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A PEEK Is All It Takes: HBS’s Innovative Initiative to Woo Women

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HBS Professor Youngme Moon teaching PEEK students Photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

For Priyanka Krishnamoorthy, a 2015 Mt. Holyoke graduate working in investment banking at Bank of America, a recent weekend at Harvard Business School (HBS) helped set her sights on pursuing an MBA. The Sri Lankan native majored in economics and minored in math and had been thinking about business school for a while. She originally read about PEEK—an innovative weekend program HBS debuted last month for students from women’s colleges—in an article in the paper. She decided to apply after attending an information session HBS held at neighboring Smith College. “They pitched it really well as a way to see what HBS is like,” she recalls. “On campus you hear a lot about PhD programs and law school, but not about business school.”

For Krishnamoorthy, the highlight of the weekend was getting to meet current HBS students and alumnae and hearing about the decisions they made both before and after business school. Just a few weeks into her own first job, she found their choices really eye-opening. “I thought there was a set path to it, but they all said, ‘No, you can come from anywhere.’” She was encouraged multiple times throughout the weekend to think of the MBA more as a master’s in leadership than a master’s in business administration.

An introduction to HBS’s distinctive case method made her even more confident that she could thrive as part of the school’s MBA program. “It’s an active learning process rather than a passive learning process,” she says. “The case method really mirrors the environment of a small liberal arts college.” The weekend also helped her overcome her apprehension about the steep tuition associated with an HBS MBA. “The cost is a huge factor and I wasn’t sure it was worth it, but now I definitely think it would be.”

Score one for HBS. Only other participants would take far more convincing. Take Emily London, a 19-year-old sophomore studying Middle Eastern studies at Barnard College in New York City. Her admittedly broad plans after graduation include doing something she loves that makes the world a better place and helps people. Business school was nowhere on her radar, so much so that she deleted the emails she received about PEEK and disregarded fliers posted on the walls at school.

But the program came up yet again when she was meeting with her career counselor at Barnard. “He has been working with me since my freshman fall and I trust that he knows me really well, but I was really surprised that he was suggesting this program for me,” she says. “I don’t want to say that I reluctantly applied, but I apprehensively applied.”

“Thank goodness I got in,” she says. The weekend at HBS placed business school squarely on a list of possibilities for the future. “It went from ‘Absolutely not!’ to ‘Oh, I am definitely considering that.’”

HBS Professor Francis Frei addressing class
Photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

Why Is Harvard Wooing Women?
HBS admits just 11 percent of the thousands of applicants who clamor for a spot in its class each year, making it among the most selective MBA programs in the country. So why even bother trying to convince applicants who might be on the fence or, worse still, opposed? Because, like most business schools, HBS is struggling to attract women who want to pursue an MBA.

In fact, after some recent gains, the latest application trends survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council reveals that the proportion of women applicants to full-time, two-year MBA programs fell slightly in 2014, to 37 percent, down from 39 percent the year before.

To even approach the gender parity enjoyed more commonly by law and medical schools, business schools first have their work cut out for them in getting more women to simply apply. Leading schools have placed significant emphasis on recruiting more female applicants in recent years, efforts that have helped schools like the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley enroll a record 43 percent women this past year and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School draw 40 percent women for its Class of 2016.

HBS, too, has made gains. The preliminary profile for the Class of 2017 shows that 41 percent of the incoming HBS class will be female, up from 38 percent in 2010 and 28 percent in 1995. Still, 50/50 is the goal.

Can We Get the Case Method to Cook?
“Youngme, Felix and I have been working to create the conditions for students and faculty to thrive for several years,” says Frances X. Frei, HBS professor of service management and senior associate dean for faculty planning and recruiting. “I believe this specific idea was Felix’s, but we all jumped at the chance,” she continues. Felix Oberholzer-Gee is faculty leader of PEEK and the current chair of HBS’s MBA program. Youngme Moon is a professor of business administration and the senior associate dean for strategy and innovation. Together the three agreed to teach a series of case studies to PEEK participants, choosing cases they thought might appeal to the younger crowd. In the mix were four cases, on IKEA, Buzzfeed, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and Tessei, a company that provides cleaning services for Japan’s bullet trains.

“We were concerned—we had never done anything like this before and I just really didn’t know how it would turn out,” says Dee Leopold, HBS managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, who apologized for being somewhat guarded about PEEK before it took place. “We just didn’t know. Can we get the case method to really cook, really bubble in such a short time with people who haven’t done it?”

In fact, initial plans were to do a small pilot with just one women’s college, Barnard. “We thought we might get 40 students,” says Leopold. But ultimately HBS opted to open the opportunity up to students at multiple women’s colleges in the United States and abroad. When the weekend rolled around, 124 students attended from 14 schools.

Students payed $500 to take part, although financial assistance was available to applicants who could demonstrate need, and several participants shared that their individual colleges provided scholarships covering the costs. Events unfolded the moment the women arrived on Friday afternoon, June 19th, with a campus tour followed immediately by a head-first dive into their first case.

A Lost Little Puppy
“When I walked in on that first day I was a lost little puppy,” recalls Catherine Cousins, who will enter her senior year at Mills College in California next fall. Cousins, who is double majoring in French and economics with an emphasis on international markets, learned about PEEK while studying abroad in Senegal. She has always been interested in getting an MBA but wasn’t sure what it would involve.

“When I first walked into the classroom at HBS, there were 90 of us and I was so intimidated,” she says, noting that with only 1,000 students in the whole school, Mills’ classes are tiny. But being in a larger class proved revelatory for her. “I was able to sit back and listen more and observe,” she said. “It really let me take in all the incredible and important perspectives in the room that I might not otherwise have considered.”

Oberholzer-Gee kicked things off with a case study on Alibaba on Friday evening. Perhaps recognizing that the students might be jittery just starting out, he led with an ice breaker. “He asked us a few simple questions and had us write our answers on big pieces of paper and show them to the rest of the class,” remembers London. “It made me realize that there were lots of people there just like me.”

Among the questions he posed were “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you know about business?” “What is your first impression of Harvard Business School?” and “What is your hidden talent?” Hidden talents in the room ranged from tap dancing to Netflix binging to being able to force a smile in any situation.

HBS Professor Moon
Photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

Case Method Wins Converts
“I immediately fell in love with the case method—it was a huge part of the great experience I had there,” says Cousins. “I just assumed, based on my economics background—that it would be really quant heavy. I was expecting numbers and statistics and Excel, but the case method was so much more than just how the numbers change,” she says. Indeed, Professors Oberholzer-Gee, Moon and Frei led students through nuanced discussions of why and how companies succeeded or failed, what mistakes executives made and more. “It was so refreshing to realize that business school, at least at HBS, isn’t just about numbers and math,” Cousins says.

PEEK participant Cindy Coffee
PEEK participant Cindy Coffee surrounded by fellow participants

Cindy Coffee, an architecture student going into her senior year at Wellesley, felt wary heading into the first case as well. “When we finished with it, I thought to myself, ‘This is something I have been intimidated by, but it’s not at all what I imagined it to be,’” remembers the Ghanaian native. “You are having a productive conversation with the professor and your cohort, trying to figure out what the company should do and eventually, at the end, what the company did do. It was eye-opening to be taught in such an environment.”

Leopold and the professors were just as wowed by the students as the students were by the case method. “The women were really surprised by how they were really right in it from the start,” Leopold says. “It was a very emotional feeling for us to see that.” Contrary to any concerns at the outset, the case method did most definitely cook and bubble despite the constraints of time, even with an audience completely unfamiliar with it. “If it works for them, it will work for other populations as well,” Leopold notes, adding that potential audiences for similar programs could include college students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or people from family businesses, for example.

Beating Business School Students at Their Own Game
In one case in particular, the young women who participated in PEEK actually arrived at the optimal solution to the problem at hand faster than many of the business school students who have confronted the case before them. Frei says she chose Tessei because it’s a case with a really hard problem—turning around a very ailing system. Essentially, workers had a very short period of time in which to clean the trains when they stopped in the station and they weren’t being as productive as they needed to be. “I hoped the students would have interesting solutions,” Frei says.

PEEK participant Emily London

“The whole class came to the conclusion that it was important to empower the workers and romanticize their work—kind of like a pit crew for racing cars. I think as a class we were pretty sure that was the right decision to make,” London says. “Frances was absolutely in shock at how quickly we had come to that conclusion,” she remembers. “She kept calling it our faith in humanity.”

“I was blown away by how engaged and thoughtful they were,” Frei says. In fact, she even tried to steer them away from their proposed solution initially. “There are times when a student gets the right answer, but when pressed they back off of their conviction.  We are a ‘learning by advocacy’ model, and I wanted to see how strongly they would advocate their positions.” When she’s taught the case to more seasoned executives, they often propose firing all the workers right off the bat, or they ask for more resources or more time. “It was as if this didn’t occur to the students at PEEK,” she says. “Instead they were most adamant about changing the culture—changing the nobility of the job (which was to clean trains)—and they felt they could do this quite quickly.”

In fact, that’s just what Tessei management did, and it resulted in an amazing turnaround for the company, London reports with evident pride.

Dee Leopold as Dorm Mother
Many anxious applicants to HBS view Dee Leopold as the school’s formidable gatekeeper, but the impression PEEK participants got couldn’t have been more the opposite. The women were split between three HBS dorms—Gallitin, Hamilton and Chase—and Leopold herself served as dorm mother of the latter.

“Dee is so kind and unassuming. When I learned that she headed admissions I didn’t believe it,” London says with a laugh. “’That’s really you?’” she asked Leopold incredulously.

“I’ve never had an experience like that before,” Leopold says. Ostensibly, her role was to provide parental-like oversight to this group of minors, although she added that she certainly didn’t find herself breaking up parties or policing bad behavior. “They all want to make a difference in the world and find something that has meaning for them,” she shares.

At the end of each day, they would return to the dorms, exchange their business casual garb for something more relaxed, and kick back. “We were in these beautiful Harvard rooms in comfy chairs—it was a nice way to unwind and reflect after a long, long day,” London recounts.

“Each evening we would debrief with Dee about what she saw and how she saw us interact with the case method,” recalls Krishnamoorthy. “On the first night she gave us guidance on how to be involved in the case method the next day—when you should put your hand up, don’t apologize,” she says. Over time, discussion moved into what HBS is like, what they are looking for, the things Dee hates seeing in applicants’ essays and different stories from applicants’ interviews, she continues.

“Dee was very engaging and she wanted us to succeed, but she was also very no-nonsense,” Krishnamoorthy says, adding that Leopold told them that the weekend was for them to discover what HBS is like but that she wasn’t trying to sell them on it. “But she is clearly very invested in having more women apply, which I thought was very inspiring to see from a senior admission director,” she continues.

On the last night, Leopold asked the young women why they’d chosen a women’s college. “I answered, talking about why initially I was a little apprehensive about going to Barnard but how I fell in love with it,” says London. “I couldn’t believe the connection I made with her in just one weekend,” she added, noting that Leopold is also a Barnard graduate.

A Skewed View of HBS?
A case or two in, London found herself thinking, “Wow, this is amazing. I am sold.” But she caught herself almost as quickly. “Of course I’m sold. This is the Barnard-like environment that I am used to. A room full of really smart, powerful women with great ideas respecting each other.”

Reality—an HBS class where men still outnumber women by a significant margin—will not be quite the same. The PEEK weekend participants each acknowledged that this topic had come up in conversation. A panel featuring alumnae included graduates from the early 2000s as well as some from just last year. “They told different tales,” says Coffee.

PEEK participant Catherine Cousins

There were many indicators that the culture is shifting, Cousins echoed. “It’s a reality that the field isn’t as diverse as we may want it to be, but the field is changing,” she said. “From talking to the students, it was very clear that times are changing.”

“At points we did joke that we should have an MBA only for women,” Krishnamoorthy said. “But HBS is trying to mimic the real world, and that definitely includes men.”

The value of diversity in the classroom, and especially with the case method, was not lost on these women. Someone raised the point during one discussion that there is a limit to what you can learn sitting in a room filled with people who all think the same way.

“They need the Emily Londons in the room, but they also need the people who fundamentally disagree with me on every level,” the Barnard student points out. “I came to understand just how important that would be with the case method,” she continues. Being in a room with a bunch of people who see the world exactly the same way as you do is vastly different from being in a room with people who disagree. “That not only creates a much more exciting and dynamic classroom setting, but it can also help you become better able to articulate what you mean, help develop your problem solving skills and either solidify what you already believe or open your mind to other ideas,” London offers.

HBS seems to have hit a homerun with PEEK, at least to hear these participants and professors tell it. When asked, the only thing people said they might change would be to make it longer. Most meant by a day or so, although longer breaks between sessions might be a good place to start. “We were a lot of women,” points out Coffee. With just 15-minute breaks and more than 100 women there, “there were serious lines for snacks and nearby washrooms.”