How Star Women Succeed

Noelia Lombardo Gava, Deputy Editor-in-Chief

Noelia Lombardo Gava (MBA ’22) reports on the EC seminar that focuses on career challenges and opportunities of female protagonists.

As we dive into the third edition of this section, it is important to reflect on the amount of single stories we have about female leadership. Single stories told by women all over the world who are breaking the barriers of what we thought was not possible. A month ago, as a stressful week of elections came to an end, a new story was born when VP elect Kamala Harris said to the world “while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last”. It is easier to do something when we know it is possible, and we know it is possible when it is told in a story. 

The HBS case method is built around the power of storytelling and discussion around the story, so the scarcity of female protagonists was a warning sign for Professor Boris Groysberg. About ten years ago, Groysberg was conducting research on star leaders changing companies and found striking differences between men and women. He was “fascinated, and wanted to understand why.” Since then, he has written more than 50 cases with female protagonists and put together the only course at HBS which focuses on female leadership, now called “How Star Women Succeed.”

After almost three years of research and data gathering, the course was ready for implementation. Originally, the course had two parts (gender differences in organization and individual perspective to navigate processes) and a final project. After years of teaching the course in Executive Education and the EC year, Groysberg noticed common patterns in the final project. This year, the course has been condensed in ten sessions of female protagonist cases and panels with female and male leaders who are at the top of their field. 

Jess Yuan (MBA ’21) is one of those students. She shares with a smile how she is loving the class and that she enrolled because it is “rare to find well-established organizations run by women and address how they got to where they got.” Yuan hopes one day we will not need a class specific for women, but, until then, she is making the most of the benefits from this course: exposure to incredible women as well as the opportunity to think about her own leadership style, see how other women succeeded, and learn about frameworks to think about the approach to success. 

The course has approximately 24 enrolled female students and one male student. When asked about the role of gender in his own class, Professor Groysberg says that “there is something special about realizing you are the only one, realizing that is how women feel every day of their lives.” Being bothered by inequality is the main reason he was attracted to gender studies. Throughout the years, teaching this course has helped him grow professionally and personally; “I understood inequality in a logical way (I had read about it, written about it), but you never truly experience it until you are the only man in the room. And in this course, I am the only man in the room. […] Over the years I have not left HBS because of the students, and there is something about selection in this class that you say ‘wow!’ The panelists ask me to be introduced to the students! […] If it wasn’t for this class, I wouldn’t have been able to write the cases I’ve written.” 

Groysberg’s energy is contagious and I find myself getting closer and closer to the screen as I am auditing the course. And I am not the only one doing so. The spots filled out quickly, so many students audit to learn from the seminars. Asha Tanwar (MBA ’21) shares her experience as she wanted to join but could not secure a spot. “I needed something which provided practical advice on how to succeed as a woman in traditionally male-dominated industries,” she says before wondering if the course should be offered earlier, during the RC year. In every class, Tanwar feels that she can map the advice to the challenges she has faced in her own professional life. 

This course is changing many students’ lives, fueled by a passion and motivation in Groysberg’s work. When asked about that powerful motivation, he replies “I do it for my kids. Doing something for your kids is always a great reason. My daughters and sons are proud of me when I teach this course.” He also mentions how grateful he is for Dean Nohria for pushing his agenda and giving utmost importance to teaching about gender and race. 

Having a leader pushing for powerful stories closes the circle of the importance of storytelling. Professor Groysberg’s daughter, he shares with us, told him once at the dinner table how she felt bad for her brothers, because it would be difficult for them to be successful. In her small world, hearing stories with female protagonists every night, she felt everything seemed possible for a woman. The good news is that her small world is expanding, thanks to people like Professor Groysberg and the female leader protagonists he writes and teaches about. “Every little girl watching tonight,” said Kamala Harris on November 7, “sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

Noelia Lombardo (MBA ’22) was born in Argentina but identifies herself as a global citizen. She is a biomedical engineer and a management consultant. She is a storyteller and a lifelong migrant. She loves the outdoors, yoga, reading, and good debates.