The HEC Paris MBA’s Women in Leadership Club (WIL) has been at work for decades on its mission to “embrace solidarity, celebrate equality.” One of the 26 student-run associations within the MBA program at HEC Paris, the club’s elections have generally been unremarkable, with students sometimes running uncontested for the role of President and other positions on the board. However, over the past 18 months, these positions have become incredibly sought after. The most recent elections have encompassed full-blown media campaigns to earn votes from fellow students. What is behind the excitement and energy driving Women in Leadership?
For former club president Lalaine Inumerables (MBA’ 22), leading the club offered her the opportunity to be very involved in something that she has been passionate about her entire professional life. She says the club’s mission is what motivated her personally, and she believes it is the force behind the club’s surging popularity.
The Women in Leadership Club currently has about 150 active members, both men and women, encompassing both the MBA and other degree programs at HEC Paris. With its focus on empowering women in today’s business world, the club enables networking, sharing experiences, and personal development. WIL believes that women should play a more prominent role in business and society, and supports initiatives to that end.
“The club elevates how people see women in general,” explains Inumerables, who served as WIL’s President from January 2021 to June 2021. “I think a lot of the women in the MBA program are as ambitious—if not more ambitious–as their male counterparts and I think that’s why this club is so popular. It’s encouraging to see everyone in the cohort engaged in the topic, both women and men.”
Inumerables says she chose HEC’s MBA program because she wanted to change industries. France’s position in the luxury industry attracted her. Leading the Women in Leadership Club was an opportunity to get more involved while bringing outstanding educational and networking opportunities to her fellow students. “I knew that I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, and the club presented a great platform to shape my leadership skills in a controlled environment.”
Women in Leadership has joined other popular clubs at the HEC Paris MBA, some of which include the Consulting Club, the Retail and Luxury Club, and the Impact Club, whose increased visibility results from issues of sustainability and diversity taking center stage in business. Win or lose, running for such a desirable office is a great way to gain experience in marketing and politics.
How the Women in Leadership Club Works for Women at HEC
Like many business schools, the percentage of women in the HEC Paris MBA has been hovering in the 30-35% range. Inumerables wanted to change that. “I personally wanted to help women see that there is space for us, we can lead, and make a difference.”
WIL has spearheaded a number of activities and events for students at HEC that reinforce women’s roles in business and enterprise. In October of 2020, the club organized the Women in French History Tour of Paris, a women-centric guided tour of the city’s history. Open to all students, the tour’s purpose was to illuminate what women’s stories could teach us about leadership.
Arguably the most visible venture WIL has embarked on recently is the launch of its digital magazine. Debuting in August of 2020 as We.WIL, the online publication featured profiles, personal essays, and cultural highlights for spending time in Paris. Now published bi-monthly as WIL Magazine, it is connecting and inspiring students.
Recently, WIL has also hosted several high-profile events with star speakers. Ambassador and former French parliament member Delphine O, Secretary General of the United Nations Women’s Global Forum, spoke in February 2021 on international gender equality and the pandemic’s impact on education. The club also collaborated with three other top business schools, inviting HEC alumna Suzane Dubois, SDA Bocconi alumna Gaia Micliavacca, LBS’s Pancham Gajjar, and ESADE’s Christina Kraus to speak with MBA students about their respective industries. Other events included panels with J.P. Morgan’s managing directors Pete Spera, Nana Adae, and Ebele Kemery, and a speaking engagement with Avivah Wittenburg-Cox on leadership, gender, and business.
Watch the video below to meet the Women in Leadership Club.
What’s On The Agenda for WIL?
The new president of WIL as of July 2021, Folasade Owoeye (MBA ‘22), was not looking for a leadership position when she first joined the club. “Even before I started the MBA program, I spoke to a September ‘20 student about the various clubs, and I just said, ‘Women in Leadership, it is’,” recalls Owoeye. “I come from consulting, so I didn’t really have an industry focus. For me, it was the focus of the club, the impact it made, the magazine—everything just appealed to me greatly.”
Owoeye became a volunteer for the club working with the previous student cohort. When her cohort’s elections rolled around, she actually decided to join the team of another candidate vying for the club’s presidency. However, she soon found members of her own cohort contacting her and asking if she was running. “I didn’t think I wanted to be president. I am not one to put myself out there. And so I asked, what are they seeing in me that I am not seeing in myself?”
Owoeye attributes the increasingly competitive elections for leadership positions to the growing awareness on the importance of gender diversity and representation in corporate organizations and society at large. After some soul-searching, Owoeye decided to step out from behind the scenes and withdrew from the campaign she had joined to begin her own run for president. “I had to send an apology to the other lady and say I am sorry: I think I just need to challenge myself because if not now, when?”
Owoeye has big plans for her tenure as club president. “The previous cohort has done an amazing job, and the club keeps improving, and so we wanted to take on that pace. We would feel accomplished if, when we’re done, we have those structures in place to make the club a more sustainable platform for the professional advancement of HEC women. And so we have identified our core pillars, in terms of careers, in terms of mentorship, in terms of admissions. We want to be able to speak to all the challenges that we’ve identified for women—not just in the MBA program, but beyond.”
On WIL’s agenda is developing strategic partnerships with leading companies and organizations to channel sponsorship and mentorship opportunities. The club is looking forward to its annual conference, slated for the second half of 2022. Another goal is to enhance the club’s website, making it more interactive as a place where women who are considering HEC can find out more about the program and opportunities available to female MBAs.
Owoeye is not just passionate about improving the participation of women in the MBA program, but also about post-MBA support and the long-term challenges that are unique to women in business. “Currently, the MBA gender mix percentage is 70/30. It’s something we want to address,” she says. “When you talk about the challenges of getting women into executive positions, it’s not that women aren’t getting the job. Most women in our MBA program land these jobs, but it’s the staying power that we need. How can we support your career journey all the way?”
What Success Looks Like
Representation matters. It is valuable for women to see other women in the positions they themselves want to be in. This was a significant motivator for Inumerables to earn her MBA. “Coming into HEC having worked for over six years, I have personally only reported to one female manager. I wondered, ‘why aren’t there more female top senior leaders?’ To see more women at the top was important to me. I wanted to push the idea that we can have an equal voice, be seen, and be heard.”
Mentorship made the difference for Owoeye when she was evaluating whether the MBA program was right for her. “I was speaking with an S20 student who was a mother and a manager in a PE/VC Fund, and she was considering having another baby while in the MBA program,” Owoeye recalls. “I asked her, ‘we are the same age, have the same years of work experience and are at a similar phase in life, how do you combine all of this?’ She was very instrumental in my admissions process. She helped with my admissions essays and scholarship applications…she was really amazing. We want to replicate success stories like that.”
What Owoeye envisions for WIL is a support structure that transcends the MBA program. It would be built upon mentorship and sponsorship networks of experienced, influential individuals who can make a difference in the career trajectory of an MBA graduate.
The HEC Women in Leadership Club has become a force to be reckoned with. For women in the MBA program, WIL is a supportive learning environment in which you can test yourself.