who’ve taken steps to achieve career readiness by college graduation.
Our career readiness program is a way to help them achieve the success we know they can achieve.
We’re also continuing to develop and grow our MBA activities.
Do you have advice for someone considering an MBA? [31:25]
It’s such an individualized choice.
I would suggest researching more about the industries people with MBAs go into. Identifying people with MBAs who have jobs you’d be interested in doing is a good way to get perspective.
When it comes to where/when, it’s individualized – do your research. School websites, podcasts, interviews, etc, can be really helpful in giving personal stories that make it real and tangible.
And any advice for someone who has definitely decided she wants to apply? [34:10]
Come to the Forté Forum! Come with a list of questions – network with adcom reps. Getting a specific impression of each campus will help. Learn what each program has to offer and how they present it to students.
Talk to your peers and alums from each campus. Visit campuses. Look where grads are going. If you have a specific interest, don’t recreate the wheel – go where a school has established excellence. Student experience and career outcomes are important to consider.
Narrow it down! Don’t apply to 20 schools – pick three to five.
• What’s Life Like as a Darden MBA and Entrepreneur?
• Admissions Straight Talk: Interview with Forté’s Elissa Ellis Sangster
• Forté Helps Women in Business Thrive: Interview with Elissa Sangster
• Will Your Graduate Education Pay?
• Make a Difference at Michigan Ross: An Interview with Soojin Kwon [Episode 185]