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Women in Business: Building a Successful Life

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Ziana Kotadia, Women Leadership Editor

Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) reports on the Women’s Student Association 31st Women in Business Conference

Every year the Women’s Student Association (WSA), like many other clubs on campus, holds a conference to bring together women from across the world and offer a forum to reflect and discuss a relevant theme. This year, the conference theme was Building a Successful Life. The Covid pandemic and the subsequent “Great Resignation”, which refers to the abnormally high volumes of people resigning from their jobs, suggests that we are all in search of a life which makes us feel happy and fulfilled, both professionally and personally. In 2021 it has been suggested that almost 40 million Americans quit their job, either to switch careers, leave low wage industries or take time off work for personal reasons. Given this prevailing sentiment, the WSA conference wanted to give participants the opportunity to listen to women in industry and learn about their definition of success, both personal and professional, how they work to achieve their goals, and the obstacles they’ve faced in the process. 

The day kicked off with a keynote speech from Seema Hingorani, a Managing Director at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and the Founder and Chair of Girls Who Invest, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in portfolio management and executive leadership in the asset management industry. Hingorani’s career is incredibly impressive, but her humility, relatability, and commitment to using her platform to help others, is what really left the audience inspired. Hingorani recalled that her parents came to the US as Indian immigrants. Hingorani’s mother built a residential real estate brokerage business from scratch, focusing on immigrant families who could afford nice neighborhoods to live in but weren’t shown these houses because of the color of their skin or country they came from. Hingorani now takes care of her 84 year old mother—her best friend—who is living with dementia. Hingorani’s father passed away 23 years ago from pancreatic cancer, and her brother is now a leading pancreatic cancer scientist who is close to finding a cure for the disease. She reflected and noted, “I asked myself, what am I doing, except for making money for people? I got to the point in my life and career where I wanted to give back and do something more impactful.” Hingorani noted that her life and career have not been a straight line, she comforted the audience by saying, “You don’t have to have the next two, five or ten years planned out; the opportunities and experiences I have had throughout my career have been unpredictable and have been influenced by the relationships and friendships in my life.” In fact, Hingorani never had the intention to start Girls Who Invest. She wrote an op-ed article in 2014 that Bloomberg published, and it was the fourth most read article on the Bloomberg terminal that day. Following that publication, Hingorani got so many emails, did her research, and thought to herself, “No one is focusing on women in asset management, so I guess I have to do it.” She woke up with a ten page business plan, put together a Board, and started the organization. Hingorani’s non-profit has now put over 1,400 diverse college women through the programme, 70% of these participants have stayed in the investment business and have received offers from multiple, prestigious firms. Hingorani left the audience empowered to lead with purpose, and comforted if that purpose was still yet to be discovered.

Michelle Zatlyn (MBA ’09), COO and co-founder of Cloudflare, named as one of Fortune’s 40 under 40, was another highlight of the day. Zatyln reminisced about how she used to attend the WSA conference when she was a student at HBS. Zatlyn’s tenacity and drive and refusal to let others define or limit her parameters of success was a theme of her talk. Zatyln noted, “I wanted to join Google, before it was Google, or Starbucks, before it was Starbucks. I was always trying to find the next thing I could work on.” Zatyln saw people coming out from a pitch and thought to herself, “I could do this,” and Matthew Prince (MBA ’09), a classmate of hers, responded by saying “Of course you could Michelle.” Zatlyn received an offer to join LinkedIn and rejected it. Critics said to her, “You are crazy, you are missing this rocketship,” but she followed her instinct and didn’t join the company. She moved to San Francisco with Prince and co-founded Cloudflare. Ten years later they are a public company with 2,500 employees worldwide. Zatlyn’s path to success was not without doubters. While her father growing up always told her that she could do anything she wanted, investors didn’t always have the same encouragement. Zatlyn reflected on one famous Venture Capital firm who told her partner, Prince, that they wouldn’t back the company if she was involved. Zatlyn and Prince ended up not taking that investment, and this motivated Zatlyn further. Zatlyn noted, “Investors who decided to back me, who were my allies, I wanted to give them returns. I wanted to be a player on the team and give them the best performing investment they’d seen.” Zatlyn has indeed fulfilled that promise to herself. 

Vicky Tsai’s (MBA ’06) story was just as full of examples of perseverance in the face of doubt. Tsai, as the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Taiwan, recalled that the career options she was faced with were to be a doctor or lawyer. Tsai loved Math, and so went to Wellesley, studied economics and started her career on Wall Street where she was one of the very few women on the bond trading floor. During her time at HBS, Tsai recalled there were almost no cases with female protagonists, apart from one featuring Taran Swan. Swan just so happened to also be sitting in the conference audience, listening to Tsai speak. Tsai noted she left HBS with even less self-confidence than when she entered, as well as acute dermatitis that required daily steroids and antibiotics following a beauty internship. In an attempt to gain clarity, and seek meaning, Tsai began to travel and found herself in Kyoto, where she began to research the beauty rituals of Japan’s iconic geisha after a chance encounter. She noted, “My experiences there healed my skin, spirit and soul.” From this experience, Tatcha, a leading beauty company, was born. Despite Tatcha’s immediate success, Tsai was burdened with self-doubt as the company grew and shunned the CEO title because she felt unworthy. Her co-founder, HBS classmate Brad Murray (MBA ’07), refused to take the title and reassured her she was deserving and worthy. Tsai also experienced much external doubt. Many retailers and beauty industry veterans declined to work with Tatcha, telling her that Asian beauty wasn’t aspirational. As Tatcha, and Tsai succeeded, she was lauded in the media for her results and leadership; yet men within the beauty industry and investing world attacked Tsai’s accomplishments with insults rooted in gender and racial bias. At one point, Tsai was asked to step down as CEO from the company she founded, prompting her to sell the company to Unilever and leave the day-to-day operations of the business. Two years later, she was asked to return to Tatcha and lead it through a turnaround in the middle of Covid-19 and during a wave of AAPI hate. The second time around as CEO, she let go of the imposter syndrome, tripled the growth rate, took her company to number one with the largest retailer in the largest beauty market of the world, and put in place the first diverse c-suite in beauty at scale. Tsai’s story is one of grit and determination. It is disappointing that Tsai was faced with such criticism and judgment. It demonstrates how much still has to change in the corporate world. But, the audience was glad to learn that those who tried to hold Tsai back and doubted her abilities were not victorious.

Hingorani, Zatlyn and Tsai were just three of the keynote speakers who left the audience feeling empowered and capable. Their stories were filled with purpose and passion. We’re looking forward to seeing the women in the MBA class of 2022 and 2023 achieve similarly impressive things. 

Ziana Kotadia (MBA ’22) is from the UK, and most recently made the move from London to Boston. She loves to travel, learn about new cultures and enjoys eating her way through cities. She loves to cook and is passionate about great food.

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