Breaking Through


How Three Alumnae Blazed Their Own Ways to Success.

By Ronna Kelly & Laura Counts

 

Earlier this year, recession-fueled layoffs resulted in a watershed demographic shift: For the first time in U.S. history, women held more non-farm jobs than men. This shift, along with a series of women-centered events at the Haas School this spring, prompted CalBusiness to take a closer look at the status of women in the business world.


We learned about an impressive number of Haas alumnae who have succeeded in their careers, breaking down barriers and creating new pathways for other women. This article looks at the career choices of three of those alumnae—a CEO, a high-tech entrepreneur, and a nonprofit founder—and offers some valuable lessons about gender in the workplace for women and men alike.


 

Jack of All Trades


Linda LangThere are only 28 women leading Fortune 1000 companies, and Linda Lang, BS 80, is one of them. As CEO of San Diego-based Jack in the Box, Lang is part of the elite cadre of women who head less than 3 percent of the country's largest publicly traded companies. She oversees a company with $2.5 billion in annual sales and 36,000 employees.


Lang never expected to be in the burger business. As an undergraduate at Chico State, she enrolled in child development classes to become a preschool teacher. Lang's father, a manager at Pacific Telesis who did not go to college, suggested she major in business because she was so good at math. She transferred to Berkeley, and loved the intellectual challenge of her courses in Barrows Hall.


Fresh out of Cal, Lang became the first woman accepted into San Francisco-based Bechtel Engineering's management program. She had hoped to work overseas, and many of her male colleagues were sent to far-flung places like Brunei and Jubail. But Lang was given a post in San Francisco. "They indicated that they really didn't have accommodations for women out at the job sites," she recalls.


Thirty years later, it's hard to envision a company saying that. Yet a study released in February by Catalyst, an international nonprofit working to expand opportunities for women in the workplace, found that women with MBAs still lag substantially behind men in pay and promotions. Out of 9,000 graduates of 26 MBA programs between 1996 and 2007, 60 percent of the women reported their first job was entry-level, compared with 46 percent of the men. The men were also twice as likely to be a CEO or senior executive.


Skipping Steps
After completing Bechtel's two-year program, however, Lang was quickly promoted to supervise eight accounting employees, all older and more experienced.


"I was 24 years old and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I have an office on the 23rd floor in downtown San Francisco," she says. "But I began my management career really understanding that I needed to gain the support and the trust of my employees. That's really been my strategy."


Lang's career took another turn in 1984 when she and her first husband decided to move to San Diego to be closer to her parents. She wanted to work for a large company, and Jack in the Box—one of the few in San Diego at the time—offered her an accounts payable supervisor position.


Then came children, and Lang left her job—but she's quick to point out that she didn't become a stay-at-home mom. Instead, she earned an MBA at San Diego State while caring for her 1-year-old son and pregnant with her second.


"We had one income coming in, so I worked part time as a graduate assistant to cover child care, and then went to school and studied at night while the kids were sleeping," she recalls.


After a four-year hiatus, she returned to Jack in the Box in 1991, taking a part-time job as a financial analyst that was lower than the one she left—and earning just $15 an hour. She quickly returned to full-time work, and was offered increasing responsibilities. The hardest move she made was switching from finance to the marketing department, but it taught her a valuable lesson: To get ahead, you have to leave your comfort zone.


"That's one of the most significant changes that I made in my career—to go into something that I didn't have any experience in," she recalls.


Shaving Cream and Cigars
As she moved up, Lang found herself increasingly in the minority. She remembers one Las Vegas trade show where the giveaways were shaving cream, cologne, and cigars, and the evening activities included Monday Night Football.


"You have to have fun with it," Lang says. "I was never offended."


Robert Nugent, Lang's mentor and predecessor as CEO, first noticed her during one of the company's most difficult trials: a deadly 1993 E. coli outbreak. Part of the crisis management team, she impressed Nugent with her strategic thinking.


However, it wasn't until she had worked at the company for about 12 years that Lang started thinking about becoming CEO. Nugent said she needed operational experience and put her in charge of the Southern California region. After 15 months, the region became a top performer. Lang went on to become president, COO, and when Nugent retired in 2005, CEO.

 

Tradeoffs
The biggest challenge, Lang admits, has been balancing work and family: "I was never den mother or room mother, but I always made a point of going to my son's football games on Friday nights."


One key to managing it all was a strong support system, she adds. Her parents helped with child care, and her second husband retired early and could shuttle their sons to various activities.


She says her sons definitely haven't suffered. "They know how to cook, they can do their own laundry," she says. "And they're proud of me."

 

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High-Tech Trailblazer

 

Gigi Wang Gigi Wang, MBA 92, says good child care is key to the success of working mothers. "Pay a nanny top dollar," Wang, the mother of two boys, advises.


Wang took an even more extreme step to balance work and family while working as an Internet entrepreneur in Asia: She flew her mother across the world, from Seattle, to help take care of her 3-year-old son when her hours proved to be far more grueling than she expected.


Determined not to be a stay-at-home wife when her husband got a job in Singapore, Wang accepted a position helping a huge conglomerate, Sembawang Corp., start the first non-government Internet service provider in the country in 1995.


"I walked into the office on my first day and there were only two student employees," she recalls, explaining that the company had taken over a university-operated Internet service and was transforming it into a business.


Wang went on to hire 50 employees and attract more subscribers than the government's Internet service; the company eventually went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange. At one point, Wang observed a difference among her ten direct reports—eight women and two men.


"Both guys asked for promotions and raises within six months," she recalls, while the women never asked. Yet, "the women were always there late, doing tons of stuff on their own initiative. Guys get things because they ask."


Wang, who was born in Taiwan, also grew up being told women were supposed to be humble. She learned to get over that, during her early career in the consumer packaged goods industry.


Like Lang, she found she was treated differently than the men, when a boss consistently gave big projects only to her male colleagues. Finally, when she asked him why, he said he didn't want to set her up for failure. It wasn't until she threatened to quit that he let her start a new plant.


Back in the U.S.
When pregnant with her second child, Wang left Singapore to become an executive director at CommerceNet and launch TrustE, a privacy framework for the Internet. After a successful launch, she left to start up the international carrier marketing group for Ascend Communications, where she received another leadership lesson: A male colleague told her she needed to take more credit, instead of always attributing successes to team members, in order to be perceived as a stronger leader.


"Women tend to say ‘we' much more than ‘I,'" observes Wang. She feels comfortable around men because she grew up with three brothers and was one of the few women studying mechanical engineering at Stanford, but says she has seen women dropping out of high-tech because their styles are so different than the men.


That's a real problem for the industry, where representation by women is shrinking. According to the National Center for Women in Information Technology, the percentage of women in IT-related professions dropped from 36 percent in 1991 to 24 percent in 2008. Fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 IT company CEOs are women.


Going with the Money
Most recently Wang has moved into another field where women are a tiny minority: venture capital. A 2008 survey of the industry by the National Venture Capital Association found that just 14 percent of investing venture capitalists are women.


In 2007, Wang took on the role of chairperson and president of the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab, a high-tech entrepreneurial forum. Last year, she became a venture partner with iGlobe Partners, an international VC team with offices in Silicon Valley, New Zealand, and Singapore. Wang declines to discuss which companies she works with, but doesn't hesitate to say how much she likes her work.


"I'm just attracted to challenging new situations," says Wang. "I like going into chaos and creating order."

 

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From Telecom to Entrepreneur Mom


Katie CoughlinLike Wang, Katie Coughlin, MBA 97, found herself a minority in the male-dominated tech world. She enjoyed her work and loved the people, but she always wanted something more. When her new baby began having difficulties, she decided to step away from an intense career that included stints at tech giant IBM and telecoms in Russia and Norway.


But in motherhood, she quickly found an unexpected on-ramp—one that felt more like a calling than a job.


Coughlin initially thought she'd follow a mainstream corporate path. With a bachelor's in business from the University of Georgia, she worked for IBM and then AT&T. On trips to Europe she developed an itch for international work, and headed to Haas in 1995 with that in mind.


After graduation she landed in Moscow at another big telecom firm. But when she and Norwegian Haas classmate Geir Erik Gabrielsen, MBA 97, decided to marry, she moved to Oslo to help Telenor, the former state-owned telecom, market its software to the rest of Europe—a travel-heavy job she loved.


She was then recruited to an Internet startup while four months pregnant, working only briefly before departing on a year of paid maternity leave—a perk embraced in Norway. She had intended to return to work, but the dot-com implosion and her daughter's challenging infancy changed her plans.


The Mommy Track
Coughlin wasn't alone in deciding to become a stay-at-home mom. A 2005 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that 40 percent of highly educated American women step away from work at some point. Haas Professor Catherine Wolfram recently analyzed Harvard alumni surveys and discovered female MBAs were far more likely than women with JDs or MDs to become stay-at-home moms—possibly due to the difficulties of balancing business careers with family life.


But U.S. Census data also shows that the so-called "opt-out revolution" was overstated: Most women with degrees return to work eventually, many after just a year off.


For Coughlin, the turning point came during a 2003 visit to Cincinnati where her 2-year-old cried for three days straight. At the suggestion of a friend, she wrangled her into the car and headed to the city's Duke Energy Children's Museum, wondering whether they'd let her howling toddler in.


"When the elevator doors opened, she heard noises, she saw bright colors, and she knew instantly this place was for her," recalls Coughlin. "Her sadness evaporated, and I had never seen her so inspired and engaged. I couldn't help but wish we had a place like it in Oslo."


Coughlin's startup-seasoned brain clicked into gear. Though she tried to dismiss the idea as a whim, she began researching children's museums. Now, after more than five years of nonstop work—during which she gave birth to two more daughters and struggled to sell her idea to a government cultural system unfamiliar with interactive children's museums—her persistence has paid off.


With a large developer committed to half the $30 million price tag, she's nearing the final round of approvals to launch Norway's first large-scale, interactive children's museum. In the meantime, Coughlin has created a "museum without walls" to visit classrooms, and is developing an exhibit prototyping center in partnership with the University of Oslo.


"It's been more work than I ever imagined, and there were times when I questioned whether I could keep going," says Coughlin, who worked two and a half years without pay before securing sponsorship from developer Steen & Strøm. "But I don't really feel like I have a job. I feel so driven to help inspire kids."

 

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