team of business school graduates

From left to right: Sitella Glenn (back to camera), Tjada D’Oyen , Panya Lei Yarber, and Lisa Bourne.

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women used to be a rarity at the nation’s elite business schools and still represent less than a third of many graduate classes. Women of color are even rarer.

But a new competition could help speed changes in perceptions about who can run a complicated company. In March, the Executive Leadership Council and Foundation, an invitation-only organization of top black executives, asked teams from universities offering graduate degrees in business to answer a daunting challenge: Tell the world’s largest media company, AOL Time Warner, what to do.

The majority of each team had to be members of minority groups. Most of the 47 teams included a mix of races, men and women.

When the arduous competition ended last month, the only all-women, all African American team won. The victory was sweet, even for also-rans.

After the formalities, women from competing teams and the audience of executives and analysts gathered at Goldman Sachs and Co., made a point of saying how thrilled they were to see the all-female team win.

“A lot of them said, ‘you go, girls,'” recalled Lisa Bourne, 27, of Washington D.C., a member of the triumphant team from Harvard Business School. Other members were Sitella Glenn, 37, Tjada D’Oyen, 26, Panya Lei Yarber, 28.

Early Failures at AOL Time Warner Beg New Strategies

The Harvard Business School Class of 2002, which will be awarded their business degrees on June 6, is 32 percent women. The class of 1965 was only 2 percent female and 1 percent minority. Women’s enrollment jumped from 11 percent to 25 percent between 1975 and 1985, but has crept up since, although the class of 2003 has the largest number of women ever, at 35 percent. The same trend holds true for minorities, who are not broken down further as a category, representing 19 percent of the current class. The members of Harvard’s winning team are counted in both categories.

Created in early 2001 with the promise of great synergy, AOL Time Warner was greeted by critics concerned about conflicts of interest and salivating stockholders looking forward to rich returns.

But the ballyhooed synergies aren’t happening fast enough for anxious stockholders, who have seen share prices plummet 60 percent. The company’s first-quarter report included a stunning $54 billion write-off due to the merger. Fuming stockholders confronted Richard Parsons at the annual stockholders meeting on May 16, the day he became chief executive officer.

Parsons had emerged from the Time Warner side, which produces magazines, movies, music and much more. When the merger was announced, AOL’s founder Steve Case got more power and influence, touting “convergence” across media platforms and “synergies” spawned by AOL’s technical prowess and huge wired customer base.

The business school teams were asked to grapple with such complex issues as broadband distribution, the battle with Microsoft for Internet dominance and restoring investor and analyst confidence.

Contrary to the company line, the Harvard women urged Parsons to essentially let each division run itself. They devised their strategy by looking at issues bottom-up, not just corporate suite down.

“The judges liked it because it was radically different,” said Glenn, 37, a marketing veteran who organized the Harvard team. “They’re promising synergies and advocating integration. And we’re saying, ‘don’t integrate.'”

Winners’ Plan Based on Common Sense

It’s essential for AOL Time Warner to provide distinctive, sought-after products and services, what Glenn calls “the HBO effect:” a “must-have,” revenue-enhancing add-on to basic cable.

Meanwhile, employees are “really confused about what they were supposed to be doing and suffering really low morale,” said Tjada D’Oyen, 26, a graduate of Harvard College who has already worked for Monsanto, McKinsey and Co. and Disney. “To them, it felt like a mess. Let everyone focus on what they’re really good at.”

D’Oyen, who will join the strategic-planning division of American Express this summer, is looking forward to a work environment where she won’t feel isolated as a woman or an African American, she said.

Lei Yarber, 28, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from Stanford with a materials engineering degree. She worked at Motorola in Austin, Texas, before business school and spent last summer at Sprint.

Bourne graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in Spanish and chemistry. “A huge music fan” with more than 600 CDs, Bourne wants to run a major record label.

Glenn “knew AOL Time Warner like the back of her hand,” said Yarber. A self-starter who graduated from Howard University, the Detroit native compiled a hefty briefing book she lugged to brainstorming sessions.

The “girl power” team, as Glenn says they came to call themselves, also used common sense. Glenn is moving back to Harlem and will need to purchase her own high-speed Internet access once she leaves the Harvard cocoon. She called the AOL 800-number to inquire about options, but no customer-service representatives could answer her questions.

“The only person customers see face-to-face is the cable guy who comes to install the wiring but doesn’t know what AOL can do,” Glenn said. “There’s no one-stop shopping–or any synergies–at this basic customer level.”

All-Women Team Stood Out From Competitors

The judges who awarded the Harvard team the $20,000 top prize were impressed with members of all the teams, but this one stood out.

“We were focusing on bringing the organization into a new cohesive whole,” said Carl Brooks, president of leadership council and a judge. The other finalists, from Dartmouth (enrollment 24 percent women) and Yale (27 percent women), accepted that strategy.

“These young ladies [from Harvard] took a different approach. They were sharp, very focused . . . so articulate and so aggressive . . . They convinced us it had substance,” Brooks said.

The Harvard team’s dramatic departure from its competitors and company strategy was determined the outcome, said Alana Ward Robinson, a senior vice president of RR Donnelly and Sons, who helped devise the competition.

Robinson, the only woman among the six competition judges, believes diversity is crucial for corporate strength in the 21st century. A math and computer science major at Grambling State University, a historically black college in her home state of Louisiana, Robinson was hired by IBM right after graduation. Her current employer is a leader communications technology.

“Sometimes it’s not just a matter of finding people offering diverse cultures, but finding people who are comfortable with diverse cultures,” Robinson said, crediting Donnelly chief executive officer William Davis for a corporate culture that “reflects his ideals of being inclusive and not having stereotypes about who has ideas and who doesn’t.”

The soft-spoken Robinson says women considering business school should not be intimidated, passing on rocker Tina Turner’s advice: “Don’t let other people put limits on your life.”

For more information:

The Executive Leadership Council and Foundation:

Harvard Business School
Statistics, MBA Program:

Simmons College, Graduate School of Management
the only all-women MBA program: