Who's That Gal: Melissa Bennington, Co-President of the HBS Women's Student Association
Name: Melissa Bennington
Occupation: MBA Student
Alma Mater: University of Oxford
Current Hood: Cambridge, MA
Currently Reading: Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass Sunstein
Talk to us a bit about your background. Where were you when you decided to apply to business school?
After finishing my undergrad in the UK I went to work for McKinsey & Company. I worked for them for two years in London and then one year in D.C.. While there are a lot of MBA graduates at McKinsey, it was only when I was in D.C. that I really became aware of the idea of business school. Suddenly it seemed like people all around me were leaving to go to graduate programs or pursuing new opportunities they received from business school connections. For the first time I saw the impact that a business school degree could have and that’s really when it dawned on me that I might benefit in applying. I also felt it was the right time because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do next, and I knew the business school would help me explore options, learn more about myself and then make a decision from there.
What made you decide Harvard Business School was the best program for you?
A lot of it came from speaking to people I knew. I worked with a few managers who were HBS graduates and they had a big influence on me. I was also very cognizant that because there is less of a premium placed on an MBA in the UK, I wanted a school that had an international brand. Finally, I was keen to being on the east coast so I could be a little closer to home.
What is it like to be a student again? Any pros or cons?
There are certainly more pros than cons! It is pretty wonderful to have your afternoons back. At McKinsey, my working days were long, and suddenly as a student you are given part of your day back again and it is pretty magical. It’s been great to have time to explore or do what you want. Also the range of opportunities and resources you are given as a student is enormous. The second time around you have much more of an appreciation of what’s available, and I’ve certainly taken far more of these opportunities than I did as an undergrad.
On the cons side, getting back into the classroom setting was certainly an adjustment and the idea of class participation was totally different than the way I studied at undergraduate. Not having an income is also a huge adjustment.
About that...how did you prepare to live without an income for two years?
I was very fortunate that I was sponsored by McKinsey, and was also able to secure a scholarship that is targeted at British students. I was amazed at the range of scholarships available for students from many different backgrounds, and most schools also have Fellowship programs. I think I saved less than most of my classmates because I had only been working for three years, whereas most of my classmates had been working for a few more, but once I was accepted and decided I was going, I started saving more aggressively.
You’re co-president of the Women’s Student Association. Can you tell us more about the organization and why you felt the drive to be involved?
I had an idea coming into HBS that I wanted to be in a group that was involved with women’s issues because I had been involved in a similar group during my undergraduate years and also at McKinsey. During the first few weeks of business school everyone goes crazy signing up for clubs and organizations and applying for leadership positions within them. Despite the mayhem and the countless other clubs on offer, the WSA still seemed like a no-brainer for me. The WSA has a pretty huge role at HBS and covers many areas from networking, recruiting support, advocacy work and even has a social aspect. My first year my role was helping find high-profile speakers to come to campus and to our conference, which was really interesting and a great learning experience. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to run for co-president at the end of my first year. It’s been a lot of work but so rewarding.
We LOVE that the WSA has created such a wonderful community for past and present female HBS students. Why do you think it’s so important for women to learn from and support one another?
So many reasons! At HBS women make up 40% of the campus so the dynamic has certainly changed since they let the first woman in 52 years ago, but there are still many instances where women are underrepresented in various fields or activities on campus. Two specifically that we hear about year-after-year are finance and entrepreneurship. We believe that any woman should be able to do whatever she wants, so we seek to create networks and provide resources across these fields and more. We also found that the WSA plays an important role in simply introducing women from different parts of the school.
We’ve been reading about how now, for the first time, business school classes are more diverse and women are enrolling at record numbers. What is the ratio of males to females in your class? What do you think is the reason for more women attending business school?
I think more women, including myself, are seeing the value of a business school education and a business school network, and schools are putting a lot more effort into making themselves attractive to a more diverse population. It’s hard to change culture until a critical mass of any diversity group is on campus, and I believe that the effort to increase the number of women pursuing MBAs has had a really positive impact on some of the traditional business school stereotypes. My class at HBS is 41% women, and that number is going up every year. Business school is certainly not for everyone, but schools should be aiming for a 50:50 gender balance.
Where do you think we’re headed as far as the future of women in the workforce?
In my graduating class there is a lot of optimism around changing some of the ways women are still disadvantaged in the workforce, whether that’s pay equality, paid family leave, etc.. Progress has not been as fast as hoped over the past few decades, but I do think momentum is gaining for real changes to be made, particularly with some of the most popular tech firms leading the charge on paid family leave.
What advice do you have for someone thinking about attending business school?
Just apply! Go through the process, take the GRE or the GMAT and write the essays. You can always decide not to go but having the option is incredibly valuable.
Where do you think you would be today if you didn’t enroll at HBS?
I probably would be back in London and working at a startup.
What’s next for you after graduation?
I am taking the summer off, and then joining a private equity firm in London from September.