Recently, I was invited to address the newest class of Wharton MBAs and share some advice as they begin their academic journey. So I’ve adapted my remarks, aimed humbly at all past, present, and future MBAs, undergrads, or anyone who sees themselves leading people towards a shared goal. It was an honor to share some of my experiences. Like me, you too may find that the stories that stand out are about the times you stood up.
I remember the feeling of arriving at Wharton as a new MBA student in 1977. What a rush it was! Anything and everything seemed possible. Much like now, it was a time when work was changing dramatically. It is a unique opportunity to be studying now while society goes through this reset. This is a new beginning in more ways than one.
When I was growing up, I couldn’t have imagined what it would mean to go to Wharton. I couldn’t have imagined how it would shape me, or that I would work in consulting, and then in investment management, or have the chance to run a charitable foundation.
My husband John and I went to Wharton together, which was fun after the first semester when we agreed not to take any more classes together. Our careers overlapped with the longest bull market in American history, which made us look brilliant. It also made it possible to leave our Wall Street careers in our forties. Sure, like you, we had tons of talent and drive, but I see how much we were shaped by our circumstances, our families, and all the people who pushed us along the way.
My dad grew up in North Philadelphia, in a small row house overflowing with his parents and seven siblings. After World War II, the opportunity that shaped his life was the GI Bill — receiving a free college education as a veteran. Without that opportunity, he might never have become an engineer or pushed his kids, all six of us, to go to college. My father seized this opportunity. But his was an opportunity many didn’t have—most Black soldiers couldn’t take advantage of the GI Bill because, at the time, most colleges refused Black students.
My mother was a voracious reader who would have loved to go to college. But it was a fact of her life that college was for her brothers, not her. Blocked from that path, she poured her energy into us. She quizzed us more than our teachers did. Her pent-up academic yearnings paid off. Of her six kids, five were either valedictorian or salutatorian. The sixth did fine, too. Yet despite her children’s academic success, and now 97 years old, she is still mad about not going to college.
Just a few years after the nuns running my Catholic high school barred me from student government for my outspoken view that girls should be able to take calculus, I got to go to Villanova. The women in my class and I thought that we were finally overcoming the pipeline problem. Once you got women in the workplace, they would naturally take their place up and down the org chart. Unfortunately, that didn’t end up being the case.
At my first job out of college, as an accountant at what was then a Big Eight firm, I was repeatedly told I was taking a job from a man. The only woman senior to me refused to interact with me except to say, “look around, there’s only room for one woman partner here.” Of the five women hired in my class of fifty, I was the only one still there after a year. I got lots of negative criticism about my attitude and failure to fit in — never about my actual work, of course. The only positive feedback I received was when my boss would say to clients when I walked by, “doesn’t she have nice legs for an accountant?” Which is ridiculous — all the men were wearing pants, so how could one know what the average accountant leg looks like?
You are also learning how to navigate the business world when it and the wider world are changing. No doubt, you will all have your own stories to tell — try to hear how you will sound in the future.
When I arrived at Wharton 40 years ago, a quarter of our MBA class was women. That was almost 200 women. Yet there was only one women’s bathroom in the building where we had all our classes — and it was in the basement. So, some of the other women and I decided to commandeer one of the many men’s rooms. That was the most dramatic bit of “direct action” in my time here.
From my time in accounting, I learned to network with women more and to support them. I wasn’t going to repeat the experience of looking around a year later and realizing all the other women were gone. But, ultimately, we still thought that once we got our MBAs, we would all rise through the ranks. We were smart, we were ambitious, we were confident, and we were wrong. The world did not transform as quickly as we expected.
Effecting change is complicated. After Wharton, the head of the consulting firm I had joined, announced that we would have a very important client lunch at the prestigious Union League here in Philadelphia. It’s an imposing structure, famous for its twin grand entrance staircases and ornate style. At that time, the Union League not only didn’t admit women as members but if a woman was invited as a guest, she had to enter through a separate door — on the lower level, under the staircase.
There was no way I was going to that lunch. I explained to the head of the firm that since I could not walk up those grand stairs and I could not walk through the front entrance, I could not attend. I made a deal. I would boycott but not be vocal about why, and he would never book company events there again. It wasn’t dramatic, but I felt like I’d made a difference. Like I said, effecting change is complicated.
Four years later, probably not as a direct result, the Union League finally admitted women. And two years after that, the U.S. Supreme Court barred discrimination against women and minorities in private clubs.
We still have many structural barriers that hold people back. But you are rising in a time of greater consciousness. The DNA of business is changing, and what it means to be successful has been redefined.
You don’t have to get it perfect. Like me, you will muddle through, trying to figure out when to make a stand and when to make do. And like me, one day, you will tell someone much younger than yourself about all those decisions you made. You may have many exciting stories about deals and ventures and investments, but the stories that stand out will be about the times you stood up.
You have an opportunity before you. How will you use this experience?
Anne McNulty WG79 is the co-founder and managing partner of JBK Partners, with businesses including investment management and a private philanthropic foundation which is focused on leadership development and social change. For more about Anne and the Anne and John McNulty Leadership Program at Wharton, visit the program’s website.