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Leadership Tuesdays -- Developing Women Leaders
1997 Executive MBA Class, Katz Graduate School of Business, Univ. of Pittsburgh


Are We There Yet? My Journey and Climb
by V. Nona Ogunsula

This past May, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. John T. Delaney, Dean of the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, regarding the women empowerment and leadership program I launched in March 2011. The purpose of Women History Makers-DC, MD & VA and Leadership Tuesdays is to:

  • Highlight and profile women role models in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia who have been trailblazers and pioneers
  • Provide resources to develop, strengthen and encourage women to pursue leadership
  • Provide online and offline opportunities for mentoring and motivation that enable women to live better lives.

(See womenatliberty.com for more information.)

Given the low rate of women in corporate senior executive and Board of Directors’ positions in U.S. companies, I decided that I wanted to focus our talk on the representation of women in those areas. I also wanted to find out how Katz is addressing this problem in its Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Executive Education programs. Further, I wanted to know if Katz was involved in any partnerships and/or research to 1) explain the cause for the lack of women and minorities in leadership positions; and 2) improve the status quo.

Some of the statistics that informed my conversation with Dr. Delaney came from "Women In America, Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being", a 2011 Report released by the White House Council on Women and Girls. (See Leadership Tuesdays for the statistics.) As mentioned in his earlier guest blog for Leadership Tuesdays, The Great Business School Challenge Hidden In Plain Sight, Delaney discussed the enrollment rates for women at some of the U.S. top business school programs and the reasons why women may not be pursuing graduate business degrees at the same rate they are getting other professional degrees in law and medicine.  Although going to (graduate) business school is not the only path into senior executive leadership, more often than not, it has become an important milestone in preparation for senior business leadership. We also talked about how the “glass ceiling” and some of the decisions that women make during their career, like having children and taking maternity leave, have impacted their representation at the highest levels of Fortune 500 companies.

Over the past few weeks, I have struggled with writing my blog about our conversation because of some of the things I experienced at AT&T that led me to take an elective corporate buy-out package shortly after I obtained my MBA degree from Katz in 1998. I did not want to write something that focused only on the negative experiences I had during the last two years of my AT&T career because that was not the sum total of my experience at a company who was the leader in telecommunications at that time.  At AT&T, I was given some tremendous opportunities to develop and grow as a leader although sometimes not at the pace I wanted. I also had some great immediate and senior managers, like Barry Florence, Ron Ketner, and Dave Loos who supported my development and promoted me. Lisa Crawford and Bernie McKay, then a Division Manager and AT&T Vice President responsible for international government programs respectively, sponsored me for the Executive MBA program at the University of Pittsburgh.  So therefore, I owe my business acumen to AT&T.

In the coming weeks, I will talk about issues that impacted some of the decisions I have made during my career with AT&T and other organizations since then. I will also discuss how terms like, “glass ceiling” and “ambition gap” (this term was made popular by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook), as well as how society feels a “lady” should act and what her priorities should be affect the rate of progress of women in senior leadership. Certainly, Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All", was a catalyst for a lot of discussions about what women with families face in trying to climb the corporate ladder and reach the highest levels of their professions. I will touch on some of those issues also.

Let me state upfront that I am an African American woman.  Although I have a Nigerian last name, I was born in Oklahoma City in 1965 to parents whom I have never met.  I was fortunate enough to be nurtured until I was five by an elderly lady named Elmira Thompson, affectionately known as Big Momma.  For more on that story, see my 2009 tribute to her for Grandparents Day. In the early 70’s, I went to live with Naomi, Big Momma’s daughter, who married a pastor, Eugene Whittington, from Oakland, California. We moved from Oklahoma City where school busing was taking place to a more culturally diverse Bay Area. I went on to graduate from Howard University in 1987 and worked in corporate America for eleven years. Since then, I started a non-profit organization, FOR THIS CAUSE, Inc., that focused on breast cancer awareness and women’s health issues, and I worked for a local government as a program manager.

Although I write from the perspective of a minority woman, I believe that all of my experiences are not unique to just minority women.  Without a doubt, life can be challenging for all of us and has been for a lot us during the last few years of this recession. But, women and minorities more often than not face certain types of circumstances and scrutiny that stem from who they are. Until we become uncomfortable to the point of decisive positive* action with conditions and environments that assuage certain types of discrimination and racism in business, government, and other areas of our lives, we will slow the rate of progress we need to achieve a fair chance and equality for all.

Pictures:  See http://pinterest.com/vnona/mba-school/

Next: My Climb--First Step, Get An MBA

*This is not an endorsement of any type of behavior or actions that endeavors to restrict free speech or freedom of religion.