Leaning In, Berkeley-Haas Style: EWMBAs Embrace Peer Support

By Laura Counts

As an engineer at Motorola Solutions with little access to female mentors, Nancy Hoque started a network of virtual Lean In Circles that quickly spread to 160 women at the global company.

When she launched a similar Lean In peer-support initiative as a new student in the evening & weekend MBA program last fall, Hoque was pleased to find a similarly enthusiastic response. But there was a key difference.

“Compared with Motorola, where we had just one man join us, we have about 40 percent men in our group at Haas,” says Hoque, EWMBA 19. “This isn’t about women sharing their problems. Many of the men want to talk about the same things as the women do, and all men have women in their life who they care about.”

It’s Lean In, Berkeley-Haas style.

Drawing on the Lean In Circles framework and library of leadership materials—which grew out of the bestselling Sheryl Sandberg book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead—Hoque and a small group of classmates attracted more than 100 students—from both the EWMBA and full-time MBA programs. Their first two sessions focused on salary negotiations and speaking with confidence.

They’ve written their own charter, which states: “We hope to encourage women and men to pursue their ambitions, and change the conversation from what we can’t to do what we can do.”

“It’s a chance to talk about things we don’t talk about in the classroom, and you can’t talk about in a bar,” says Hoque (above). “We are more than just colleagues—we are people learning together, helping each other, on a journey together.”

To fit into the busy schedules of working professionals, their plan is to build virtual circles of ten students who meet monthly via video chat, and then hold larger in-person sessions focused on specific topics every two months. Hoque also hopes to organize career treks with industry leaders focusing on diversity and inclusion, and is seeking funding to support the program.

“I’m so impressed with the supportive community these students have built,” says Courtney Chandler, who served as Assistant Dean for the EWMBA program until January, when she became Interim Chief Strategy & Operating Officer/Senior Assistant Dean. “Having a forum to talk about the personal and professional issues students are facing, at a time when they are thinking deeply about their careers, is bringing the class closer together.”

Showcasing Stories

The group also started a Facebook group, where students share stories in a Humans of New York-style format, describing personal and professional achievements, or barriers they’ve faced. The page comes alive with portraits by Atul Prasad, EWMBA 19, a photographer and filmmaker.

“Plenty of corporate tales of success, achievement and failure have been told from a man’s perspective,” says Prasad, who created the Lean In Stories series. “This seemed like a way to know the other equally important perspective. It allowed me to learn about the challenges women face as leaders, in particular, and how they get past these hurdles.

Hoque recently wrote about her struggles for acceptance as a Muslim woman engineer and working mother.

“At work, I had an invisible barrier to penetrate in order to prove my technical and business worth,” she wrote. “However, I learned to demonstrate my abilities, and became part of the team. Over the years I was ‘one of the boys’ and spread my influence.”

Tess Peppers, EWMBA 19, described the reactions she got when she told people that she’d was starting the MBA program while working and parenting.

Peppers said that participating in the Lean In circles and guided discussions has given her some tools to combat common workplace problems. She also feels that as a single mom, she’s able to offer a valuable perspective to the group.

“I’ve seen several male classmates get involved and learn more, which has been so refreshing,” Peppers said. “In general, our cohort is amazing but this has only made us closer. I wish everyone participated!”

Human Problems

Men are sharing stories as well, even using the private Facebook group to reveal that they are battling the same kinds of insecurities women often wrestle with. Jesse Johnston, MBA 19, recently shared his struggles with feeling like a fraud—something that Sandburg also cops to in Lean In.

“Every one of my life’s greatest accomplishments has been overshadowed by an unshakeable case of imposter syndrome—the fear that I didn’t belong, that I didn’t deserve whatever success I encountered regardless of the time and effort I had invested…,” he wrote.

Hoque says that participating in Lean In Circles is helping her, and classmates, to gain the confidence to take new risks. Since starting the MBA program, she decided to leave her job of nine years at Motorola to become an MBA Fellow Product Manager at a fintech startup called OpenInvest, focused on socially responsible investing.

She also says that in the midst of the current political and social upheaval, having a peer support group has taken on added importance.

“Berkeley has been the cradle of many initiatives of social change, and many of us are here at Haas because we value social change,” she says. “We are gaining the skills, as leaders, to shape what will happen next.”