Leaning In at Stern

Around the start of first semester, the New York Times published a controversial article on gender equity at Harvard Business School that quickly dominated the discourse on what it means to be a woman in business school. The truth is, women are still severely underrepresented, both in MBA classes and in the higher ranks of management. At Stern, women comprise about 38.4% of the student body — and we beat out many of our competitors.

In true Stern fashion, a number of student leaders leapt into action following the article’s publication. A week later, the Stern Student Government and Stern Women in Business organized a lunchtime discussion on gender equity at Stern, which involved students, professors, administrators, and the author of the New York Times piece. The general consensus is that most women at Stern feel empowered to make their voices heard in classes, on teams, and in the ecosystem of clubs and recruiting and consulting projects that make up the student experience. In most of my classes, women are the first to raise their hands for questions, and they hold many of the top leadership positions in the school.

However, the conversation revealed a number of subtler behaviors, perceptions, and stereotypes that govern how men and women interact with each other, both at Stern and in the broader business community. Soon after, a committee of student volunteers came together to address these issues in more depth. One result has been the formation of “Lean In” circles: groups of students, male and female, who come together on a regular basis to discuss gender dynamics, particularly as they relate to Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book and movement. The circles have become a safe space to explore issues related to gender, perceptions, and working environments, and conversations often delve into separate but related topics, like structuring effective teams and navigating aggressive work environments. By establishing a set of norms that includes honesty, candor, and telling it like it is, we are breaking ground on subjects that are otherwise considered too taboo to say out loud.

But beyond having an arena to converse and vent and analyze, these circles have also turned into grounds for brainstorming solutions and developing action plans. Stern’s administration has signaled its support for the movement and is working with student leaders to incorporate the gender discussion in the classroom and into Stern programs like Launch (our signature two-week orientation). Our dean, Peter Henry, recently met with other business school deans at the White House for a discussion on how business education has a role in creating friendlier workplaces for working families, particularly women. Across Stern, women and men, administrators and students, are making the commitment to “lean in” so that we can make true gender equity — both at Stern and in the workplace — a reality.

Don’t Fear Finance

One of the reasons I decided to come back to school was fear — fear of finance. One glimpse at a stock symbol or supply-demand curve and a wall of incomprehension quickly rose until it froze my brain, forcing me to flee to lighter news topics. I didn’t get Finance, and I didn’t think I could.

But fear is no way to live life, and as my career progressed, I realized the need to confront this fear. In my chosen field — corporate social responsibility — there’s the need for individuals who can work cross-functionally and make convincing cases for ethical and environmental practices in the “language” of each department. Finance is no longer something I can avoid.

So this semester, I am in Professor William Silber’s Foundations of Finance class, one of Stern’s core courses but also one of its most popular. Professor Silber has been teaching this class for a while, and he has the ability to lay out complex concepts in a way that is clear and comprehensible. At the end of each class, he asks one of his favorite questions: “How would you explain this concept to your old aunt?” Breaking down the lesson into simple take-aways is a great way to hammer in the class’s concepts.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Finance is easy, nor am I saying that I completely understand it — yet. But I trust that by doing the work, I’ll prove to myself that I can get there and that there was nothing to fear.

Following Your Passions at Stern: A Case Study

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard a Sternie describe him- or herself as a “non-traditional” MBA. It’s a testament to the diversity at Stern, both in the backgrounds of our students as well as our post-graduation goals. For a relatively small school – there are 392 students in my class – Stern does a remarkable job at providing extracurricular opportunities for students to pursue their passions. Take my particular interest: social responsibility in the apparel and retail space. Definitely “non-traditional.” However, in the five or so months I’ve been at Stern, I’ve been able to explore this interest in a number of non-academic ways:

Consulting Projects

When I learned about the opportunity to work with West Elm through the Luxury Retail Consulting Corps, I jumped at the opportunity. I was ultimately appointed project lead on “West Elm Local,” an initiative to engage local communities by including more local “makers” into the company’s product assortment. My team worked with West Elm’s Strategy team to build out an operational scaling plan to address how the initiative would work at scale. Pretty great stuff. I learned a ton about the retail industry and the complexity of implementing social responsibility initiatives in larger companies.

Centers and Fellowships

This year, Stern announced that it was launching the first Center for Business and Human Rights at a business school, headed up by Michael Posner, founder of Human Rights First and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The center’s first topic area is worker safety in the Bangladesh garment industry – a subject that is obviously close to heart. At the beginning of the semester, I volunteered for a symposium that brought together stakeholders from across the garment industry, and I was recently brought on as a graduate fellow working on community engagement and research projects. I have a front-row seat as business leaders, garment factory owners, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations hash out the future of worker rights in the garment industry. It’s a lot harder than I imagined.

Funding Opportunities

Students interested in social enterprise and social responsibility often find it difficult to find paid summer internships in those fields. Enter, Stern’s Social Impact Internship Fund, a fellowship that provides up to $10,000 in funding to students pursuing low-paid or unpaid summer internships at social enterprises, B Corps, and non-profits. I applied for round one of the competition, and I was very excited to learn that I got it! Now when I’m approaching potential socially responsible employers for the summer, I don’t need to worry about how I’m going to pay my rent.

Clubs and Events

Through participation in Stern’s Social Enterprise Association and Luxury & Retail Club, I am on the planning committee for Think Social Drink Local, an annual sustainable fashion show and fundraising event for the Social Impact Internship Fund mentioned above. In addition to serving a great cause, it’s also one of the hottest social events of the spring and a great way to connect my contacts in the sustainable fashion, food, and beverage spaces with the Stern community.


In October, I traveled to California to attend the Net Impact Conference with Stern’s Social Enterprise Association. Net Impact brings together a remarkable collection of students and changemakers who are committed to using business as a force for good. I had the chance to hear candidly from senior executives at Levi’s, Patagonia, Timberland, Gap, and other companies I admire. It was a great way to step back, be inspired, and recommit myself to my chosen career path. And it was even better knowing that I would be returning to an environment that would enable me to push those goals forward.

Notes From A Reformed MBA Skeptic

Hello everyone. I’m Jessica, a first-year MBA student at Stern.

I have to admit that business school was never in my plan. I was a history major in undergrad, pursued a career in writing, and ultimately ended up managing content and community for a consumer products start-up.

Business school always seemed too corporate, an ivory tower that was distanced from my experience in the creative world. When I first started thinking about getting my MBA, friends in the start-up space scoffed. “You want to learn about business?” they said. “Build one.”

And so I did. I shelved my GMAT prep books and booked a trip to Cambodia, where I spent several months getting to know local social enterprises and ultimately sourcing a line of ethical accessories that I retailed in the U.S. I certainly learned a lot about business, but it was mostly by trial and a whole lot of error.

One of my biggest takeaways from the experience is the power of businesses to do good by being good and the profound impact that can occur when social responsibility efforts are implemented at scale. While I have a soft spot for start-ups and will probably return to entrepreneurship eventually, I am currently fascinated by how ethics and sustainability are implemented at larger companies, particularly in the apparel and retail space. There are huge opportunities to create positive change, particularly as tragedies like the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh put pressure on companies to change their ways.

But in order to be an effective change agent, I need to be able to make a business case for social responsibility, rather than an emotional one. For me, that was where Stern came in. I was drawn to Stern for its progressive approach to business, its pioneering efforts in socially responsible business, its location in New York, and its flexible curriculum. At Stern, we have the opportunity to choose up to three specializations from more than 20. I’m planning to focus my studies on Social Innovation & Impact, Supply Chain Management & Global Sourcing, and Luxury Marketing, and I already have a list of more than 60 classes that I want to take. It’s too bad we only have two years!

While I never foresaw going back to school to get my MBA, I am convinced that it has been the right choice for me. I am encouraged by the efforts of the dean, faculty, and administration to recreate Stern into an incubator for changemakers, and I am inspired daily by the passion and drive of my classmates, who come from wildly diverse backgrounds.

In coming posts, I will share more about life at Stern and how it is enabling me to pursue my passions and interests. If there is anything in particular you’re interested in hearing about, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.