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The Inside Scoop on the Forté Forums: Great Networking for Prospective Female MBA Applicants

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From Atlanta to Seattle and back, Forté Forums have been taking place around the country, giving prospective female MBA applicants a terrific opportunity to connect with admissions staff from dozens of leading business schools, hear from current students and alumnae and meet fellow applicants.

The Forté Forums are an annual event series put on by the Forté Foundation, a consortium of leading companies and business schools committed to helping launch women into fulfilling careers in business. Taking place in 10 U.S. cities as well as Toronto and London, these free events kicked off on August 17th and will culminate with a final event in October.

To truly understand what prospective female MBA applicants can hope to gain from attending a forum, we dropped in on one ourselves late last month in Boston. The cluster of professionally dressed young women in the lobby of the Liberty Mutual Building on St. James Avenue provided a preview of what we would discover upstairs. After a brief and efficient check-in process, attendees were given a package of materials and welcomed into a large banquet hall, where admissions staff, current students and alumnae from leading business schools stood ready to answer their questions.

prospective female MBA applicantsA Crowded House

In all, there were close to 45 schools represented. Attendance was so great that it was difficult to make your way down the aisles between the schools’ tables, and prospective applicants sometimes had to patiently wait their turn to speak to representatives from their target schools. But wait patiently they did, and in turn they got to quiz admissions staff and current students from Harvard Business School, Cornell’s Johnson School, NYU Stern, Columbia Business School and countless other leading MBA programs about curriculum, application essays, student life, financial aid and more.

International schools, too, were solidly represented. Among the mix: IE Business School, HEC Paris and Cambridge University’s Judge School. Inquisitive young women with notepads in hand traveled from table to table introducing themselves and listening intently as admissions representatives detailed what to expect from the application process and how best to prepare.

Outside the banquet hall was a long buffet with sandwiches, crudité and refreshments—a welcome touch for the many attendees who had rushed to the forum straight from work.

After an hour of networking with individual schools, the women were ushered into an adjacent room, where they heard first from a panel of recent MBA alumnae and later from a panel of admissions representatives.

Real Women MBAs Dish on What It’s Like

The close to 100 women who filled the room were greeted initially by Ann Hargraves, director of graduate recruiting for Liberty Mutual, which sponsored the Boston Forté Forum. Keeping her remarks to a minimum—but throwing in the nugget that women with an MBA, on average, attain a 51 percent increase in salary—Hargraves was quick to hand things over to the alumnae panel, which included MBA graduates of Babson College, Yale School of Management, the Tepper School at Carnegie Mellon, and MIT Sloan.

The alumnae panel, from left: Arcelus, Chang, Greenberg, Mishra
The alumnae panel, from left: Arcelus, Chang, Greenberg, Mishra

A lively group, the alumnae shared candidly about what led them to business school in general, what attracted them to the program they ultimately chose to attend, challenges and hurdles they met along the way and some of the things they loved the most about getting their MBA. They also shared the ways in which the degree has enabled them to advance in their career, as well as tips and advice for women trying to decide if business school is right for them.

Technical Skills Are Great. Communication Skills Are Better.

Almudena Arcelus studied electrical engineering in her native Mexico before heading to MIT Sloan for her MBA, where she was seeking to obtain finance skills. “But once I got to business school, the most important skills I learned were organizational behavior, marketing and communications—with a big focus on communications,” she says.

Today, as a principal at the Analysis Group, many of her colleagues are brilliant PhDs from some of the top economic schools in the nation, she says. “But they literally, a lot of them, don’t know how to work in groups. They tell me, you MBAs work together and you know how to do things together,” she says. “The MBA is going to give you the technical skills that you are looking for to be successful, but it is also going to give you the people skills that I think are even more important than the technical skills. And also the ability to learn as you go along.”

As moderator, Hargraves chimes in: “I think an economics PhD teaches you how to research and understand and an MBA teaches you how to make decisions with all that data.” The entire panel nods.

No Business Background, No Problem.

Feng Chang, a 2012 Yale SOM alumna who now heads digital marketing strategy for online retail company Rue La La, didn’t major as an undergraduate in a business discipline. And so she had tips for the women in the room who likewise didn’t have a business background and might be concerned it would pose a hurdle when applying for an MBA.

prospective female MBA applicants
Attendees paid rapt attention to the experiences and tips shared by alumnae.

“When you are thinking about the essays, why you want to get the MBA, I think pulling through those experiences where no matter what your job title or responsibility was day to day, finding those opportunities where you were analytical and where you had leadership opportunities—making them part of your story is important,” Chang says. “I wouldn’t be set back by ‘Oh, I was an art history major” or  “I was a history major,’” she says. Instead, find the ways that you have woven analytics and leadership into your current job, whatever it is, and make that part of the story you tell in your applications, she advises.

“I Learned How to Influence People Over Whom I Had No Authority.”

What about the women in the room who might not want to be an investment banker or a consultant? What can an MBA be for them if they don’t want to go in those directions? Hargraves threw those questions out to another member of the panel.

“I didn’t ever resonate with those fields,” says Rachel Greenberger, a 2011 graduate from the Babson College MBA program who now runs a startup called FoodSol. “I don’t wear a suit, I feel like a penguin if I wear a suit, it’s just not my vibe.”

“My biggest takeaway from the MBA is I learned how to influence people over whom I had no authority,” she says. “Part of that comes from learning how to work in groups. You can’t fire people in your groups—you don’t have authority over them—so you need to learn to sell your ideas to very diverse sets of people.”

“Now, part of that is a communications thing, but it is also reading a situation—negotiating—understanding what people want out of something and how to bring a lot of people together,” she said. Those skills, acquired in business school, will benefit you in traditional fields like investment banking and consulting, but they will be just as useful at a small startup incubator for food entrepreneurs, Greenberger says, speaking from experience.

Next Steps for Would-Be MBA Applicants

As to what young women considering applying to MBA programs should do to prepare, the panelists had words of wisdom here, too. “You are absolutely doing the right thing by attending events like this and by taking in information,” said Pinki Mishra, a 2008 graduate of Tepper who now works as a director of mergers and acquisitions at Nortek.

A self-professed “big geek,” she herself created a spreadsheet listing out the schools she was interested in applying to, which helped her keep organized. But by no means is that required, she stressed. “Find the approach that works for you. No single element is going to dictate the success of your application, and no single element is going to doom you from a certain program,” she says. “Schools look at admissions packages holistically.”

“We all have got tremendous experiences and we went to four different places and we managed to be very successful regardless of the MBA institution,” Mishra continued. “So don’t stress out. You are going to get a quality education somewhere wherever it ends up being the best fit for you. And you are going to look back and you are going to love your business school. It’s a new phase, a new adventure—you should be excited about it.”

Looking around the room, it was clear to see that many of the women were indeed very excited about the new phase and new adventure that awaits them.

Three more Forté Forums are scheduled this fall, one taking place tonight, Sept. 2nd, in New York City; another tomorrow night, Sept. 3rd, in Toronto, and a final forum in London on October 1st. Click here to learn more or to register.