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Forté Foundation Women’s Leadership Conference Draws Record Attendance

Forte Foundation conferenceCurrent female MBA students and alumni have come out in droves this year for the 2015 Forté Foundation MBA Women’s Leadership Conference, taking place now at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Kicking off with a sponsors meeting on Thursday for school and company representatives, followed by a career-focused day of programming yesterday and a day centered around professional development today, the conference this year has welcomed 459 MBA women and alumni, in addition to more than 100 speakers and presenters. For those who don’t know Forté, it is a nonprofit consortium of leading companies and top business schools devoted to launching women into successful business careers.

“I think we have pulled together some really interesting topics that a lot people want to hear about,” says Elissa Sangster, Forté Foundation executive director, when asked what contributed to this year’s record attendance. “We are excited to see it all come together.”

Sangster remembers making name tags by hand for the 50 or so attendees that came to the inaugural Forté conference 11 years ago. A lot has changed since then. Her staff, which at that time consisted of herself and one other part-time employee, has grown to 13 this year and will expand to 15 or 17 next year, she says. Which is a good thing, since attendance has increased nine-fold, participating schools have grown from 10 at most to 48 this year, and sponsor companies now number 40, Sangster says.

“We had no idea the huge growth we would see,” she says, thinking back to that first conference in 2004. “We had about $200,000 in the bank back then, and we have around $3 million now, so that is significant growth as well.”

The number of Forté Fellows—women receiving fellowships through the organization to pursue MBAs at sponsor business schools—has increased even more significantly, from fewer than 75 in the first two years to 1,500 today. To date, sponsor schools have given almost $68 million to Forté Fellows, according to the organization’s website.

Conference Expands Scope, Reach

With increasing coffers and rising demand, Forté has vastly expanded programming for its annual conference. What initially amounted to half a day on Friday and half a day on Saturday has grown to two jam-packed days of speakers, workshops, networking events and more, preceded by the sponsors meeting on Thursday. Sangster herself greeted attendees yesterday, followed by a welcome address from McDonough School of Business Dean David A. Thomas.

With the theme “Let’s Power Up!” this year’s event boasts an incredible array of noteworthy speakers, as well as more than 50 workshops on topics ranging from money management to communications strategies to help make your voice heard in the classroom and beyond.

Among the keynote speakers are Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland Smith School of Business, and Lucinda Duncalfe, CEO of Monetate, who will both discuss female entrepreneurship. Cindy Solomon, a customer service and employee engagement guru and strategic consultant to leading organizations including the Mayo Clinic, Raytheon, Oracle and Google, will deliver another keynote address on how women can build confidence, power and potential.

As in past years, this year’s conference also includes Dialogue With Leadership, a recurring component in which C-suite women come together in candid conversation to share how they rose to the top. Scheduled presenters for this session include Jocelyn Cunningham, market offering portfolio leader for Deloitte, and Gisel Ruiz, executive vice president of Walmart’s International People Division.

Forte Foundation conference
Elissa Sangster, Forté Foundation executive director

As the conference has grown over the years, Sangster and her team have divided content into elements that are primarily career focused on the first day and programming devoted to professional development on the second day, to appeal to the needs and interests of first-year MBAs and second-years and alumni, respectively. “Everything on Saturday has a professional development component, which makes it great for second-year students, as well as alumni who may only be able to attend for one day,” Sangster says. The conference now also features a company expo, giving attendees the opportunity to engage directly with sponsor companies.

Sangster herself is most excited this year about today’s closing session, a panel entitled MBAs and the Politics of Doing Good, which will include presenters Laura Walker, New York Public Radio president and CEO; Jane Mosbacher Morris, founder and CEO of To the Market; Associate Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education Ursula Wright of the U.S. Department of Education; and Mary Humphrey, CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute. “I think this is such an important topic for women especially,” she says. “We really want to help them connect the dots between the MBA and doing amazing things that really have high impact.”

Increasing Female MBA Enrollment by Focusing on the Pipeline

One of Sangster’s greatest personal goals—and that of the Forté Foundation as a whole—is to increase female enrollment at top MBA programs. “We are particularly proud of seeing the needle move—it’s grown from 28 percent in the top programs when we started in 2002 to about 34 percent today,” she says. “It’s a huge accomplishment and change, but it is still not enough. We want to see that average continue to move forward.”

Though the needle Forté most wants to see move is female enrollment in top business schools, the mission of the organization is much broader. “We don’t spend all of our time focused on that because we need to focus on the pipeline,” Sangster says. Beyond its work with current MBA women and alumni, Forté is also involved in a big initiative to engage with college students, ensuring that college women are exploring business no matter what their major is. A pilot “Rising Star” Program will provide current college students with a curriculum they can follow to prepare for jobs after graduation that will ultimately help them become top applicants to MBA programs. As part of the program, which Forté is currently piloting with 10 institutions but hopes to expand, college women will get to engage with current Forté Fellows and women business leaders, get to know the Forté website and resources there and be encouraged to explore leadership opportunities within student organizations on their campuses.

The goal of the Rising Star Program is not to encourage female college students to go straight to business school from college, since the schools and companies Forté works with are not looking for that. It’s really designed to help college women begin to think more about their possible future career paths so that they can make choices to support them, Sangster says. “If you have left undergrad and know you are going back to school later in your career, you are going to be more intentional about saving money, for example,” she says. “By reaching women in college and helping them with a plan, we hope to make it easier to get from there to applying, enrolling and paying for the MBA.”

Forte Foundation conferenceAnother primary focus for Forté is to serve as coaches and advocates for prospective female applicants to leading MBA programs. The Forté MBALaunch for Women Program includes group, one-on-one and peer coaching, office hours hosted by subject matter experts on every aspect of the MBA admissions process and connections to current MBA students at target schools. “MBALaunch is really designed to walk them through the 10 months leading up to entering a top MBA program,” Sangster says.

Though Sangster is clearly always thinking about the big picture, we hope she’s also gotten to focus on the moment and enjoy all that this year’s conference has had to offer. The growth is impressive, and we’ll be watching to see what she and her team at Forté do next.

Learn more about the Forté Foundation.