Black women and the MBA: What to consider

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Despite the fact that rising tuition costs have led some to question the true value of an advanced business degree, the MBA remains a popular course of study. It’s certainly expensive. And the first few years out of school can be difficult as graduates look to balance budding careers with paying off student debt. But there’s little doubt that in most cases, the MBA can also help the same graduates to obtain better jobs with more satisfying career paths.

Unfortunately, however, there are still some disadvantages for women and people of colour when it comes to MBAs. Back in 2013 Lillian Lincoln Lambert, the first woman to earn an MBA at Harvard in Massachusetts, gave a speech in which she suggested that when she was in business school (in the late-’60s) people didn’t feel that black people or women should be there. In the late-’60s, this was a simple result of racism and sexism. In today’s environment those ways of thinking are less prevalent. But there is a lingering impression among many that business school is meant for white men.

And of course, this doesn’t need to be the case. And despite questions about MBA value these days as well as continued disadvantages for women and people of colour, a business degree may be more worthwhile than ever for a black woman to pursue.

Women and the MBA

The most obvious reason for women in particular to consider the MBA is that more companies are striving to facilitate equality in the workplace. And thus, women are, in some cases, in high demand. However, that merely covers the value of the degree. There’s also tremendous value in the education and experience of business school, arguably more for women more than for men.

One article a few years ago, listed reasons for women to pursue MBAs and essentially pointed out that business school offers an invaluable preview of a world typically dominated by competitive alpha males. By growing accustomed to asserting themselves in this kind of environment, women can be better prepared for a life in business.

Diversity and the MBA

Just as more companies are aiming to narrow the equality gap between how women and men are represented, many are also starting to address diversity in the workplace. Places of business are increasingly encouraged to go public with reports on diversity. And so, the need to hire candidates of different races and ethnicities has intensified.

However, a report from the US citing surveys conducted by Bloomberg indicated a problem. Diversity in the corporate world is rooted in the lack of black MBA candidates. Indeed, the same report said that in 2014 only 6% of full-time MBA candidates polled identified as black.

That means that black students, in addition to women, are “in demand,” so to speak, where business education is concerned. However, going for an MBA isn’t all about opportunism in the workplace. It’s also about pursuing a genuine jumpstart for one’s career.

A few years ago an article discussed the benefits of the MBA for nine successful black women across a range of industries. The ultimate impression was that each of them benefited greatly from higher education. The MBA may be more accessible than ever for a black woman —but more importantly, it’s also legitimately helpful.

Crafting a successful application

The fact that some business schools are more focused on admitting women and people of colour does not negate the fact that applicants still need to be qualified. And, just as importantly, be able to showcase that qualification.

Applying for business school is a major task. There’s an art to creating a successful application that goes beyond listing strong test scores or accomplishments. For the MBA and, really, post-graduate education in general, a lot of it comes down to personal expression.

One program online provides a comprehensive coaching program for MBA applicants and emphasises the importance of personal expression. That particular program helps with all aspects of applications, the testimonials. And examples regarding essay writing should help you to get a feel for how personal the process is.

Applicants need to show their passion for business, indicate their career ambitions, demonstrate their strengths, and honestly express a few weaknesses. Above all else, they need to do so in a way that stands out in a heap of similar applications! It’s a tricky endeavour, and even improving conditions for minority applicants don’t change that.

Is it worth it?

The tuition is high, the application process is difficult. Women and people of colour pursuing MBAs are knowingly walking into environments where they’re underrepresented. Yet, things are getting better in that regard.

So is it really worth it to consider an MBA in 2016? Frankly, this depends almost entirely on one’s own situation and ambitions. Finances, job prospects, and career goals all factor in, and they’re different for everybody.

What is clear, however, is that being black and a woman is no reason to avoid business school.

Want to go to Harvard Business School? Here’s how these African women made it happen

Maimouna Diakhaby

Harvard Business School is arguably the world’s most popular and influential institution of business education in the world. With alumni leading the globe’s most powerful companies, it’s no wonder that many Motherland Moguls have HBS at the top of their list for their MBAs.

We’ve caught up with two HBS students to learn about why they chose the school, the strategy they used for their applications and their best resources during the application period.

Maimouna Diakhaby - Harvard Business School

Maimouna Diakhaby

MBA Class of 2016

Country of Origin: Guinea

Pre-MBA Job: Business Analyst at Rio Tinto

Favourite Class: Managing International Trade and Investment

Why did you think an MBA was the right step for you in your professional journey and why did you think HBS was the best place for you?

After 4 years of work experience, I knew it was time to round my analytical skills with leadership and management skills. I was also looking for an education that would give me a comprehensive understanding of how different parts of an organization fit together to create value.

While there are amazing programs in the US for any aspiring student, my first choice was Harvard Business School for 2 keys reasons:

First, the school’s leadership focus was not only used for promotional reasons but also embedded in the entire curriculum. At HBS, every case discussion puts you in the shoes of a leader (CEO, head of state…) and forces you to make a decision that could change the course of an organization. The school attracts, selects and shapes individuals who are striving for technical excellence and looking to have an impact and influence the environment they live in.

The other reason I chose HBS relates to the school’s branding in Africa. As a woman looking to contribute to the continent’s development, I wanted to get a degree from a school with a strong reputation. In fact, women are too often relegated to more “feminine” roles and rarely taken seriously in some regions. The HBS network and reputation in Africa will hopefully allow me to break those barriers and focus on creating value.

How did you stand out in your application and show the admissions committee what you could offer the school?

It’s really hard to isolate what made me stand out. The admission office states that it looks for a well-rounded applicant and that all aspects of an application are equally important. In my application, I just tried to convey my story in a coherent and comprehensive way. I made sure to present all aspects of my background- strength and weaknesses included.

I strongly believed that if HBS was truly a place where I would thrive, my true ambitions and flaws would be accepted. I also believe that showing that I was a “balanced” prospective student played an important role. The typical HBS student has had a successful career coupled with strong extra-curriculum involvement that truly reflects their passions.

What area of your application did you spend the most time on and what was your strategy?

I spent the most time crafting my essay. I must have read it a thousand times (no jokes). I really wanted to make sure that it was an accurate reflection of my personality and would effectively allow the admission team to assess the kind of leader I was aspiring to become.

It is really important for prospective students to make sure their essay is coherent with the rest of their application. Also, use it as a platform to introduce yourself without exaggeration or disguise.

What resources/websites/programs were helpful for you during your application process?

GMAT Club is a fantastic resource. Most MBA students I know have referred to it at one point or another. People use it to ask questions, share information with other applicants or just learn useful tips on the gmat. The Manhattan GMAT preparation books were also my go-to reference while prepping for the test.

READ MORE: Founder of MBA Mama shares with us her advice on successful family planning during your MBA

Sola Olaniyan-Bright - Harvard Business School

Sola Olaniyan-Bright

MBA Class of 2016
Country of origin: Nigeria
Pre-MBA job: Adidas Group Finance, Germany
Concentration at HBS: We don’t have official concentrations but I’ve had the most electives in the fields of Entrepreneurship and Start-up Finance.
Favorite classes so far: Three come to mind:
1. Entrepreneurship and Global Capitalism: a business history course that studies the lives and journeys of successful businessmen and women from the 18th century till date. I loved this class because it challenged us to study different aspects of the world’s biggest entrepreneurs and to form our own opinions on the decisions they made from a financial, moral, and ethical standpoint which, of course, ended up being very personal for everyone who took the class.
2.  Entrepreneurial Finance: We studied the mechanics of businesses, mostly start-ups, from idea to execution primarily through the lens of investing and other financing decisions.
3. Business, Government, and the International Economy (popularly known as BGIE): It’s macroeconomics in practice where we study a different country every class to understand the underlying drivers of their performance and sometimes predict the future of their economies over time.

Why did you think an MBA was the right step for you in your professional journey and why did you think HBS was the best place for you?

Pursuing a graduate degree is something I’d always known I wanted to do. Having studied Accounting at university and completed the ACCA exams (chartered accounting qualification), I was initially looking to do an MSc in Financial Engineering or something along the lines of strengthening my roots in finance.

However, after 5 years in asset management and management consulting across various industries, I knew I wanted to go for a degree that would be much more than an academic exercise. I wanted a degree that would better equip me to be a rounded business leader by exposing me to as many different aspects of business as possible while keeping me globally competitive and this made an MBA a clear choice.

I chose HBS for 3 reasons the brand, the learning style (case method), and the network.

  •  The brand is very strong especially on the African continent and of course beyond.
  • The case method puts you in the driver’s seat of the some of the world’s biggest organizations in the most complex situations and it forces you to think critically about key decisions to be made while teaching you the frameworks behind how to think through those problems.
  • As far as the network goes, it’s pretty great, especially in Africa compared to many other schools. The school has graduated very successful alumni that you have easy access to just by virtue of being a member of the network.

How did you stand out in your application and show the admissions committee what you could offer the school?

I spent a whole lot of time reflecting on my life and writing my essays at the same time. I really wanted to make sure I was true to my own voice in my application and I didn’t want to compromise on clarity of thought during reflection.

So I spent about 3 hours every week for about 12 weeks writing down answers to questions I believed were important in showing the real me and telling my own story and then prioritizing based on what I knew my resume or recommendations wouldn’t be able to demonstrate. I also got a few trusted friends and colleagues to read through and give honest feedback along the way.

What area of your application did you spend the most time on and what was your strategy?

Definitely my essay. Having graduated from a Nigerian university from where no graduates had ever been admitted into Harvard, I knew my grades wouldn’t be enough. I knew I was up against stiff competition globally (with a 12% acceptance rate at HBS) and felt I had to work to overcompensate with the quality and authenticity of how I told my story.

I also wanted to make sure what I shared was different from but at the same time complementary to what my recommenders had to say about me in showing a full picture of who I was as a person. I know it takes some successful applicants a much shorter time to write their essays but that was certainly not the case for me.

What resources/websites/programs were helpful for you during your application process?

Number 1 would absolutely, positively be The learning plans, the success and failure stories, the info on upcoming admissions webinars, and many other aspects I’ve left out made it an invaluable resource for me, especially as I didn’t know very many other people who were planning to attend b-school at the time.

Also, for GMAT prep, the entire Manhattan GMAT series as well as the Official GMAT review really helped build my confidence. With those resources and consistent practice, most people are already well on their way to a good score.

Twitter Chat with Yasmin Belo-Osagie: Getting Into The Graduate School of Your Dreams (Mar 14)

Missed this event? Make sure you don’t miss the next one by joining our community today.

Click here to follow She Leads Africa on twitter

Applying to graduate school can be an exciting but nerve wrecking time. Graduate degrees have the potential to help you add advanced knowledge and credentials to your CV and move up in the rankings at work. However, competition is stiff for the best programs and even qualified candidates can struggle when it comes to convincing admissions officers to allow them entry.

Join us on Monday March 14 for a Twitter Chat with our very own Yasmin Belo-Osagie where she’ll help us figure out how to get into the graduate school of our dreams.

Follow She Leads Africa on twitter and use the hashtag #SLAChats to ask your questions and participate in the discussion.

Topics that we’ll cover:

  • How to develop your application strategy
  • The best study tools to help you prepare for the entrance examinations
  • How to get letters of recommendations to help you stand out
  • Tools to help you manage all of the different deadlines and requirements

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About Yasmin: 

Yasmin is a co-founder of She Leads Africa where she leads the events and offline programming team. Prior to starting SLA, she worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company where she focused on developing multi-year growth strategies for large organizations. She graduated from Princeton University (majoring in history) and is now mid-way through a JD/MBA at Harvard Law School and Stanford Business School.

Divinity Matovu: You don’t want women dropping out of the workforce

She Leads Africa interviewed Cofounder and CEO of MBA Mama, Divinity Matovu. As a mother of two, she is pursuing her MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on entrepreneurial management and finance. She has launched four start-ups, lived and worked in East Africa and prides herself on being a global citizen and an advocate for women’s empowerment. This is what she had to say about navigating family and career planning as an MBA Mama.

“The biggest barrier for women with children interested in pursuing their MBA, women in business is: childcare. Many women find themselves saying: Oh, I have a child, I’m not going to be able to keep up. What will I do about childcare? Will I have any money going in? If we can develop something that helps women to save time and money on childcare, it becomes much easier to have a conversation and for them to continue advancing in their careers. You don’t want highly educated, highly qualified, and highly trained women dropping out of the workforce.

Our brand, MBA Mama, makes visible: women who successfully maintain their careers after maternity leave and even women who have children during the MBA. We are an online platform that provides ambitious women with tools and resources to leverage an MBA, and strategically navigate family and career planning.

Because of the childcare issues, there are a lot of women who are not at the table to lean in. That is not good for our economy or for business. We want to help women navigate having a child during their post MBA career so that they don’t fall behind their male peers, and so that they don’t feel like they have to drop out of the work force.

Divinity Matovu

From our perspective, an MBA is a great degree that women should leverage to have career advancement. Firstly, an MBA is a graduate degree with the highest return on investment. During the MBA program, you can gain a set of skills that are transferable to any industry and add value to any career. An MBA can increase your access to an excellent network. Lastly, the types of careers available post MBA have wonderful benefits.”

Whether you’re a mother, a woman who is passionate about going back to school, a woman interested in starting a family or all of the above, Divinity provides you with these useful tips.

Here’s her  top three tips for a successful family planning during the MBA:

1. Timing is crucial

There are quite a few women who are timing their ovulation cycle when pursuing their MBA. They work with their partners to make sure that they will be pregnant when they want to be pregnant. These women give birth during the winter break, which is 3-4 weeks.

They come back that next semester, and for most of them, they are only taking classes maybe two days a week. There are also women who work to have children the summer before they start full-time work, and after they graduate.

2. Maintain consistent family time

When I’m with my daughter, I’m with my daughter. I’m unplugged and not checking emails or on social media. My philosophy is: quality of our time together as opposed to quantity.

Even though I’m really busy, that really helps us to maximize our time. So, figure out what time works best for you. Mornings are really good for us because we’re up and about and getting ready together.

3. Prepare for the week

I do meal preps on Sunday. So, I cook many meals on Sunday and then I’ll Tupperware everything into portions so that throughout the first three days of the week I have all of my meals ready to go.

We do take out Thursdays, so I know I don’t have to cook dinner that day. Fridays and Saturdays are easy, because I don’t have class. Sunday, I start my meal prep again.

On her four tips on successful business planning:

1. Create your own brand

I am an MBA Mama, and I see myself in my consumers. I’m investing time in the community and I hope that leads people to our brand. I launched the company and was very excited to get my partner Nicole on board.

That was a challenge because I had to make sure that my vision was clear, and that I could get someone else to buy into the idea.

2. Gain Financial Skills

Finance is central to any business operation. You can have a great brand and people can be excited about what you’re doing, but if you don’t know how to manage the money, if you don’t know how to read a balance sheet, and if you don’t know how to get your finances in order—nothing else really matters.

3. If you want to build an online community, communicate and be engaged

Be engaged with your online community—whether that’s responding to a tweet or re-tweeting someone mentioning your brand, communicating with fans on Instagram or featuring people on your blog.

By staying connected, people know that you actually see enough value in what they have to say.

4. Utilize Social Media!

Finally, any of word-of-mouth that can help your business will be good for your brand. People love referrals because it’s a trusted source and it’s even more trusted than paid advertisements. Through our blogs people find us, and the women we feature also spread the word to their followers.

Also, we feature women who share their stories through our “MBA Mama of The Month Initiative.” If someone can recommend your brand by word-of-mouth, that’s really the best way.