Business

Shirley Leung

Bentley University targets promising female leaders with $40,000 award

Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business is creating a program that awards $40,000 over four years to each of 40 incoming female freshmen with leadership potential. Above: university president Gloria Larson.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2015

Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business is creating a program that awards $40,000 over four years to each of 40 incoming female freshmen with leadership potential. Above: university president Gloria Larson.

It is one of my favorite stories about Bentley University president Gloria Larson, and it explains a lot about why we need programs to help women in the workplace.

In 1993, when she was Governor Bill Weld’s consumer affairs chief, he called her into his office seeking recommendations for a new economic secretary. Larson knew it would be her dream job, but she didn’t raise her hand.

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“I thought it would sound too self-promotional,” Larson recalled.

Instead she rattled off five other names, until Weld stopped her.

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“I called you in here because I thought you might be just the right person,” Weld told her. “Now I’m not sure that is true.”

Larson realized she had committed a classic female mistake, and the trained lawyer began to make the case for herself. Before she left his office, she had the job.

“I should have had the courage of my own conviction,” she said. “I have never forgotten that lesson. It was at a very formative point in my career.”

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It’s a story that Larson, the first female president of Bentley, still shares today any chance she gets. It also speaks volumes about why, after a decade at Bentley, her labor of love remains the Waltham school’s Center for Women and Business.

The six-year-old center, which she launched to develop female business leaders, will begin its next chapter with creation of a program that awards $40,000 over four years to each of 40 incoming female freshmen with leadership potential. The selection process is underway for the first cohort of CWB Leaders this fall, and the money will be used to defray tuition costs.

Liberty Mutual, which has a two-decade-old relationship with Bentley, has signed on as a founding partner of the program with a $1 million gift that will underwrite 10 scholars a year and help develop the program. (Yes, Larson is looking for more companies to support the initiative. It’s not too late!)

CWB Leaders take two electives, attend skills workshops, and receive mentoring, all in an effort to give women an early start in understanding how they can thrive in the workplace. Employers struggle to retain talented women because they often drop out or go on a mommy track to spend more time with their families. Yet companies in recent years have realized they need to keep more women because study after study indicates that gender diversity often leads to better financial results.

Bentley’s center has been helping women from the classroom to the boardroom, but the CWB Leaders program brings all of that to another level. The initiative also recognizes the importance of instilling confidence in women at a younger age and creating a network before they launch their careers.

“This is a four-year program with a lot more hands-on training and a lot more exposure to corporate America,” said Deborah Pine, the center’s executive director who arrived last spring from Harvard Business School where she coached students and mentored startups.

Now some of you may think women have a come a long way since Larson’s momentary lapse of confidence, but the reality is that women continue to lag behind men when it comes to believing in themselves.

‘There is going to be a lot of mentorship and on-site experience.’

Melanie Foley, Liberty Mutual Insurance chief talent and enterprise services officer, speaking of the new Bentley program 
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A 2014 Bain & Co. study found that women begin their careers more confident than men, with 43 percent of new female employees aspiring to senior management posts, but that number drops to 16 percent after working several years. Meanwhile, 34 percent of men start out confident that they will reach upper management and maintain that confidence several years later.

The study found women fell off the fast track because they didn’t fit the stereotype of an ideal go-getter and because they lacked supervisor support.

For Liberty Mutual, getting behind Bentley’s new initiative was an easy sell. The Boston insurer regularly recruits from the school, and about 500 alumni work at the company. Plus, Liberty takes gender diversity seriously: 55 percent of its US employees are female; 46 percent of its US executives or managers are female; and 25 percent of its board of directors are women.

“Certainly we talk a lot about reaching women at earlier stages,” said Melanie Foley, Liberty’s chief talent and enterprise services officer, and an MBA grad from Bentley. “In this particular program, there is going to be a lot of mentorship and on-site experience.”

So let’s end this story where we started with Larson, Bentley’s president, and Weld. The former governor confirms the anecdote, but his recollection is that Larson had the job the moment she walked into his office.

“I didn’t wonder if [Larson] was the right candidate after all,” Weld wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday. “I had made up my mind, and I am decisive to a fault.”

Let’s hope Bentley’s new program can create a generation of women who can be as decisive when it comes to their careers.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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