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10 Most Influential Women In Graduate Management Education

10 Inspirational Women Leading Management Education
In recognition of International Women’s Day, we share the stories of the influential women at the forefront of global management education today
  • The number of women studying at business school is rising, but what is representation like at the top of the pyramid?
  • Here we look at 10 of the most influential women in the business education sector
  • These influential women talk about their careers, how they made it to the top, and their hopes for the future of women in business education

In 2021, we reached a record number of women enrolled in top MBA programs, noting a vast improvement in gender parity in business schools.

Women accounted for 41% of students in full-time MBA programs at the 56 member schools of the Forté Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for women’s access to graduate management education and provides scholarships for remarkable students. That figure increased from 39% in 2020, and is the highest female enrolment rate in the 20 years since Forté was founded. Though there is more to do, the trend of increasing female involvement in business education is certainly a positive.

Yet it’s not always been so promising. Look back even 15-20 years ago, and the landscape was much less encouraging. Like many industries, women were underrepresented, and the gender parity both on MBA programmes and within faculty departments was much more unequal. And this environment is likely the setting for when many of the most influential women in business education today forged their careers in the industry.

Below, we look into those influential women who are now at the forefront of what is, traditionally, a male-dominated industry. Many of whom have faced a variety of challenges in their roles in business education, but have used their knowledge, experience and determination to become one of the most influential speakers in global management education today.

Erika James, Dean of Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Erika James, Dean of Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Erika James, Dean of Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Erika James made history as the first female and first person of colour to be appointed Dean of the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in July 2020. Growing up in Sherman, Texas it was obvious from her school days she was going to be a high-flyer, after graduating as Senior Class President, and going on to study a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Pomona College, one of the nation’s top liberal arts institutions.

After studying both a Masters and a PhD in Organisational Psychology, Erika continued to rise at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, teaching part-time. At the time, a major oil company was facing a class-action race discrimination lawsuit. “What I learned from teaching and working with those students was that (the) organization was really facing a crisis,” Erika said, in a Darden faculty video. “I was able to combine my interest in workplace diversity with a burgeoning field of crisis leadership, and that has defined my academic pursuit for the past (20) years or so.”

From then on, James continued to rise through the ranks at a number of leading business schools, including Darden School of Business – where she eventually became Associate Dean for Executive Education, Emory University Goizueta Business School – where she was Dean between 2014-2020, and then on to her role, now, as Dean of Wharton.

Erika James is a well-known face of education and diversity in the United States, and globally, regularly appearing as a thought leader in the sector in a number of news outlets. She also currently sits on the board of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), and boasts a remarkable 293,000 LinkedIn followers.

Joy Jones, CEO of Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC)

Joy Jones, GMAC

Joy Jones and GMAC is a match made in heaven. Despite starting her official role at the Graduate Management Admission Council in 2017, she started more unofficially in her senior year at UCLA, where to earn extra money as a student she worked as a maths and GMAT tutor – not long after she’d actually completed the GMAT test herself.

Given both of Joy’s parents were educators, the importance of higher education was instilled in her from a young age. “Growing up in what’s often referred to as an American college town in Northern California gave me an up-close look at just how much education can change lives,” says Jones. But she was unsure on the path to follow. Jones studied an undergraduate in maths at the University of California, and then “only determined I was interested in attending business school after seeing the great experience and exposure a group of first-year MBA students were having during their summer internship,” she says.

Jones went on to study an MBA at Stanford in the mid-90s. “Attending Stanford Graduate School of Business made me a true believer in the power of business education to enhance both personal and professional growth, to create access to opportunity and to develop talented people into leaders who are prepared to change the world for the better,” she says.

But unlike many of the influential women in this list, Jones’ career hasn’t been largely dominated by academia or in the graduate management education field. Jones has rich experience across many industries, spending a number of years after graduating working for Ernst & Young, and then on to the Associated Press, eventually becoming their Vice President of Products. In 2017, Jones made the step back into the graduate management education arena as Chief Product Officer at GMAC.

Now, six years on, Joy is the CEO of GMAC – leading the organisation over its next growth horizon, and providing the best tools and information necessary for schools and talents. Joy is incredibly well-known in the sector for her insightful commentary on industry trends, alongside her various speaking roles at conferences, including the Financial Times’ Future of Business Education summit, most recently.

Marion Debruyne, Dean of Vlerick Business School

Marion Debruyne, Vlerick Business School
Marion Debruyne, Vlerick Business School

Though Marion’s whole career – leading up to becoming Dean of Vlerick Business School, Belgium – has been in business education, this was never her long-term plan, she says. “I studied chemical engineering but was more intrigued by the market-side of things than the technology-side. An additional Masters in marketing got me hooked and I wanted to dive deeper. While a visiting scholar at Wharton during my PhD, the faculty there encouraged me to go on the academic job market with the argument ‘what do you have to lose?’. The answer obviously was ‘nothing at all’.”

That led to Debruyne taking a role as a professor at Goizueta Business School at Emory up until 2005. Then, deciding to move back to Europe, she was pulled in by the opportunity to be a professor at Vlerick Business School – the business school she studied her Masters in, in 1995. Initially however, Marion did not have plans to become Dean. “I remember telling the Dean at that time my focus would be entirely on research and teaching and to please not bother me with administrative duties”. Things changed however in 2015, whereafter 10 years as a Professor & Partner at the business school, Marion moved to the role of the Dean, where she is still working now.

Alongside her role in transforming Vlerick Business School as their Dean for almost eight years, Marion boasts a number of other remarkable accolades such as being an Independent Board Member of several organisations, and an author of a series of books, including ‘Making your way, the (wobbly) road to success and happiness in life and work’, which she co-authored with Vlerick professor, Katleen De Stobbeleir.

Marion is a well-known and regular speaker at a number of business education industry conferences, regularly produces thought leadership pieces and interviews about the sector, and boasts over 12,000 LinkedIn followers.

Ann E. Harrison, Dean of Berkeley Haas School of Business

Ann E. Harrison, Dean of Berkeley Haas School of Business. Photo credit: Noah Berger
Ann E. Harrison, Dean of Berkeley Haas School of Business. Photo credit: Noah Berger

As a young economist, Ann Harrison travelled the globe working for the World Bank, lugging home reels of magnetic tape from mainframe computers that she gathered from census bureaus in developing countries – a far cry from the sort of technological roles that business school graduates step into now.

Harrison earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley (as a double major in economics and history) and a PhD in economics from Princeton University, and then moved into her role as an economist at the World Bank. However, after two years Harrison transition into the world of academia. After six years as a professor at Wharton, Harrison was appointed as the 15th Dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and only the second woman to head the top-ranked business school.

Harrison has overseen great change at the school, joining the business school as Dean just a year before the covid-19 pandemic. Now, her long-term focuses at Haas are to “put the business school at the heart of what’s next. That means elevating the school in three areas: innovation, inclusion, and sustainability,” she says.

As an expert regularly cited in the press and also recently featured in this McKinsey Quarterly interview, Harrison also boasts being the winner of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Sun Yefang Prize—one of China’s highest honours in economics—for one of the three books she has co-authored, as one of her many accolades in the sector.

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, Dean of Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou describes her journey to becoming the Dean of Carnegie Mellon as the ‘American Dream’. Growing up in France, she always wanted to live in the United States and she made that dream come true in 1994.

Isabelle is a maths expert – an alumna from École Normale Supérieure in Mathematics with a doctorate in Mathematics Applied to Finance from Université Paris-Dauphine. After a role at ESSEC Business School in France for four years as a finance professor, Bajeux-Besnainou landed her dream role in the US at The George Washington University – School of Business. She moved her way up, eventually becoming Associate Dean for Undergraduate programs.

This led her to move across the northern border to McGill University, where she took on the role as Dean from 2015-2020 at the Desautels Faculty of Management. In 2020, Isabelle decided to make the transition to become dean of the Tepper School and to bring her experience as a professor and her passion for building a culture that is focused on students, research and community to Tepper.

As a dean, Isabelle believes in the importance of surrounding yourself with knowledgeable people. “Surround yourself with complementary, smart people who you truly trust and empower them,” she says. “In other words, a great leader is never alone. A leader must understand his or her shortcomings and blind spots and know how to build an A team.”

Bajeux-Besnainou boasts a number of advisory board roles at other institutions, as well as being an International Academic Member – EQUIS Accreditation Board for EFMD.

Catherine Duggan, Dean of University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business

Catherine Duggan, Dean of University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business
Catherine Duggan, Dean of University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business

Catherine Duggan’s CV reads like a who’s who for global business education. A PhD at Stanford University was the first stop on her business education journey, where she studied Political Science with a focus on Africa – clearly her first move in becoming one of the most well-known business education names on the African continent.

Next, Duggan went on to work as an Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School for over eight years, which then lead onto roles at both INSEAD and Oxford University’s Said Business School. But it is on the African continent where most of Duggan’s fantastic work in the business education sector has been felt.

Duggan was the Vice Dean and Professor of Management and Political Economy at the African Leadership University School of Business (ALUSB) in Rwanda, and was even the business school’s first faculty member, helping to design the school’s blended MBA curriculum. Her move after this was to become Dean of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (GSB), one of only three triple-crown accredited business schools in sub-Saharan Africa and the only school on the continent with an MBA that regularly ranks in the FT’s Global MBA ranking.

Duggan is a regular speaker at business education conferences, and her notable successes include being the first woman in Harvard Business School’s history to win the Faculty Award for Outstanding Teaching in the Required Curriculum two years in a row. She also received the Charles M. Williams Award for Excellence in Teaching and was named the Berol Corporation Fellow.

Delphine Manceau, Dean of NEOMA Business School

Delphine Manceau, NEOMA
Delphine Manceau, NEOMA

Delphine Manceau’s CV could easily be confused with a list of some of the best business schools in France. For someone who did their graduate studies at ESCP, then went on to complete a PhD at HEC Paris, it is no surprise that Manceau has gone on to head another of France’s top business school’s – NEOMA Business School.

After her time at Wharton studying a post-doc, Manceau returned back to ESCP, but this time as a professor. After numerous years as an academic, Manceau began to take on more managerial roles, such as Academic Dean and Director of Executive Education. It was then, in 2017, that Manceau made the short move across the city of Paris to become Dean of NEOMA Business School.

“My career is guided by my love for business education”, says Manceau, when talking about why she pursued a career in academia. “We are at the forefront of new generations, identifying what makes them unique and we need to constantly adapt to new habits and ways of learning. Today more than ever, our mission is to foster the ability of young generations to transform companies and society to address current challenges in terms of the environment, climate change, inclusivity, new geopolitical contexts and so on”.

Manceau is known for her research in marketing and innovation, as well as authoring the report “Pour une nouvelle vision de l’innovation” (“For a new vision of innovation”) with Dean Pascal Morand, commissioned by Christine Lagarde, then Minister of Economy in France, which was the basis of launching the Institute for Innovation and Competitiveness. She was also a member of the RISE (Research, Innovation and Science Policy), a high-level expert group for the European Commission (2015-2018), as well as being a member of the EQUIS Committee, and recently elected to the AACSB board of directors.

Idalene Kesner, Dean Emeritus, Kelley School of Business

Idalene Kesner, Kelley School of Business

Kesner boasts arguably one of the most impressive stats when it comes to female applicant numbers to a business school. After joining as Dean of Kelley School of Business in 2013, her push for gender equality among students and faculty has meant that the number of women enrolling in undergraduate programs has risen by 94 percent under her leadership.

Despite this great achievement, Kesner remains humble about securing such a great boost to diversity. When asked to name her greatest achievement by Poets & Quants last year, Kesner said “The biggest achievement, of which I am most proud, is having built a strong, dedicated leadership team. This team has stuck with the Kelley School and with me through the ups and down of the last eight years to achieve the many accomplishments listed below.”

And it’s true that Kesner has stuck with Kelley School of Business herself too. After completing her MBA at the business school, Kesner went on to study a PhD there too, before moving into a faculty role straight afterwards. Kesner rose up the ranks to move into the Dean role in 2013. Though she did announce in 2022 that she will be stepping down from her role, and now she is Dean Emeritus of the business school.

Kesner’s notable achievements include sitting across five different boards, as well as winning Poets & Quants Dean of the Year in 2019.

Wendy Loretto, Dean of University of Edinburgh Business School

Wendy Loretto, University of Edinburgh Business School

Wendy Loretto’s PhD was a little different to what you’d expect a business school Dean to study. It wasn’t your typical business-focused research project – it was actually centred around the social and cultural aspects of illicit and legal drug use by young people.

The theme of people’s attitudes and health is something that stayed throughout her research career, with most of her studies in a professor role being focused on the relationship between sex, age and health, particularly in changing attitudes and practices among employees and employers about extending working life.

After completing a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Edinburgh, Loretto worked at the Alcohol Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, where she received her PhD. It’s safe to say Loretto is Edinburgh through and through, as she continued to stay at the University, eventually working her way up to Dean of the Business School in 2017.

Loretto has a number of prestigious roles within the business education sector, including incoming Chair of the Association of MBAs and Business Graduates Association, as well as being on Boards of abrdn Financial Fairness Trust and the Society for the Advancement of Management Studies, and was a member of the UKRI Equality, Diversity and Inclusion external Advisory Group (2018-22).

Karen Spens, President, BI Norwegian Business School

Karen Spens, BI Norwegian Business School

It was no surprise to many when Karen Spens landed the President’s role at BI Norwegian Business School in August 2022. Karen has long been an influential thought-leader in the European business education sphere, and becoming President of a leading European business school was the just-rewards for an exceptional career so far in graduate management sector.

After studying both a Masters and a Doctorate at Hanken School of Economics, in Finland, Spens went on to work at Hanken for 15 years, firstly as a professor for eight years and then as Rector (Dean) for seven after that. Spens was then offered the role of President at BI Norwegian Business School, which she took on in August 2022, becoming the business school’s first ever female president.

With a research history in the supply chain sector, Spens primarily published in the field of humanitarian logistics, and in 2008 co-founded an institute for humanitarian logistics with Defence University in Finland. Today, the HUMLOG Institute is one of the leading research institutes in the field of humanitarian logistics, with a broad network of industry partners, NGO partners, and universities.

Spens is also well-known in the sector for both her roles at the AACSB as well as AMBA. Spens joined the board of AACSB in 2020, and as of September 2021, is also a member of the EQUIS Committee and serves as a trustee of AMBA and BGA’s international board.

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