Women Find New Path to Work

Professor Myra Hart's New Path program helps Harvard Business School alumnae re-enter the work world. Here is a look at what participants learned about life, work, and the quickly changing world of business.
by Mallory Stark

The swift current of modern business presents a challenge for any woman deciding to temporarily step out of the corporate rapids to tend to family or other concerns. While they are away competitors come and go, technology constantly changes the nature of how business is done, and even the way we dress for success evolves over time.

Harvard Business School professor Myra Hart, an expert in high potential entrepreneurship, has offered several programs over the years to help HBS alumnae quickly regain the skills they need to re-enter the work force. This spring she brought together faculty and staff to create New Path: Setting New Professional Directions. In this interview, Hart explains the program and her hopes that future sessions can be expanded.

Mallory Stark: Could you give some background on how New Path originated?

Myra Hart: For a period of five years, I surveyed our alumni, primarily looking for their entrepreneurial tendencies and collecting a lot of demographic data as well. When I began to sort by gender, I found that the career paths taken by women from HBS were very, very different. It led me to start asking some questions of the women—both one-on-one and using a deeper survey about their careers. Why was it that there were relatively few of these women in the very high income brackets, and many, many more in the lower income brackets? What was going on in their lives?

I found out, of course—and you could infer this—that their choices about family had a huge impact on their choices about career. And it struck me that these women were among the best and the brightest. They were very ambitious. They had invested a lot in their training at HBS and in their career development. So it probably was a bit of a challenge for them to have left that behind. I tried to find out if they really wanted to go back to the work force. If so, in what way? And how could HBS help?

In 2001, we introduced a program just before reunion, called Charting Your Course. We invited anyone coming back to reunion to come in for two days and spend some time thinking about the career choices they had made, the career choices they'd like to make in the future, and how they might actually take control of that and develop a strategic plan.

New Path is a six-day immersion in everything you need to know to re-enter the professional work force.

It was primarily targeted at women who were either out of the paid work force altogether or who had reduced their commitment and felt they were off the professional career track for a while. It turned out in 2001 that we had a very big opening group, but we also found out that there were two different groups of women out there.

The first group were women who were just about to step off [the career track] or who were at home with young children thinking, "I am going to come back but not for three years, so I want a strategy to bridge the gap, keep my skills current, and keep my network working."

There was another group of women in the room who said, "I'm ready." Their last child was going off to school in the fall. "I want the tools to figure out what I'm qualified to do, and what I want to do. How do I locate the right employers? How do I approach them?"

These are two really totally different programs. They require different kinds of content, different kinds of attention and a different degree of depth.

So we continue to run the Charting Your Course, which, as I said, is kind of a strategic view and it's two days. We supplement it with New Path, which is much deeper. It's a six-day immersion in everything you need to know to re-enter the professional work force, a combination of deep dive into yourself, a look at who you are and understanding what is really satisfying to you. What's the best utilization of your skills that will really make you happy and actualized?

That's the beginning, which we supplement with action planning done in small groups—our personal board of directors. It has a real updating of the fundamental skills that we teach here at the School.

Q: Could you elaborate on these "updating" sessions?

A: As an example, we have two sessions on marketing: What's happened in the world of marketing in the past five years? What new tools are out there? What avenues are people using to reach customers in new and different ways? How are they even thinking about the customers? [HBS marketing professor] John Deighton talked to us about the use of the Internet and personal marketing, sort of one-to-one-to-one, the customized approach, as opposed to the broadcast media that were the mainstays of advertising in the early '90s.

They always have to think about this work in the context of a broader life.

We had several sessions on accounting, two on finance. We had sessions on IT—how does a manager use the current information technology to really run his or her business, and how can I think about new tools in a strategic way?

We had sessions on negotiations and those negotiations within the workplace. How do I think about finding that zone of cooperation and maximizing value within my workplace? But also how do I think about using those tools in negotiating my re-entry to the workplace in terms of talking with my family, my spouse, with my childcare provider? How do I think about negotiating my salary? But most people are less concerned about their salary and more concerned about their work contract: "What are you expecting from me?"

We had a wonderful session on working in the professional services arena. Because so many of our graduates are from professional services backgrounds and are seriously considering going back there, we're going to look at the unique demands in that workplace and how to make it work in your life.

We had several of what I'll call "tools" workshops as well. We had a wonderful session with … the library staff to help participants conduct searches and necessary background work when they're getting ready to make contact with companies. We did the same thing with Career Services: what's actually available from HBS. We had opportunities to work in the IT lab. . . . We had individual sessions in which people had the opportunity to conduct mock interviews. We also had individual career counseling sessions.

Everyone left with an action plan that they shared with the others in their groups, a commitment to a kind of calendar in which they can achieve these things, and the commitment to report back to their group on a regular basis on how they're doing and to reach out for help if they need it.

They are already part of the much larger HBS community, where they can draw on faculty and all the staff here. But they have this one very small group that's really kind of looking over their shoulders, that knows the intimate details of what the other group members are hoping to do . . . and holding them to it.

In all of this, while we are putting a major emphasis on work in people's lives and how they hit the achievement bar, we wanted to remind people that work success is only a component of (overall) success. They aren't leaving their families or their personal happiness behind. They always have to think about this work in the context of a broader life and a broader view of success.

Q: How will the program change in the future? What did you learn from participants?

A: The overall response to this was just great. One thing that they asked us for going forward is to add another day; they felt they wanted a little bit more time to dive into the personal. They wanted more time to do some of the wrap-up and the conclusions about setting their own path, just to put it all together.

Interestingly enough, they also asked us for a session on a bit of fashion, hair, and makeup, kind of like "I've been out of this game and I don't know the right way to present myself physically for this." Maybe not everybody feels the need for that, but some do, and we might make that the last session—kind of a fun session.

We are considering opening this to people from other MBA programs, although I haven't yet had that conversation with [School administrators] so I can't say if that's going to happen. But I think in terms of numbers, the program has to reach out, or we won't be able to sustain it. I also think we really have a responsibility as an organization to make this available. We know that no one else can actually replicate it.

About the Author

Mallory Stark is the Career Information Librarian for Baker Library at Harvard Business School.