Business Schools Can Create Distinctive Opportunities to Help Female MBA Students Succeed

Four ideas to strengthen your women’s organizations and expand the pipeline of qualified women for your graduate business programs.

Mar 21, 2017


Did you know that the Darla Moore School of Business is the first business school in the US to be named after a woman? And today, it is still one of only a handful of schools with a female namesake. Darla Moore rose to fame as one of the highest-paid women in banking in the 1990s, and was the first woman to be featured on the cover of Fortune Magazine.

In recent years, Ms. Moore has applied her business savvy to philanthropical causes. At the Moore School, we share the desire of our benefactor to increase opportunities for others, including future female leaders. Like so many of our business school colleagues across the US, we are consistently looking for new ways to engage promising women. Part of our goal is to strengthen their support network, which is a proven factor in elevating more women to top-level positions in business and the boardroom.

We have created distinctive opportunities to help our female MBA students form strong bonds with one another, and we are committed to removing roadblocks and increasing student confidence so our graduates can achieve their goals. For example, we recently relaunched our Women MBAs Association as the Graduate Women in Business (GWIB) organization with added benefits such as:

  • Mentorship by recent alumni
  • A community engagement plan focused on all graduate programs
  • Events where members can connect via technology to participate live from wherever they are in the world
  • A partnership with a major corporation in support of on campus events that connect members with top female executives

We believe that the relaunch demonstrates how valuable a resource your own students and alumni can be. In our case, an impassioned group of graduating female MBAs, including one of our former Admissions Ambassadors, approached our program management team and asked that we brainstorm ideas that would help add graduate business women and future female leaders in business to the ranks. The goals of this session were threefold: 

  • To find a way for new incoming students to quickly connect with current and former students
  • To offer additional programming that would serve to strengthen their confidence and increase opportunities to network with other women that shared similar paths
  • To assist in recruiting more women into the program

In accomplishing these goals, we can create strong and sustainable ties for future women who follow in their footsteps. 

We understand that every graduate management program is different, and that not all our ideas will work on your campus, but we hope our relaunch and the following suggestions spark some continued conversation in your programs. Here are four ideas that you can implement to help strengthen the pipeline of qualified women in your graduate business programs:

1. Leverage a membership drive during recruitment and new student orientation. Engage the admissions and recruitment team to spread positive messages about your women’s organization. Make sure prospective students learn about it early in their experience with your school. Create strategic messages in your communication plan to showcase organization members. These members can also participate in your recruitment initiatives, such as phone calls with prospective students, campus visits, and information sessions. This practice will enable you to connect organization leaders with your highly sought-after MBA applicants and make sure the organization is top of mind when matriculated students step onto campus. (Non-matriculated students can also be powerful ambassadors for your school and your women’s association as well.)

Here’s How the Process Works for Us

Our Admissions Ambassador communicates directly with each applicant on the benefits of getting involved in campus clubs and organizations, in general, and explains how they work. (Keep in mind that applicants may know about your clubs from your website, but might not understand exactly what they do. This additional one-on-one information can turn a complacent candidate into an enthusiastic one, and even tip the school decision in your favor, if the candidates is considering multiple programs.) Through these conversations, the natural progression and discussion about GWIB occurs

Orientation programs can also benefit recent alumnae. We invite the original “brainstormers” to travel back to campus to sit on orientation panels and attend networking events, and to become mentors. They connect with the new class and word of the association – and our school – travels back into their organizations as they tell their friends and colleagues. Remember that positive word-of-mouth advertising is the best (and cheapest) way of recruiting students.

2. Start a book club. Book clubs have tremendous popularity, but a campus book club is something extra special because of the tight and enduring bonds of students who share a transformative learning experience at a critical moment in their careers. We have leveraged closed book club groups on social media so that female students and alumnae can participate in this activity. You may want to center the book club on works by female leaders who have faced (and surmounted) challenges of working in an underrepresented industry. For example, our GWIB is currently working through Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. It creates a close-knit support system and provides essential encouragement and inspiration to create unbreakable common ties between the members. A bonus of reading a best seller in a small group forum is that it also helps strengthen conversational skills that will help in the job search, including interviewing and networking.

3. Invite all graduate programs. The greater the membership numbers, the greater the impact. Our existing club was open for MBA women initially. By expanding reach to other graduate management programs, especially those with multiple entry points during the year, you’ll increase the number of women who are passionate about advancing the cause. Think outside “silos” to identify other programs that could participate. For example, we expanded membership to female students in our Masters of Human Resources program. In addition to a larger membership, a bonus is a target audience of future HR leaders who will be in a powerful position to influence compensation packages down the road! (According to industry research, women currently make 80 cents for every dollar earned by men.)

4. Connect with corporate recruiters through the office of career management. Your employer relations team works hard to place your students in companies and with recruiters. That channel of communication is already open, so be sure to “promote” your association to key influencers. We included GWIB in our yearly class statistics presentation that is shared with Career Management and utilized this opportunity to showcase the ways we were strategically recruiting women. It attracted the attention of a major Global 100 and resulted in our GWIB leaders being flown out to their headquarters as VIPs. They were given exclusive access to top female executives who personally hosted them on the trip, and this simple information share became something so much bigger for our students and for our campus. 

Being part of an underrepresented minority means our female MBAs must work even harder to have a powerful voice in business. It also is a unique opportunity, however, to forge strong bonds and establish a support system that extends well beyond the classroom. It leads to one of the most rewarding and encouraging outcomes – our future women business leaders seeking out ways to connect and support other women.

About the Author

Jennifer Ninh

Jennifer Ninh, Director of Recruitment and Enrollment Management at the Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina.