Harvard Business. Utter these words to any friend, and the same images often come to mind: power, class, connections and pride. Harvard, among the most powerful brands in the world, is particularly renowned for its business school. Established over 100 years ago, in 1908, and boasting an endowment of over $2.8 billion, the Harvard Business School screams prestige. It is the destination of choice for the business-oriented, for precocious men and women across the globe looking to make it on Wall Street or virtually any Fortune company of choice.
You might assume, then, that Harvard undergraduates represent the standard of excellence in whatever they do. More specifically, you would think that their student group, “Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business,” is at the forefront of advocacy for creating gender equality in the work place. In reality, they are at the leading edge. The only thing is, they have competition, and the competition is not in Cambridge, Ithaca, Chicago or the Silicon Valley, but north of the border. Indeed, the trend-setters rivalling Harvard are in Canada. They’re in Edmonton, Alberta, balancing the books and business prep on the fourth floor of the School of Business.
It’s May 2012, the winter semester is nearing an end, and summer is quickly approaching. Exhausted from the hustle and bustle of the semester, I go for drinks with a close friend in Hotel Macdonald, sharing stories about the year that was. As we exchange laughs over the latest news in our lives, I’m told that a new student group within the School of Business has formed. In most cases, news of a University of Alberta student group should come as no surprise, nothing more than an afterthought. The U of A already features the most student groups of any Canadian university, and there are dozens of excellent student groups with rich histories. However, as I learn more about this group, I’m a little taken aback.
My friend, who is among the most involved students within the School of Business, tells me that there’s a group that goes by the acronym NEW. They are the Network of Empowered Women. Within months of forming an executive, they’re turning heads amongst the school’s faculty and students. As I learn more about several members within NEW, in addition to the organization’s successful fundraising and advocacy efforts, my interest whets and I want to know more. Further, as the topic of women in business gains worldwide attention, through Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic and Tina Brown’s “Women in the World” section in the Daily Beast/Newsweek, NEW rises to prominence at just the right time.
As I rise slowly from one-too-many drinks much too early in the day, I glance at the bill and pause for a second, kicking myself for once again (far) exceeding the typical university student budget. However, I’m more focused on this promising business start-up, leaving the restaurant with more curiosity than regret.
Annie-Marie Slaughter’s six-page essay for The Atlantic Magazine, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” took no more than seven days to become the popular magazine’s highest-read article in history, garnering over 700,000 unique readers and 100,000 recommends on Facebook. Slaughter became a character of intense debate, drawing thousands of supporters due to the authenticity and rawness of her writing. A former Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, prominent lawyer, political scientist and leader in the White House, Slaughter penned the article with an intimate understanding of the trials and tribulations of both raising a family and leading a life of breakneck speed in the public realm:
One of the most complicated and surprising parts of my journey out of Washington was coming to grips with what I really wanted. I had opportunities to stay on, and I could have tried to work out an arrangement allowing me to spend more time at home. I might have been able to get my family to join me in Washington for a year; I might have been able to get classified technology installed at my house the way Jim Steinberg did; I might have been able to commute only four days a week instead of five. (While this last change would have still left me very little time at home, given the intensity of my job, it might have made the job doable for another year or two.) But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults.
It goes without saying that feminism is among the most profound and consequential issues in modern society. Though there are millions of courageous men and women across the world pushing for greater equality between genders, every additional voice counts. This is why Slaughter’s piece gained so much attention. This is why Who Needs Feminism? has spread across North American university campuses. And this is why NEW comes at such an ideal time.
Fast-forward to October 24 2012, and I’m sitting in HUB with Birkley Doll and Lindsay Walker, NEW Co-Chair and Director of Public Relations, respectively. Late-October marks midterms season, so although it’s nearing 7 pm in HUB, the mall is still full of students cramming for the next day’s exams. Fast-food from Edo, Subway and other HUB food vendors is the meal of choice. Doll and Walker are locked into exams themselves, working on creating information databases for a challenging Accounting course. To provide some more background on the tandem, Walker cites entrepreneur Marie Forleo as an inspiration, for her ability to work not for the sake of working, but for dedication to the greater good. Doll considers Margaret Atwood as a key role model, for her versatility in writing and open-mindedness. It’s not difficult to see that these two young women are following in these figures’ footsteps, building an organization to be reckoned with. We’ve been talking about NEW for about forty minutes, but it could have easily been five: their mission and vision are clear from the outset and their results are no different.
Less than one year ago, three members of the current fourteen-person NEW executive ventured down to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take in Harvard’s one-day “Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business Conference.” Though the conference was touted as one of the premier events of its kind in the United States, the trio returned to Edmonton knowing that there was much left to be desired. It did not take long for three to expand to fourteen and for NEW to make a name for itself within the School of Business.
Both Walker and Doll approach the topic of competing with Harvard as if it is nothing out of the norm, a typical walk in the park. But what surprises me is that this actually seems to be the case. Within several months of its foundation, NEW met fundraising targets for the entire year, securing Ford, CMA, Deloitte, Walmart, Genworth, Bennett Jones and Konica Minolta as sponsors. On top of this, the team built a minimalistic-style professional website and set the dates for its feature event, a January 24-27 event at Lake Louise in Banff. Add to this the wide range of speakers for the three day conference, and one can see that the calm and collected approach is justified. Rather than take baby steps in its inaugural year, NEW has kicked the doors open, setting the standard for other conference organizers.
With growth and presence in the spotlight comes inevitable criticism. Thus far, the positive feedback far exceeds the negative commentary. For instance, business students were quick to wonder why there should not be an organization for Men In Business, which smacks of an inability to notice the structural inequalities between men and women in society. Rather than acknowledge that women still make far less than men in identical professions, it is easy to leap to the radical and misleading conclusion that organizations like NEW intend to flip inequality on its head, creating a society that favours women in business over their male counterparts. However, that is clearly not the case. Doll and Walker note that the term feminism is often met with immediate resistance, instead of an open and accepting mind. In her October 23 article for The Wanderer, Adriana Onita captures this point eloquently, when she writes, “The chief problem facing feminism is to re-define what it means to be a woman without falling into binary oppositions, tautologies, and linear ways of thinking.”
Over time, as the organization developed its identity and clarified its role within the School of Business, much of the criticism vanished: “… once [students] understood what NEW was, it really went away,” Walker notes. In months to come, the success of events like the January 24-27 NEW Conference, the mentorship of the more than 80 delegates in attendance and the firm support from School of Business faculty should only spread NEW’s roots throughout the Academy.
And Elaine Geddes, Associate Dean of the School of Business perhaps says it best: “Young women today want full and complete lives and do not want to have to sacrifice personal or family lives to be successful in Business. They want to see women who have managed to be successful in their professional and personal lives, and learn from them how that road can be navigated. They want a variety of examples from which they can choose rather than always defaulting to the same pathways and careers. NEW will provide networks for students to see how women can be successful in a wide variety of career and positions. These networks are of value to students in Edmonton but equally around the country and the world.”
At this rate, NEW isn’t just changing the School of Business. It’s setting the Canadian standard. It’s gaining world attention. And oh yeah, Harvard better be watching.
To learn more about NEW and apply for their inaugural conference, click here.
Emerson runs, writes and studies Sciences Politiques during his spare time. You can find him in Remedy, Millcreek Cafe or hitting the River Valley trails early in the morning.