Empowering a New Generation of Female Leaders
Cal State East Bay program prepares women to serve on leadership boards, following new state law
Women on leadership boards make for better business.
But it wasn’t until California passed Senate Bill 826 that the state became the first to require publicly held corporations have at least one female director by December 2019.
Now, Cal State East Bay is rising to the challenge of preparing its students to fill those positions.
“It’s aggressive, it gave the issue visibility,” said Professor Asha Rao, associate chair of the Cal State East Bay Department of Management.
Gender equity in the workplace, particularly in top leadership roles, is hardly a new issue.
Rao has been teaching classes on leadership for 20 years, and her work examines the role of women in leadership. She said the California legislation is one potential way to address this issue but noted there are other opportunities to develop women leaders at multiple levels. She argues it is important to focus on ways to reach women earlier, at a time when they can choose to make the investment in the skills, training and experience they need to assume leadership roles later.
And Cal State East Bay is at the forefront of this charge.
“The idea is that we aren’t going to bring about change by only looking at the executive suite,” said Rao. “We need to look at younger students to give them a boost now to make change through the pipeline.”
Rao developed a course, Women in Leadership, as an elective for Cal State East Bay’s graduate business programs. The course is an academic and industry collaboration co-taught by Rao and industry leader Chitra Nayak, an accomplished senior executive with experience as a tech advisor and board member.
Offered for the first time in the 2018-2019 academic year, the course received positive student feedback — from men and women alike — and its success prompted Rao to think about what more could be done. She developed a proposal for a fellowship, which was approved for a pilot program by Dean George Low in the College of Business and Economics. The pilot took place this year.
The Women in Leadership Fellowship has three main components: the academic course, Women in Leadership; a social entrepreneurship leadership project undertaken by each fellow; and the pairing of each fellow with an industry mentor. This combination of theory, practice and support is what Rao hopes will give the fellows in the program the confidence to step outside of their comfort zones and develop as leaders.
Academics and Industry
With its focus on leadership studies and management models, the Women in Leadership course pairs an academic grounding with practical industry insights. Throughout the course, successful leaders from a range of roles and industries are invited to share their experiences with the class. The course highlights the current state of women in leadership in various industries and provides opportunities for students to hone their skills in communication, negotiation and leading teams.
Nayak points out that the course structure focuses on what can be done, and what women can do themselves, to bring about gender parity in corporate leadership. She said that while there are challenges imposed on women by the environment, such as unconscious bias or unfair promotion, there are also those driven by women themselves, including being less likely to advocate for themselves and being afraid to ask for a promotion.
“There are many things you can take into your own hands that you can affect,” Nayak said. “We emphasize this in the class.”
From Concept to Execution
While the course gives students tools to help them succeed as leaders and exposes them to the current business landscape, the fellowship’s social entrepreneurship leadership project puts their lessons into practice. Each fellow selects a project and can receive a stipend of up to $1,000 to support the work.
“The fellowship challenges students to find a project or initiative that will add value from a social impact perspective,” said Nayak. “It is a way to operationalize leadership skills.”
Rose Cásarez, a fellow in the program and an MBA student, identified her project based on her professional experience with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the Regional Center of the East Bay.
She’s developing easy-to-understand animated videos to help individuals and their families learn how earned income interacts with Social Security benefits. It’s a system that can be enormously complex, she said, but she hopes the videos will make it easier for individuals with disabilities to make more informed decisions about employment.
“Jobs are a major part of identity,” said Cásarez. “The feeling of social capital, having independence and contributing; it’s so much more than just income. My passion is for people with disabilities to have access to that.”
Another fellow, Sonal Chandna, is working with Neythri, a professional women’s network in the Bay Area that is building a community for South Asian women to help them succeed in their careers. Chandna interviews women leaders each week about their leadership journeys and how their South Asian heritage has impacted their leadership styles so that these insights can be shared with others.
Rao noted that the projects are a way for fellows to experiment with leadership and try out the techniques they learn. Through the fellowship, they can take chances and learn from challenges, building resilience and learning what they can do to succeed.
Mentorship and Support
The industry mentors paired with each fellow include executive vice presidents, founders and senior directors in technology, finance and healthcare; those involved in social impact efforts within their companies; and those who are pioneers as women serving on corporate boards. Many are Cal State East Bay alumnae, and all are accomplished individuals who have embraced this initiative.
“This strikes a chord for a lot of people,” said Rao. “These executives are very successful and are at the stage where they are able to mentor someone younger at a time when it can make a difference.”
Jenny Linton is one such enthusiastic mentor who earned her MBA at Cal State East Bay. As the past president of the privately held company OSIsoft and a board member for the Special Olympics of Northern California, Linton was a perfect match for Cásarez and has been able to offer insights and guidance on her fellowship project.
Linton recalled that as an undergraduate in engineering, and as a young professional, she was often one of only a few women. She sees the fellowship as a way to support younger professional women, and she’s glad to be able to share her experiences.
“Women today are more supportive of each other,” said Linton. “I see more women with great amounts of experience ready and able to share their experience with other women or develop a colleague.”
Wenli Wang, a partner in charge of the San Francisco and Walnut Creek offices at Moss Adams and a member of several boards, was also eager to support her alma mater. She has been a guest speaker in the Women in Leadership course, and this year she is also mentoring one of the fellows.
“I have always been grateful that Cal State East Bay provided me the tools and knowledge to get started with my public accounting career,” Wang said. “I have been mentoring and coaching younger professionals within our firm and externally for years, so when the opportunity came to become a mentor here, I was very excited to get involved.”
For the fellows, the mentors offer a sounding board, help them to frame problems differently, and share personal experiences to guide the mentees.
“The mentors have numerous experiences and know so much about leading and inspiring others,” said Chandna. “It’s not just helping someone professionally, but also personal development. Working with a mentor makes you widen your scope of thinking as you take in their feedback.”
Building for the Future
Both the fellowship and the Women in Leadership course are open to all graduate business students, regardless of gender. Rao stresses that leadership lessons are open to anyone, and that learning how corporate teams can support women and how to work toward a more equitable workplace are topics relevant to all business leaders. In fact, data shows that developing women leaders isn’t just good for women. Nayak cites many studies showing the value of women in leadership, including those that show board diversity has a correlation to return on investment.
Though COVID-19 has impacted some students’ ability to participate as originally planned, Rao and Nayak are working through the challenges as they plan for the future and hope to expand the program. The fellows are already seeing the growth potential for themselves and others through the fellowship.
“How to use leadership skills, anticipate the impressions you leave on others, and how to present ourselves as leaders has been very impactful for me,” said Cásarez.
The value of the fellowship is not only felt now; the knowledge and skills development have the potential to continue influencing the fellows into the future.
“The relationships we are building are beyond just the fellowship program,” said Chandna. “Having these people in my life, learning from them and working with them is an incredible opportunity. It’s been an honor that I’ll carry with me all my life.”