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Special Report - Dynamic Women in Business 2001- The Fast Track to the Top

Getting on the perfect career track right out of the gate requires guts, intelligence, and, for one successful executive at least, firm attention to the wedding section of the New York Times.

Kate Quigley
Kate Quigley

Did you have a career plan at age 21, and if so, have you carried it out since?

Not everyone can answer that set of questions affirmatively. Not even, it seems, several highly accomplished young women, now in their 30s, who shared their career stories at a lively panel discussion called "The Fast Track: Not Falling Off the Path." Each one smiled in wry self-recognition as the others described their first bumpy forays into the work world. Their initial steps were, they confessed, propelled as much by luck and naivete as by any plan.

Kate Quigley (HBS MBA '87), for example, now a managing director at Credit Suisse First Boston, pointed to two unlikely sources — entertainment mogul David Geffen and the wedding pages of the New York Times — as conspiring to set her on her way.

I didn't know what people did on Wall Street, but I wanted to get in on that.
Kate Quigley, of Credit Suisse First Boston

While still a college student, Quigley said, she had begun to contemplate a Wall Street career after reading about the place, over and over, in the society section of the Times.

"I was starting to feel panicked," she recalled, "because all my friends were going one of two ways: med school or law school. As I was reading about these marriages, I saw that the newlyweds worked at places like Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley.

"I didn't know what people did on Wall Street, but I wanted to get in on that."

A passionate fan of rock music, Quigley was also weighing the exciting career potential of a life in the music business. However, after she attended a speech given at her college by Geffen — "I so disliked him," she recalled, with a small shudder — that thereafter she could only imagine pursuing Wall Street.

On the other hand, Lisa Frankenberg (HBS MBA '98), now executive director, international, for the Wall Street Journal entity wsj.com, found her own career niche while backpacking abroad the summer after college graduation. Frankenberg's plan, up until that point, had been to return to the U.S. and follow a fairly conventional path by going to law school.

It was 1990, however, and the dividing line between eastern and western Europe had been erased by the fall of the Berlin Wall the previous year. Entranced by Prague, one of the stops on her trip, Frankenberg ended up working for a time at a fledgling newspaper, Prognosis, that was aimed at young American expatriates.

But when a potential investor balked because Prognosis refused to cover business news and only came out once a month, Frankenberg resigned from Prognosis, and set about approaching the investor on her own. Together they launched The Prague Post, an English-language weekly designed to appeal to a broader audience than just American expats.

Lisa Frankenberg
Lisa Frankenberg

The work partnership that began with Frankenberg's leap into the unknown has continued very amicably to this day, she reported with satisfaction. The investor, Monroe Luther (HBS MBA '64), a Houston-based venture capitalist, is still chairman of The Prague Post. And though Frankenberg has been working in New York for the past couple of years, she continues in her role as president and publisher of the newspaper, with regular trips back to Prague.

"When I look back [to the founding]," Frankenberg commented, "it's true that a lot of other backpackers arrived in Prague at that time. For me, it was about seizing an opportunity and taking it where it could go. Part of what helped me to do that was the fact that I was so young and naive. I didn't have a fear of failure because I had nothing to lose."

As the European member of the HBS panel, Romanian native Adriana Nuneva had also spurned the notion of doing what was expected of her during her early 20s. But as a student in Germany at that time, however, the task was not at all easy to pull off.

"I was supposed to become a doctor," Nuneva revealed. She had only discovered her real forte, marketing, somewhat belatedly in the educational game. The university system in Germany was so rigid and unaccommodating, however, that in order to pursue her interest in marketing, Nuneva had to start the program from the very beginning, receiving no credit for her previous studies. "The beginning was horrible," she said succinctly.

Now a senior vice president for the graphic arts giant Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG, where she directs the company's global marketing strategy, Nuneva told the HBS group that she doesn't regret her decision in the least.

Show no fear

Gabrielle Lajoie
Gabrielle Lajoie
According to the panelists, while their individual methods for career advancement are still informed by those early tests of willpower, they've had to add more professional sophistication as well as some pragmatism.

"Always keep your r©sum© updated," advised moderator Gabrielle Lajoie (HBS MBA '98), of executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. "Go to at least two conferences per year in your field. Get a mentor; pick someone you can really connect with. Read, read, read the Wall Street Journal every day."

"Don't be intimidated by anybody," added Frankenberg. "People are people. Don't accept any aura they may project that they are somehow above you. Introduce yourself; they'll be impressed. That gets you places.

"If you show no fear, you're on your way."

"And don't be impatient," Quigley said. "You can't just be a good girl and keep your head down. At the same time, it's okay to take a little detour and find out what you really want. It's not a race to the top."

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