Inspirational Woman Interview: Elissa Sangster

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Elissa Sangster is the Executive Director for the Forté Foundation, a non-profit consortium of leading companies and top business schools seeking to increase women’s access to business education and networks. Previously, she served as the Assistant Dean and Director of the MBA Program at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, Chair of the Graduate Management Admission Council Annual Industry Conference, and Chair of the MBA Student Services Professionals. Elissa received her MBA and her B.A. in English from Texas A&M University. She lives in San Antonio with her husband, Jeremy, and their daughter, Anna Leigh.

What is your background?

Elissa Sangster: I grew up in Baytown, Texas, about 30 minutes outside of Houston. For college, I went to Texas A&M University in College Station and majored in English. After graduation I worked at Neiman Marcus as an assistant buyer and Exxon Mobil as a communications specialist. I went back to business school and graduated with an MBA from Texas A&M. From that point forward, I have spent my career focused on business school and business careers. I worked at University of Texas building alumni relations for the MBA program at the McCombs School and leading that program as the Assistant Dean. From there I stepped into my role as Executive Director of the Forté Foundation, where I’ve been for almost 13 years.

You are the Executive Director of the Forté Foundation, a non-profit consortium of leading companies and top business schools seeking to increase women’s access to business education and networks and thereby empower women seeking a business career. Can you tell us more about your role at the Forté Foundation, and some of the most valuable experiences you’ve had with the Forté Foundation?

Elissa Sangster: Leading Forté was a real growth opportunity for me. It gave me the chance to have more wide-ranging impact based on the companies, schools, and students we were reaching through the Forté partnerships. On a personal level, I was able to continue building a strong network of professionals from business schools and companies passionate about advancing women in business. Working with Forté was entrepreneurial in nature as I was the first employee, but I had access to a great group of supporters on my board and through the company and school partnerships that were in place. Forté has grown to 19 employees and we work with over 100 business school, university, and corporate partners.

My role has morphed and changed throughout the years mostly due to the growth trajectory of Forté. I was very hands on in the early years because there were 2-3 of us attempting to produce meaningful programs for women. We had to make the nametags, order the food, identify speakers, book the hotel, and more! Now I try to spend most of my time on issues like building partnerships with key constituents, identifying support to fund strategic priorities, and continuing to grow our footprint with current and future women business leaders.

Can you share with us some of the key educational and networking initiatives that the Forté Foundation has developed?

Elissa Sangster: Forté offers programs across multiple audiences—college, early career, MBA and professional. Within each of these categories we offer a variety of ways for women to engage. For college women we have monthly newsletters, an online blog written by college women for college women, job postings, and 5 live conference events that take place around the U.S. We also offer an online curriculum that helps young women become career ready. It’s called Forté Rising Stars and we work with about 20 universities to deliver the curriculum. For anyone interested in pursuing an MBA, we have tons of resources available to support this journey as well.

From your experience, what are some effective strategies/programs companies from business fields have utilized to increase the number of women in leadership positions? How do these strategies vary between different business fields (e.g. investments compared to consulting or marketing?)

Companies are engaged in so many creative strategies to increase the number of women in leadership positions. They include sponsorship and mentorship programs, identifying top talent and tracking carefully tracking their success and promotion rates, training managers to pay attention to how they are allocating key projects and opportunities across their employees, training for unconscious bias, and many more. The commitment to these efforts varies by company, but I haven’t seen one particular industry doing more than another.

In your opinion, what are some of the main issues that women in business face?

Elissa Sangster: Some of the issues women face originate from the choices they make while others arise from their environment. At Forté we invest a lot of energy in coaching and preparing women for entering the workplace with confidence and being aware of the issues they might encounter that could be challenging. We give them strategies for how to overcome these obstacles, provide them with role models who have been in similar experiences and can share their stories, and build their confidence by training them in skills for success.

Other issues are environmental and require change at the organizational level. These issues can range from family leave, flexibility, being overlooked for key promotions or assignments, a difficult manager, or a corporate culture that doesn’t value diversity.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Elissa Sangster: I want women to have the best opportunities they can possibly have whether it be starting their own business or working within the corporate environment. Having women in positions of power and leadership is critical to making the world a better place. It’s proven through research to be better for the business bottom line.

What is your advice for the next generation of women in business?

Elissa Sangster: Embrace business as a career possibility know matter what your college major or early career experience. Everyone can use business skills as they progress through their career. Learn as much as you can about finance, investing and money. Know that there is power in this knowledge and that’s a good thing.

What are some of your favorite books, films, websites and resources related to business, women’s empowerment and social impact?

Elissa Sangster: Working Girl is one of my favorite movies from the ’80s. While the workplace environment has shifted in the last 30 years, many of the lessons are still relevant. My favorite theme from the movie is Melanie Griffith pulling together a business deal because she paid attention to new stories that were seemingly unrelated by was able to read the undercurrent of what was going on and leverage that knowledge in the deal.

Back to modern day… I read Fortune’s The Broadsheet every morning. It’s a great way to start my day—seeing which women were promoted, who had something monumental to say about empowering or advancing women, who took a step backward in their progress, and who might be the next expert to emerge around women in the workplace.

And I have to say if you are looking for inspiration, career guidance, support in pursuing your MBA and advancing your career, then joining Forté Foundation is critical. Our website is www.fortefoundation.org.

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