Why MBA? Helping women to break the glass ceiling

NEW YORK – Elissa Sangster counts herself fortunate to have had early mentors who pushed to empower and promote women around them.

FILE PHOTO: Forte Foundation CEO Elissa Sangster poses in an undated handout photo. Forte Foundation/Handout via REUTERS

After business school, Sangster worked at Texas A&M University as assistant director of the MBA program, whose director, Sue Robertson, was her supervisor.

“She was very much a supporter of women,” said Sangster, now the chief executive of Forté, a San Antonio, Texas-based nonprofit that focuses on elevating women to leadership positions. “She had faced a lot of challenges that were gender-related in her career and she wanted me to have opportunity.”

Sangster applies that spirit in her work now to help women pursue MBAs and rise up in their work places.

Sangster chatted with Reuters about her work philosophy. Edited excerpts are below.

Q. What did you learn from your first job?

A. My first job before I graduated from college was working in the admissions office in the local community college in the town where I grew up, Lee College in Baytown, Texas. That set the stage for my career.

I was already a really hard worker. I learned that from school and my parents were hard workers. But at that job, I learned about having respectful work relationships with my peers, how to solve problems and how to help students navigate their educational experience.

Q. What was your worst job?

A. My worst job was one where I was there for four days. I had been in ExxonMobil, in communications, but I had left because I thought this job opportunity was going to give me a bigger experience.

When I showed up on the first day, the person who had hired me had gone on vacation and wasn’t there. I was left in a cube for four days. Nobody talked to me, nobody came and took me to lunch. I had asked three times, “Is there something I can do?”

Four days after quitting, I called ExxonMobil and said, “Can I come back?” When I left, the person who hired me wasn’t even back from the trip.

It taught me that one of the things that’s so critical is the onboarding process. When you hire someone, a lot of onboarding and communicating has to happen even before they arrive. It provides connection and helps them understand that they’re going to be an important part of the community.

Q. What has been your biggest work-life challenge during the pandemic?

A. My daughter and husband are in the house with me and in this whole pandemic we’ve been navigating being in the house together. There’s some joy in that, but there are some challenges.

Finding your own individual space that has a door that can be closed was our first lesson, especially when she started back-to-school online. She’s 10, and there’s no way she can do that independently without interrupting us all the time.

Children can’t reason that you’re on a call and can’t deal with something. Having a babysitter come in who can help entertain during the times when we have to focus has been critical, even for just a couple of hours a day.

Q. Do you have advice for someone just starting out right now?

A. Attend something that allows you to network, or online events that maybe you didn’t have time for in the past or that you might not have been able to make because they were in a different city.

For example, we hold a women’s leadership conference every year for women about to start their MBA program. Usually, about 600 to 700 women are able to come, but because we were online this year, we had 1,400 women who attended and many were women in India. These women were really taking advantage of what the pandemic was handing to them.

Q. Have you been doing anything differently work-wise in these times?

A. We’ve been doing a sanity soundoff every week during the pandemic, which is some time for personal conversations to check in and see how everyone is doing.

Q. Where will you travel to first when the world opens up again?

A. Our MBA women’s leadership conference will be in Los Angeles in June 2021. If that happens, that will be my first trip. For pleasure, after all of this, I would like to go to Hawaii and enjoy the beach.

Editing by Lauren Young and Richard Chang

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